writes Marilynne Robinson, in Gilead. If we are among the courtiers of the Kingdom that is coming, this fragile hope of glory should transfigure all our moments, make an epic out of our days. For a day is coming when all will be revealed, all uncovered, all told. The unsung heroes will be sung, the darkly glass will shatter, and everything will be seen exactly as it is.
Into such an existence have we been born – into a state of being that matters everlastingly.
I spoke of this to some young girls recently. We were discussing character, and I am weary of the words that traditionally accompany that one, weary of abstract exhortations that don’t take root in the reason for being. “Character,” I said to them, “is who you are in the story of the world.”
Our characters matter because there is a story, because to be alive is to be a part of a tale of deeds that will be a bit of the lore of the ages to come.
“I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales?” muses Samwise Gamgee, in The Two Towers, just a few hours before his own tale takes a particularly nasty turn. We laugh at him fondly and knowingly. We know, of course, that he is in a story now. We almost wish he could be out of it for a moment and witness the way the world is reading it.
Because the stories are not quite the same thing from the inside. We, looking in on the panorama of The Lord of the Rings, see a tremendous epic, a collage of action, a medley of intertwined adventures. But if you are Samwise Gamgee or Peregrin Took, or Frodo Baggins, you only get to see that story minute by minute, day by day, uncomfortable inconvenience by uncomfortable inconvenience.
One day you might wake up and life might proceed like this:
They made their way slowly and cautiously round the south-western slopes of the hill, and came in a little while to the edge of the Road. There was no sign of the Riders. But even as they were hurrying across they heard far away two cries: a cold voice calling and a cold voice answering. Trembling they sprang forward, and made for the thickets that lay ahead. The land before them sloped away southwards, but it was wild and pathless; bushes and stunted trees grew in dense patches with wide barren spaces in between. The grass was scanty, coarse, and grey; and the leaves in the thickets were faded and falling. It was a cheerless land, and their journey was slow and gloomy. They spoke little as they trudged along. Frodo’s heart was grieved as he watched them walking beside him with their heads down, and their backs bowed under their burdens. Even Strider seemed tired and heavy-hearted.
Before the first day’s march was over Frodo’s pain began to grow again, but he did not speak of it for a long time. Four days passed, without the ground or the scene changing much, except that behind them Weathertop slowly sank, and before them the distant mountains loomed a little nearer. Yet since that far cry they had seen and heard no sign that the enemy had marked their flight or followed them. They dreaded the dark hours, and kept watch in pairs by night, expecting at any time to see black shapes stalking in the grey night, dimly lit by the cloud-veiled moon; but they saw nothing, and heard no sound but the sigh of withered leaves and grass.
Even as a hero right in the middle of an epic that has captivated the world, you might have a day like that. You might have many, many days like that.
A girl in a remote corner of our own world, a great lady in our own story, was overtaken once by an angel who told her how her whole life would be utterly altered, how she would be swept up into the eternal company of heroes.
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…nothing is impossible with God.”
What a place to be planted in the story of the world! What a splendiferous role – to carry in your own body the baby-flesh of the Wonderful Counselor! How happy we would all have been to be there!
And yet, that real life of hers – how different it must have been from our romanticized notions. For a revelation can change everything and still change nothing at all. That girl had to go on living as she always had – ground by poverty and oppression and now misunderstood by her own family, by the very man she was preparing to call husband. In solitude and loneliness she surely strove to work out some understanding of the Almighty power at work within her. She surely buoyed her uncomprehending heart with hope.
All the way through, she must have turned back again and again on this wobbly anchor. When her little boy was bleeding out under the spears of the very oppressors she had expected him to overthrow, did she lean into the hope that the story was somehow working itself out in spite of her confusion and her shattered expectations, and the intolerable bleakness of everything? Because in the end, hope was all she had.
Would you with joy trade your spot in the story for King David’s place, for the hands that strangled lions and bears and swung the pebble that felled the fell giant? How about for Esther’s? For the queen that tasted royalty solely for the purpose of saving her whole people? Would you trade your own dim, obscure chance of glory for that of Abraham, called out of his country to be still under the stars and hear the promises of God? You would be so glad to get to stand in that furnace with Shadrach and Abednego in the company of a shining one, and hear the stunned surprise of your enemies, wouldn’t you?
You think you would, because you are looking in from the end of things, you know the ends of all the stories. They are good stories. But a hero’s own story is never clear to him. And all these ever had was hope.
“All these,” so the Good Book says, “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”
Someday, we shall all step out of our story, and witness the way that the host of heaven is reading it. That prospect makes a good many things worth doing well, even when we are quite alone to our own eyes.