“Being really in love with someone is sort of like seeing them the way they ought to be seen,” Robinson says. “And the fact that we have this as a very isolated experience, most of us, if we’re lucky enough to have it at all, distracts us from the fact that it is another kind of seeing that has a kind of deep grace built into it.” (NPR interview with Marilynne Robinson about her novel Lila.)

Being really in love with someone is another kind of seeing. 

We have so many words in our worship services, in our devotional practices, that focus on the experience of being the beloved. We are good at talking about this — we are accepted by God as we are, we are forgiven, we are welcomed home even though we don’t deserve it. To be loved by God, this is what it feels like to be a Christian.

But this insight from Marilynne Robinson is not talking about being loved by God — it’s talking about the experience of loving like God does. She says that this is also grace. By this, I think she means that being able to really love someone is also an undeserved, unearned, experience of God.

This makes so much sense if you’ve had the pleasure of knowing Rev. John Ames, the beloved character in Robinson’s novel Gilead. The experience of loving Lila was saving grace for him.

I find this comforting, and maybe a little frustrating. If it’s built on grace, then loving someone — seeing them the way they ought to be seen, the way God sees them — doesn’t happen because you try real hard. Because you become a pious, pure enough person that you’re able to rid yourself of annoyance and impatience and anger with them. Loving someone like that, seeing them the way they ought to be seen, comes not as a skill, but as a gift. It’s free of our striving. It is built on a miracle.

We learned in Robinson’s novel Gilead how deeply and easily Rev. Ames loves his wife Lila — a love that deepens with every glimpse she allows him into her past, her thoughts, her true self. His love is not performative or mustered-up in any way — it just is. 

In Robinson’s later novel Lila, readers come to understand how difficult it feels for her to be loved like this. I’m guessing a lot of us can recognize this difficulty. Being seen is frightening, uncomfortable, risky. We can understand how being so deeply loved can make you want to walk away. 

To be loved is excruciating. And so is loving. Perhaps that’s the hard part about having something so God-like happen in this broken-up world. We are desperate for these experiences, and they are just so hard to bear, too.

I’ve been thinking about all this because I’ve just devoured both Gilead and Lila — and I felt like Robinson’s words about “seeing” made some special kind of sense during Advent. 

Advent can feel like the “dark” season, when evidence of God’s love for us emerges in unexpected places — in run-down Bethlehem, in knocked-up teen Mary, in an unwanted and unwelcome refugee family, and maybe also in the unpolished, unpresentable, undeserving places of our lives. We are beloved — in the light, and in the dark.

But Robinson’s words — “another kind of seeing” — has struck me as a new way to pay attention this Advent. When things go dark, it takes a moment for our eyes to adjust. And as they do, we start to pay attention differently. We start to see things that we missed before. What emerges is often what was hidden in the light — things that are beautiful. Beloved.

May “another kind of seeing” — loving, being loved — surprise us, and change us, this Advent season.

Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

5 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I think you’re right, about all this, and how hard it is to be seen and loved. Now I’m going to treat myself and read both of those novels again. Reading Gilead, for me, as a Calvinist pastor who loves to baptize babies and bless them, was like being seen and loved.

  • Lynne swets says:

    Thank you , Kate, for your insightful message this winter morning. I too loved those books but didn’t bring it all into focus regarding my own loving of others.

  • John R Sr Kleinheksel says:

    Hi Kate. Thanks for this. I’m reminded of “The Man of LaMancha who “loved” Dulcinea. It took “grace”. She became what he “saw” in her. YES!

  • Helen P says:

    Being loved unconditionally? I don’t know if I’ve experienced that.
    I also confess I have never read these two books, but they are now on my “to read” list.

    Thank you for this essay Kate. It is beautiful written and seems to fit this Advent season for me.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Kate, for pointing us to a new kind of seeing. I’m not sure if I understood this concept altogether. In the movie, Moulin Rouge, one of the character Toulouse cries out from the rafters of the stage set, “The greatest thing you will ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” Could this compare to what you are suggesting?

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