A great Christian writer takes the Catholic faith and reinvents it in a way that sparks the reader’s imagination. It’s a rare talent, even though it’s exactly what Marilynne Robinson does in her wonderful novels – especially her second most recent, Lilac (2014). Even more so than in Robinson’s other publications, you see, Lila traces an experience of ultimately generative struggle with biblical text.
And while many verses appear in the novel, mostly from the Hebrew Scriptures, the text that intrigues Lila the most is Ezekiel 1. Again and again, our main character finds himself drawn back to that intense imagery found in the prophet’s initial vision. To discern the meaning of a passage, the reader must then wrestle with it over time.
And what a passage it is. In his preamble to the actual vision, Ezekiel makes an astonishing assertion – even by prophetic standards! He professes, in verse 1, to have received “visions from God.” Not visions of God but visions of God. A tiny word with huge implications. Easy to miss, though.
Even though Ezekiel did not see God face to face – because no one can see God and live, according to Exodus 33:20 – we can still rejoice that God chose to reveal something of His nature to the prophet. In this Ezekiel article, Robinson’s perspective on Chapter 1, as channeled by Lila, will interact with my reading of it.
It is in this reciprocal way that interpretation works. Bible study means a conversation among believers about what our sacred writings convey. The more participants, the better, so get involved! Everyone starts out as a newcomer to the Bible; and when Lila first approaches Ezekiel, her first impressions betray her naivety. Yet it is one of the characteristics that makes the character endearing.
As Lila reads the story of “a fire that unfolds”, carried by “a stormy wind”, she surmises: “Well, it could have been a prairie fire in a dry year” (68), as if Ezekiel was prophesying from the plains of the American Midwest. It’s easy to read this as a joke at Lila’s expense, but every Bible scholar also starts out as a beginner.
This enveloping fire, however. Such an illuminating image – in more ways than one! Fire is its own fuel, a self-renewing beacon that never goes out. Approaching this fire with reverence, we come to the main protagonist of Ezekiel 1: the Holy Spirit. I cannot suggest a better help elsewhere in the Bible to conceptualize this Person of the Trinity than the eternal flames of Ezekiel.
All the same, Ezekiel does not really make simple. The message is encrypted in its intelligent imagery. Some theological digging is necessary… Lila goes so far as to describe God’s “living creatures,” those curious composites weirder than anything in Doctor Who, and then balks at such eccentric entities. “Well, she didn’t know what to make of that. Understandable.
For me, living beings are part of a parable. We can glean something fundamental to Christian theology between the lines. Alternatively, the passage is like a physics demonstration, where instead of electromagnetism or Newton’s laws, the spiritual essence of all existence is exposed: a metaphysical demonstration, if you will.
The message of Ezekiel’s parable is that age-old article of the Nicene Creed: the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life; ‘where the spirit had to go, they [the living creatures] go’ (v. 12). As a general rule, Ezekiel tells us, no life is possible apart from the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel 1 seems very surreal to the reader as it explores this rarely thought about idea, the animating will of the Spirit.
Plato, to borrow a classic thought, considered only things that could move as living (Laws 895c), but it is clear that it is only thanks to the Holy Spirit that the creatures of Ezekiel are able to move. Spirit is, according to Plato’s definition, the only Being that can truly be called alive. And on this basis, Christians can logically conclude that he is the source of all created life.
Going back to Robinson, Lila ends up becoming a theologian. She learns to relate Ezekiel to her own experiences. You see, Lila was freed from an abusive home as a child. Our young protagonist was delivered from the chains of domestic suffering by Doll, a destitute but resilient wanderer through the Dustbowl of the 1930s Midwest.
Thus, Lila’s memory becomes her key to unlocking Ezekiel: “And when Doll picked her up and carried her away, she had felt a likeness of wings. She had thought: As strange as all this is, there might be something to it” (68). In Lila’s past lies an experience of merciful rescue. This reflects to her the character of God.
Robinson is also wise enough to deny Lila a moment of full disclosure. It would be easy. No one picks up a Bible and understands it right away. Instead, that first encounter with Ezekiel turns out to be the start of an ongoing relationship between the prophet’s tale and Robinson’s heroine.
And as Lila sits with Ezekiel 1, she begins to perceive his ambiguities. Looking at verse 10 – ‘As for the likeness of their faces…’ – Lila reasons: ‘If you think of a human face, it may be something you don’t want to look at, so sad or so harsh or so kind. ‘ She continues, “It may be something you want to hide, as it pretty much shows where you have been and what you can expect” (82).
These are pointed observations. Agree, the creatures may well have a human face. It’s very beautiful. What’s more interesting is the kind of expressions they wear and the kind of story these emotional cues reveal. On a broader point, the images are open in that people can view them in different ways – just as Lila demonstrates.
And while Robinson’s budding theologian can be articulate, she can also be laconic. All Robinson has to tell us about Lila’s reaction to verse 13b—“Fire ascended and descended among living creatures…”—is: “It reminded her of the wildness of things” (106). No nonsense with our Lila, direct and unpretentious. Simple as a dime of caramel.
The luminous imagery that abounds in Ezekiel 1 inextricably binds living creatures to the “enveloping fire” or Holy Spirit. It’s all very Pentecostal. Using such a visual cue, the prophet points to the fact that all created life comes from the Spirit, whose animating spark ignites every soul to be.
There is even a foreshadowing of Easter in Ezekiel 1. Creatures are lifted up in verse 19, just as the Spirit raised our Lord from the dead (Romans 8:11). And as Paul the Apostle teaches in the same verse, this is the Gospel in brief; “If the same Holy Spirit dwells in you, He will quicken your bodies in the same way.
Lila’s interpretations of Ezekiel 1 are complex and varied. Sometimes, the text inspires him with apprehension. Coming to verse 25 – “And there was a voice above the firmament which was above their heads…” – Lila steps back. “She didn’t want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were.
Why such apprehension? “She knew that there were words so terrible that you could hear them with your whole body” (110). But even so, Lila sees in the Bible a way of saying how things are that has no equal. “She had never heard anyone talk about existence like that, about the great storms that break out there.
A great storm is what Ezekiel so vividly depicts in verse 14: “And the living creatures ran and came back like the appearance of lightning. Once again, Lila returns to her more concise form of analysis. Writes Robinson, ‘She [Lila, that is] I didn’t expect to find so many things she already knew written in a book.
Of course, it’s paradoxical because Lila has already spent a lot of time in Ezekiel, grappling with his concepts. How can she say that what she finds there, she already knows? It is perhaps a commentary on our instinctive knowledge, at some level, of God. It is only because the Saint knew us first that such an intuition on our part is a possibility.
Life itself is the very first gift we receive. And the process by which we receive it is a paradigm of divine grace. None of us asked to be created. “Hey God, please create me! says no one ever.
The nature of God the Holy Spirit – rendered so powerfully in Ezekiel 1 – is to give life, and everything that renews life, before we can express our needs. “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), the furnace in which existence itself is continually being reforged.