John Ames III is the subject and voice of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The novel is written by Ames toward the end of almost eighty years of life; he has the benefit of knowing his life is waning and wants to be sure his young son will know something about his father. Ames is a third-generation Congregationalist minister. His grandfather worked for the Abolitionist cause and fought in the Civil War.
Ames’s father rebelled strongly against such violence, becoming a pacifist who preached a doctrine of love. Ames is also a pacifist preacher, but as he nears the end of his life he reflects on his God, his salvation, and his faith in terms of everyday life. He believes “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine….”
One way Ames connects his faith, his God, and his life is through recognizing miracles. Ames was an unhappy man for most of his life after losing his wife and young daughter. Now he has a wife who loves him (something he long thought would take a miracle) and a son to whom he says:
I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.
As he nears the end of his life, every small thing takes on new significance and meaning, and Ames understands that miracles are a tangible representation of God’s grace in his life.
Another way Ames expresses his theology through his life is by finding the sacred in all things. He finds God where he lives. He sometimes feels as if
the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance…. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.
Ames also recognizes the sacredness of the prairie where he lives, amazed that he can feel the goodness of God in the radiance of a dawn, privileged to be a witness to it.
Love, something he has not always felt, is also sacred to him.
Love is holy because it is like grace--the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.
By experiencing love, Ames is able to understand grace.
Finally, John Ames demonstrates his theology (what he believes about God and salvation) through blessing. In fact, being able to bestow blessing is the reason he became a minister. As a boy, he once baptized a group of kittens and intuitively understood that conferring a blessing is profoundly different than a simple touch. He writes:
The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.
For Ames, blessing is what one must do to the “precious things [that] have been put into our hands,” and he recognizes that he has been blessed himself.
He begins his ministry by bestowing a blessing, and he ends it the same way. Though he struggles with the question of whether his apostate godson Jack can reform himself and experience redemption, Ames is not deterred from expressing his faith and belief through blessing.
I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers….Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, … or more sufficient….
Though Ames is conflicted by his theology in some ways, he recognizes its components everywhere around him and is able to express his faith, his God, and even his salvation through them.