I’ve finished my first Anne Tyler novel – Saint Maybe - and I’ve been mulling over it the last couple of days. (Well, that would make it sound like I’ve been thinking hard about something other than organizing closets, measuring rooms, and pricing new couches, which wouldn’t exactly be true.) To be honest, I thought that I would like this novel more. I couldn’t remember exactly who had recommended it to me, but after I finished it, I was totally underwhelmed. Because I had been reading it on my iPad and had lost any real sense of where I was in the novel, when I came to the final scene and turned the final page, I was shocked. It was an ending with so little fanfare.
In fact, the novel is itself a work of understatement. It wasn’t until I realized this that I realized I had almost missed what Tyler was doing very, very deliberately.
It also helped when I remembered that it was Eugene Peterson who had suggested I read it. (No, no, I haven’t managed a personal face-to-face yet with my favorite American pastor, but I do have a copy of his Take and Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List.)
Here’s was Peterson says about Saint Maybe: “Each new novel by Tyler is a fresh exercise in seeing behind the labels and clichés that stereotype people and prevent us from seeing the “image of God” that is there. She creates characters in her novels that are always just a little quirky, not quite fitting into what we think a human being ought to be. Most of us are so used to fitting into the categories supplied for us by hospitals, schools, shopping malls, and social services that we raise no objections when we are treated similarly by other Christians, and especially by Christian leaders. But insofar as we acquiesce, we lost the capacity to realize what God is most interested in working in us: sanctity, which means becoming more our created/redeemed selves, not less, not being reduced to what will fit into a religious program, not being depersonalized in the cause of ecclesiastical efficiency.”
Though this really gives you no specifics about the actual novel, Peterson is explaining the redemptive thread that is woven so beautifully and painfully in this novel: holiness.
Do we believe that is really what God is after?
And what is holiness? Is it keeping all of the rules? Keeping our religious ducks in a row?
Or is holiness love?
Ian, who is the novel’s protagonist, is a man who grows into holiness. At least I think. Because the novel’s prose is so common, because Ian is such a commoner, holiness doesn’t bedazzle you as a reader. There really aren’t explosive moments of insight for Ian. There is just this steady narrative drumbeat, and Ian plods forward.
You hardly admire him. At times, you may even pity him.
- until you put the novel down, take a few days away from it, (read a better, more insightful review), and realize you almost missed it.
Holiness can even be this: feeling exhausted and perplexed, sometimes feeling trapped, sometimes wondering why God feels so distant, often wondering if you’re on the right road - but keeping at the work God has given you.
“For the first time it occurred to him that there was something steely and inhuman to this religious business.”
Ian is one the road to finding forgiveness, and he’s missing it for a good part of the novel. He’s thinking that forgiveness is earned.
But along the way, Ian learns to pray. He is like us: so human, so frail, but growing in his capacity to see and receive God.
“To steady himself, he bowed himself and prayed. He prayed as he almost always did, not forming actual words but picturing instead this spinning green planet safe in the hands of God, with the children and his parents and Ian himself small trusting dots among all the other dots. And the room around him seemed to rustle with prayers for years and years past: Let them get well and Make her love me and Forgive what I have done.”