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René Breuel

A zest for life

We are often cranky and cynical already at a young age, aren’t we?

CULTURE MAKING AUTHOR René Breuel 10 DECEMBER 2017 19:00 h GMT+1

This morning, when all was quiet and the sky still dark, I savored a few pages of a novel I’ve been reading, Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead.

In one of the scenes, John Ames, an elderly minister, narrates a sudden desire to waltz. He got up and danced, by himself, in his study. To compensate for the feeling of awkwardness–and the shame of being found dead after dancing alone, in case it happened–he left a few books within reach.

If the end came knocking, at least he would have been found dead holding a classic. “The ones I considered, by the way, were Donne and Herbert and Barth’s Epistle to the Romans and Volume II of Calvin’s Institutes. Which is by no means to slight Volume I.”[1]

It is one of the delightful scenes that blossom in the book. Gilead feels like a hymn to life. It is so simple and prosaic, its subject matter so domestic and mundane, but at the same time seen from the eyes of a saint in love with existence.

He writes about experiencing the holiness of time; after the dancing episode, that “There’s a mystery in the thought of the re-creation of an old man as an old man, with all the defects and injuries of what is called long life faithfully preserved in him…” Or take this moment, when Ames pokes an equally elderly friend.

I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on… When I look at Boughton, I see a funny young man, full of vigor. He’s on two canes now, and he says if he could sprout a third arm there would be three.[2]

For a culture that idolizes youth and despises old age, I find such words refreshing. We are often cranky and cynical already at a young age, aren’t we? G. K. Chesterton observed once how children like to play the same games over and over.

You throw a girl into the air, and she asks, “Do it again!” You throw her another time, and she begs, “Do it again!” You throw her again still and she shouts, “Do it again!. So what about God, who created galaxy after galaxy and does not tire of creating cell after cell or leaf after leaf?

“It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun;” inferred Chesterton, “and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon… It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”[3]

What an image: we are older than our everlasting Father. In many ways, yes we are. “Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief,” advises Ames. “You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”[4]


[1] Marylinne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Picador, 2004), 115.

[2] Ibid., 118.

[3] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2007), 54.

[4] Ibid., 166.




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