From the beginning of his letter, John Ames has known that soon he will have to leave behind his church, his family, and his life itself. Marilynne Robinson deftly shows us signs of the patriarch’s imminent mortality, through his growing need for sleep, through other physical symptoms, and through the solicitous concern of people waiting for him to die. Ames has even begun to write his funeral sermon, hoping to save old Boughton the trouble.
With death approaching, Ames reminisces about the past, which he describes honestly and poignantly without lapsing into undue sentimentality. He speaks of his love for his wife, the gracious gift of a son, and many other pleasures, including the joys and blessings of pastoral ministry. “Oh, I will miss the world!” he says. “Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration,” as the “Lord breathes on this poor grey ember of Creation and it turns to radiance.”
The Reverend Ames also has more than a few regrets, as any minister does—“the frustrations and the disappointments of life, of which there are a very great many.” He often wonders whether any of his sermons “were worth anything” and fears that he has been “boring a lot of people for a long time.” He wishes, in fact, that his old sermon notes (an image of his own mortality) will be burned. He has often “known, right there in the pulpit, even as I read the words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them. And they were the major work of my life, from a certain point of view.”
Ames also regrets his failure, at times, to offer the best spiritual counsel: “I still wake up at night, thinking, That’s what I should have said!” But his biggest regret, by far, is to leave behind his wife and son. Sadly, he will not be able to provide for their needs, or to share life with them as they grow up and grow old.
The Last Testament
In dealing with these regrets, Ames sees two choices: “(1) to torment myself or (2) to trust the Lord.” Hoping to die “with a quiet heart,” he chooses to place his ministry, his family, and his own life into God’s hands. Rather than foolishly imagining that his congregation will be unable to manage without him, he preaches that Christ himself will be the pastor of his people. As for his son, he practices what he earlier preached from the story of Abraham and Ishmael, that “any father must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God.”
Thus ends the life of a faithful minister, who tried to keep the gospel before him as a standard for life and preaching, and who remained loyal to his calling in a single church for nearly 50 years. Gilead is the town where he was born, and also the town from which he will leave for home. “I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love,” Ames writes near the end of his letter. “I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.”
After that final conflagration, there will still be more stories to tell. Robinson uses a beautiful analogy to describe the narratives of the life to come: “In eternity this world will be Troy, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”
For reflection or discussion: Christ calls every one of his followers not simply to live well, but also to die well, with “a quiet heart.” Who are the pastors, ministry leaders, and other Christian servants that you have seen finish strong in life and ministry? What habits or commitments enabled them to persevere? In what ways are you passing on a legacy of faith to others? How are you preparing to finish well?