Gilead is an epistolary novel, written by a pastor in his 70s to a son who is too young to receive all the wisdom an old man wants to share. So the Reverend Ames writes his son a long letter that includes important episodes in family history, summaries of important sermons, practical admonitions for daily life, digressions on topics of theological interest, and many expressions of personal affection.
Ames writes to share with the young son of his old age "things I would have told you if you had grown up with me," with the goal of leaving "a reasonably candid testament to my better self."
The minister is not without his faults, of course, including some he openly acknowledges (like his covetousness, or his difficulties in loving the people he is called to pastor), and some that are apparent only to the reader (his racism, for example, as revealed in his casual dismissal of a black congregation that left Gilead after its building was damaged by arson).
But Ames also bears witness to his "better self." He is an admirable man whose ministry upholds many of the highest ideals of gospel ministry. Thus Gilead presents one of the more positive portrayals of pastoral ministry in literature.
Ministry and the Means of Grace
Ames's pastorate is a ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer. He views ministry first in terms of preaching. Early in the novel we learn that he has kept all of his old sermon notes up in the attic. "Pretty nearly my whole life's work is in those boxes," he says. Ames estimates that at a rate of at least 50 sermons a year for 45 years, there must be 2,250 sermons in all. Written out in full, they amount to more than 67,000 pages, which he guesses is as much as Augustine or Calvin wrote. With a sense of legitimate satisfaction, not ungodly pride, Ames can testify that each of these sermons was preached with genuine conviction, for he believed that "a good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation."
At appropriate points in his letter, the minister recounts the main argument from one of his sermons. From these homiletical digests, we sense his relish for working with the details of a biblical text, as well as his tendency to interpret Scripture partly through the lens of experience and reflection.
Ames is a minister of the sacrament as well as the Word. His sense of sacramental mystery was awakened in childhood when his father brought him an ash-covered biscuit out of the ruins of a church that had been struck by lightning—an incident he regards as his first communion. He later came to regard the sacrament of the Lord's Supper as a witness to the unity of the body of Christ, showing that the church anywhere is part of the church everywhere. Since he has spent virtually his whole life in a cultural backwater, his experience of the church is sheltered and parochial . . . "unless it really is a universal and transcendent life, unless the bread is the bread and the cup is the cup everywhere, in all circumstances, as I deeply believe."
Images of baptism recur throughout Gilead. Water itself seems miraculous to Ames, and key episodes in the novel occur while it is raining, or with some other glistening affusion. Ames remembers the baptism of Lila, who later became his wife, with a sense of mystery and sacred wonder ("What have I done? What does it mean?"). He also remembers the many newborns he baptized, "that feeling of a baby's brow against the palm of your hand—how I have loved this life." He regards baptism as a real blessing, in which water establishes an electric connection between the pastor and his parishioner, operating as "a vehicle of the Holy Spirit."
Pastor at Prayer
As much as anything else, Ames's ministry is a life of prayer. "I pray all the time," he claims, and this proves not to be an idle boast. Gilead is suffused with petitionary prayer. Pastoring through two World Wars and one Great Depression, Ames often prayed over the "dreadful things" his people were facing. Various sections of the letter end by mentioning matters that call for more prayer, and the minister sometimes leaves off his letter writing to go and pray.
At night Ames walks the streets of Gilead and prays for people in their homes: "I'd imagine peace they didn't expect and couldn't account for descending on their illness or their quarreling or their dreams. Then I'd go into the church and pray some more and wait for daylight." The pastor's prayers are a means of grace for the people of God. His last words (also the closing line of the novel), form an appropriate epitaph: "I'll pray, and then I'll sleep."
For reflection or discussion: The Word, the sacraments, and prayer are fundamental to the ministry of any church. What relative priority do these practices have in your own congregation? What experiences in life or worship have helped you come to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of baptism and the Lord's Supper? How has participation in ministry helped you grow in the life of prayer?