Heroes of the Faith

March 2019:

By Nigel Jackson

March 5 2019The language of faith is brilliantly renewed by the writings of Marilynne Robinson, writes Nigel Jackson.

In 1980 an unknown American author published an extraordinary novel with an oddly mundane title: Housekeeping. This deeply poetic work is subversive, not in a political but in a metaphysical sense, questioning basic beliefs about the life of modern communities involving fixed dwellings and settled towns. So Marilynne Robinson, from Iowa in the USA, had found a new meaning for the word “housekeeping”.

Housekeeping celebrates the world of “the drifters”, homeless wanderers, into which the protagonist, Ruth, is initiated by her aunt Sylvie. Ruth learns to break “the tethers of need” and becomes less attached to her desires. Her new life is comparable to that of the sadhu of the orient, as described by Marco Pallis in his 1939 autobiographical Peaks and Lamas: “He is the type of the spiritually independent man, who asks guidance of no power but his inner light … He tramps the highways, begging for his meagre livelihood, driven on by the wind of the spirit, that bloweth where it listeth.”

Robinson’s novel echoes a worldwide tradition that there is a better world than that of everyday. It is the state celebrated in the Christian rite of Tenebrae, described by Alan Watts in Myth and Ritual in Christianity: “At a deeper level Tenebrae is a representation of the spiritual journey into the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, the disappearance of light symbolising the progressive realisation that ‘I am nothing.’ … This is, then, the ‘cloud of unknowing’, the ‘divine darkness’, of Saint Dionysius in which it is discovered that because all ‘knowledge’ is memory, knowledge of that which was, all our knowledge amounts to is nothing in so far as it fails entirely to grasp that which is.” ...

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