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This Advent, Ignatian writers from across the Jesuit Conference are sharing 25 days of reflections on Ignatian heroes. You can receive these reflections directly in your inbox by signing up here.

Day 17: Marilynne Robinson

By Fr. Joseph Simmons, SJ

The American essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson may not be Catholic, but her writing reveals a deeply sacramental imagination. 

 Robinson has spent her life re-reading old books that most of us never bothered to read: from John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion” and Jonathan Edwards’s “Original Sin” to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She has written five novels, six books of essays, and scores of articles on faith, culture, history, education, and politics. 

 As a lover of forgotten people and misunderstood ideas, Robinson is a devotée of John Calvin, a contemporary of Ignatius of Loyola. Calvin and Ignatius overlapped as theology students at the Collège de Montaigu at the University of Paris; one wonders if they ever met? At the very least, Calvin’s principle of soli Deo gloria – glory to God alone – bears a family resemblance to the ad majorem Dei gloriam – to the greater glory of God – of Ignatius.

 Through fiction and essays, Robinson trains her readers in the discipline of spiritual attention. Where is God’s grace operating in nature and in the ordinary ways humans love, disappoint and forgive one other? In her essay “Psalm 8” she writes, “I have spent my life watching not to see beyond the world,” but “merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes… With all due respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us.” The miracle we await in Advent is not distant, but meets us in the messiness of our human relationships: Emmanu-el, God with us. 

 Perhaps Robinson loves the forgotten and misunderstood because she herself did not gain much attention until her 60s. Robinson is best known for “Gilead,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. It has three sequels, each installment following a different protagonist in the fictitious Iowa town. The most recent, “Jack” (2020), traces the wanderings of a Prodigal Son who has difficulty recognizing a place in his family, church and hometown. We all know a Jack or two, and Robinson helps us understand their situations with empathy.

Reflection: Who are the people who helped shape your imagination in the quiet months and years of your young life? And who has trained your spiritual attention to recognize God’s grace operating in your life?

Fr. Joseph Simmons, SJ, a native of Milwaukee, is passionate about Catholic education and renewing the Christian imagination in light of God’s vision for humanity. He is a research fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, and is wrapping up his doctorate at Campion Hall in Oxford, England, on atheist writers who remain “bothered by God.” Fr. Joe looks forward to finishing studies and helping college students wrestle with the big questions in life. He loves the priesthood, dry humor and Oxford commas.






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