By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Going to Heaven – By Good Luck or by God’s Grace? This is a thought inside the head of Marilynne Robinson’s fictional character, Lila, in Robinson’s recent novel. Lila has reason to think that way, that is, to think outside the box of conventional religious piety because her story is not one that fits piety of any kind.
Lila had been an unwanted orphan, dying from malnutrition and neglect, when at a young age she was taken up by a woman named Dolly, herself a social outcast. Lila spends all the years of her youth with Dolly, traveling with her as the two of them live on the edges of society and hunger, working as agricultural laborers with others like themselves, more slaves than paid workers. Living this way, Lila never learns the social skills needed to function normally in society. Everything in her background, from her abandonment as a child to her life-long marginalization, sets her up to be a loner, someone condemned by circumstance to never find normal companionship, family, intimacy or grace.
Moreover, Dolly, her surrogate mother, has her own problems, beyond her struggles to feed Lila and herself. When she took up Lila and fled from their hometown, she was fleeing domestic violence. Eventually, years later, the man from whom she was fleeing finds her; but Dolly is no passive victim. She knifes the man to death. Sometime later, she dies, orphaning Lila a second time.
But, by now, Lila is old enough to take care of herself, except, lacking social skills, she still finds herself at the margins of society, ever the loner. Luck, though, is on her side and she is eventually befriended by a Christian minister who takes care of her and eventually marries her. This new world of acceptance, love, family and religion is radically new to Lila and she struggles mightily to sort it out, especially regarding how love and grace work.
One of the problems that bother her, as she listens to her husband’s Christian sermons, is what happens to someone like Dolly, who did so much for her, and yet was a murderer. Is she forgiven? Could she have gone to heaven, even after committing murder? Lila struggles to believe in faith, love, family life, forgiveness and heaven.
Her thoughts on this, especially on how Dolly might have met her Maker, contain their own important insights into love and grace: “In eternity, people’s lives could be altogether what they were and had been, not just the worst things they ever did, or the best things either. So she decided that she should believe in it, or that she believed in it already. How else could she imagine seeing Dolly again? Never once had she taken her to be dead, plain and simple.
If any scoundrel could be pulled into heaven just to make his mother happy, it couldn’t be fair to punish scoundrels who happened to be orphans, or whose mothers didn’t even like them, and who would probably have better excuses for the harm they did than the ones who had somebody caring about them. It couldn’t be fair to punish people for trying to get by, people who were good by their own lights, when it took all the courage they had to be good. … Eternity had more of every kind of room in it than this world did.”
As Christians, we believe that, as part of the Body of Christ, we have been given the power to forgive each other’s sins and that, because of that, indeed a mother’s love can pull her child into heaven. Our love for each other is a powerful vehicle of grace, powerful enough to actually open the gates of heaven. As Gabriel Marcel once put it: To love someone is to, in effect, say: You at least will never die! Human love, even this side of eternity, has that kind of power. That’s also why we pray for loved ones who have died. Our love has the power to reach them, even there.
But, and this was Lila’s quandary: What about those who, like Dolly and herself, are outsiders in this life and who die without anyone much caring about the fact that they’ve gone or where they’ve gone? How do grace and forgiveness work then? Is human love then purely out of the picture and we are left only with the hope that God’s love can fill in where human love is absent?
Yes, God’s love can and does fill in where human love is absent. In fact, scripture assures us that God has a special love, and tenderness, for those who find themselves outside of the circle of human love. So we need not worry about the salvation of those who, like Dolly, died in less-than-ideal circumstances, even as they “took all the courage they had to be good.” Human love, while generally directed towards very specific persons, is also a symphony whose music circles wide and ultimately embraces everyone.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)