Profound insights into human life often come when a novelist offers us a scene that is initially hard to imagine, at least until we’ve entered it through the writer’s craft. Then it suddenly seems patent and true. And when the author is a great one, the gospel itself is proclaimed, because a literary masterpiece and the gospel are each, in their own ways, revelations of what it means to be human.
That said, here’s a small, unlikely—but oh-so-credible—scene of courtship. It’s from Dennis Johnson’s starkly moving new novella, Train Dreams, set in early, twentieth century Idaho. Notice how timid Robert Grainier is about accepting the love that life brings his way in the person of Gladys Olding, “a small girl just across the aisle from him, who sang softly during the hymns in a voice he picked out without any trouble.” Here’s the scene:
This was on a hot June day. They’d borrowed a wagon from Gladys’s father and brought a picnic in two baskets. They hiked over to Grossling’s meadow and waded into it through daisies up to their knees. They put the blanket beside a seasonal creek trickling over the grass and lay back together. Grainier consider the pasture a beautiful place. Somebody should paint it, he said to Gladys. The buttercups nodded in the breeze and the petals of the daisies trembled. Yet farther off, across the field, they seemed stationary.
Gladys said, “Right now I could just about understand everything there is.” Grainier knew how seriously she took her church and her Bible, and he thought she might be talking about something in that realm of things.
“Well, you see what I like,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” she said.
“And I see what I like very, very well,” he said, and kissed her lips.
“Ow,” she said. “You’ve got my mouth flat against my teeth.”
“Are you sorry?”
“No. Do it again. But easy does it.”
The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in — as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.
When the sun got too hot, they moved under a lone jack pine in the pasture of jeremy grass, he with his back against the bark and she with her cheek on his shoulder. The white daisies dabbed the field so profusely that it seemed to foam. He wanted to ask for her hand now. He was afraid to ask. She must want him to ask, or surely she wouldn’t lie here with him, breathing against his arm, his face against her hair — her hair faintly fragrant of sweat and soap...”Would you care to be my wife, Gladys?” he astonished himself by saying.
“Yes, Bob, I believe I would like it,” she said, and she seemed to hold her breath a minute, then he sighed, and both laughed.
How does this beautiful little scene preach the Gospel? I think it illustrates the Church’s deep truths about heaven and hell. Put another way, Denis Johnson retells Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast.
Heaven and hell are often misunderstood to be the reward, or punishment, for how we play the game of life, but that’s not true of either. The catechism doesn’t speak of heaven as a reward but as a relationship. It says that “live in heaven is to be with Christ.”
Put another way, heaven is the revelation of our destiny. It’s the place that love finally enfolds us. The issue isn’t that God rewards some with heaven and punishes others with hell. The issue is that some people live this life in a way that makes them ready for the incredible good fortune, the great blessing, the wedding feast that we call heaven. They live this timid trial in a way that readies them for the moment when love opens its arms and they respond. The saints are like Robert Grainier. They plummet down a hole and pop up into a world where they can get along in—as if they’d been pulling hard the wrong way and were now turned around headed downstream.
Conversely, God doesn’t damn anyone, though there probably are damned souls. They damn themselves by the cowardice, the smallness, the tight-fisted way of their lives. When heaven opens its arms, they can’t respond, can’t run the risk of letting their small selves slip back into the ocean that is the origin of self. To use the story of Jesus, they wander into the wedding feast, but they don’t know enough of the love therein to know where they are.
Christ’s parable and Johnson’s novel give us a different picture of the division we call heaven and hell. Don’t picture the line between them as a judge’s bench, with an extrinsic word of judgement being pronounced upon us. Picture instead a wedding feast, a proposal of love. Either we know that we’re in the right place, that we were created for this, that we’re finally headed downstream, or we simply can’t decipher the love before us, can’t recognize what is being offered.
He was afraid to ask. She must want him to ask, or surely she wouldn’t lie here with him, breathing against his arm, his face against her hair — her hair faintly fragrant of sweat and soap... “Would you care to be my wife, Gladys?” he astonished himself by saying.
“Yes, Bob, I believe I would like it,” she said, and she seemed to hold her breath a minute; then he sighed, and both laughed.
That’s the day we call judgement. That’s the question asked by God and, hopefully, the response of the soul. “Would you care to be mine?” “Yes, Lord, I believe I would like it.”
Terrance W. Klein