I’m ashamed to admit this, but I didn’t read read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead until the pandemic. Last summer, in my new apartment, sitting alone in my room, in my new life, mostly in my head. After the dam finally broke and I was able to read again.
It was, ahhh, interesting, hitting a passage when the Reverend John Ames remembers himself as a younger man, fired up to preach against the First World War, writing a sermon that he chooses not to give.
It was quite a sermon, I believe. I thought as I wrote it how pleased my father would have been. But my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was. And they were there even though I might have been contagious. I seemed ridiculous to myself for imagining I could thunder from the pulpit in those circumstances, and I dropped that sermon in the stove and preached on the Parable of the Lost Sheep. I wish I had kept it, because I meant every word. It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it. . . .
Now I think how courageous you might have thought I was if you had come across it among my papers and read it. It is hard to understand another time. You would never have imagined that almost empty sanctuary, just a few women there with heavy veils on to try to hide the masks they were wearing, and two or three men. I preached with a scarf around my mouth for more than a year. Everyone smelled like onions, because word went around that flu germs were killed by onions. People rubbed themselves down with tobacco leaves.
In those days there were barrels on the street corners so we could contribute peach pits to the war effort. The army made them into charcoal, they said, for the filters in gas masks. It took hundreds of pits to make just one of them. So we all ate peaches on grounds of patriotism, which actually made them taste a little different. The magazines were full of soldiers wearing gas masks, looking stranger than we did. It was a remarkable time.
Most of the young men seemed to feel that the war was a courageous thing, and maybe new wars have come along since I wrote this that have seemed brave to you. That there have been wars I have no doubt. I believe that plague was a great sign to us, and we refused to see it and take its meaning, and since then we have had war continuously.