18 May 2013

On Covetousness

I am intrigued by a passage in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead. The novel’s narrative consists of the words of John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa recounting for his seven-year-old son his own life and that of his father and his grandfather, both also ministers in Gilead. We learn that in the days leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, Ames’ grandfather became a radical abolitionist and rode with John Brown during the raids into Kansas. The grandfather also served as chaplain for the Union armies and preached from his pulpit in Gilead the imperative of fighting this holy war. Ames’ father became a pacifist as a result of his father’s participation with John Brown and the slaughter and bloodshed that characterized the Civil War. John Ames’ first wife died along with the child in childbirth, and it is only at the age of sixty-seven that he marries again and fathers a childa sonto whom the writing is addressed. Finally, I believe that this novel is about the beauty of the diurnal: Ames writes to his son “Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing.” Ames reflects on the everyday matters and concerns of his life and of those about him and raises them to the level of the hallowed.
Anyway, the passage I refer to specifically concerns the time when Ames had been asked to baptize the son of his dearest friend, Boughton, who happens also to be the Presbyterian minister. Ames readily agrees, of course, and as part of the ceremony Ames asks Boughton “By what name do you wish this child to be called?” and Boughton responds, “John Ames.” And as he gave to his child the name of his dearest friend, Boughton wept with joy, an expression of the sincere love he felt for both the child and the man whose name he had just given to his child.
But John Ames expresses shock both by the act of the naming and by his friend’s open display of emotion. “It simply was not at all like Boughton to put me in a position like that. It was so un-Presbyterian, in the first place . . . It took me a while to forgive him for that.” Perhaps people are caught short by such open affection, and in this regard I appreciate the complexity of Ames’ response. But there was more to Ames’ reaction than a simple awkwardness at the public display of emotion. Because I think also that Ames holds that to have given to one’s son the name of one’s best friend seems an act of absolute love: if the name is synecdoche, then Boughton wishes his son to become in substance like his friend Ames. The exquisiteness of the act appalls Ames.
Ames says that what he felt was covetousness: “I thought, this is not my child,” and in that thought rejects the not only the gift but the child itself. In traditional Christian practice (I think), it is traditional to name a child after the father, and this naming identifies the child’s parent as Ames. What an enormous responsibility John Ames must have felt at such an honor. And I think his first response is to refuse such honor and such responsibility because it is so boundless.  He covets. And he says, “I do not know exactly what covetise is but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it.”
What a remarkable reinscription of the 10th commandment. I am not even sure if ‘covetise’ is a wordI couldn’t find it in either the dictionary I own at home nor in the one that I use onlinebut that another’s actions might be so beautiful that I might be offended by the beauty startles me to attention. It is not that when I covet I want that which another has, nor that when I covet am I jealous of another’s possessions. Rather, to me Ames suggests that when I covet I feel in some way diminished by a beauty that appears in the world that I have not myself made. That is, when I covetise I reject the existence of a God so as to assume the very nature of God. When I covet I say that I am the sole source of the appearance of beauty and I accept beauty nowhere but in my own creation. I am offended by the actions of another that appropriates what is mine alone! To covet is not to want but to deny!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Blessed is he who takes no offense at me."

03 July, 2013 07:19  

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