Grace, Attention and Beauty with Marilynne Robinson

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The American essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson may not be Catholic, but her writing reveals a deeply sacramental imagination. Through five books of fiction and dozens of essays, Robinson trains her readers in the art of spiritual attention. Where is God’s grace operating in nature and in the ordinary ways humans love, disappoint and forgive one other?

In her essay “Psalm 8” she writes, “I have spent my life watching not to see beyond the world,” but “merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes … With all due respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us.”

Robinson is best known for her novel “Gilead,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. It has three sequels, each installment following a different protagonist in the fictitious Iowa town. The last of those, “Jack” (2020), traces the wanderings of a Prodigal Son who has difficulty recognizing a place in his family, church, and hometown. We all know a Jack or two, and Robinson helps us understand their plights with empathy.

In March 2024, she released a new book, “Reading Genesis,” which is a long meditation on the first book of Hebrew Scripture. She defamiliarizes old stories that we thought we understood — of Adam and Eve, of Cain and Abel, of Abraham and Sarah. She challenges easy clichés — Old Testament God: bad! Jesus: good! — to show us how God’s faithfulness to humanity starts right there … in the beginning.

Which is why today’s interview with guest host Fr. Joe Simmons, SJ, starts with Genesis, and branches out into philosophy, science, poetry and fiction, and back to theology. Fr. Simmons, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the work of Robinson and Virginia Woolf, even talks with our guest on Ignatius Loyola and his contemporary, John Calvin — and the miseries of studying in 16th-century Paris! — which made Fr. Simmons laugh out loud. You won’t want to miss that.

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Contributed by:

Fr. Joe Simmons, SJ, is an assistant professor of theology at Marquette University. His areas of interest are theology and literature, the theological turn in phenomenology, fundamental theology, as well as atheism and secularity.