January 27, 1987
When Chesterton was converted to Catholicism, Bernard Shaw sent him a friendly note. “My dear G.K.: This is really going too far.” Chesterton, of course, spent the rest of his life explaining, with unquenchable, sometimes unbearable, exuberance. Richard Gilman has not been nearly so public a Catholic as Chesterton was, and his explanation is much less self-assured. In fact, he‘s still trying to explain his conversion and subsequent lapse to himself, which makes Faith, Sex, Mystery, slight as it is theologically and philosophically, an engaging book.
Gilman is a well-known theater critic, essayist, former PEN president, and professor at the Yale Drama School. But he came late to these occupations. In the early l950s (his late twenties), he was living in New York City with his wife, unemployed and reading a lot, lackadaisically pursuing Beauty and Truth. He found the latter-- or vice versa-- with scarifying suddenness. While standing in a public library one summer afternoon, he was “impelled” by a peculiar force to walk over to the “Religion” section and take down a book, Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy. Bewildered, even annoyed, he nevertheless took the book home and read it continuously for thirty-six hours. He was completely persuaded. Though previously conscious only of vague, wistful metaphysical yearnings, he was now on the road to Rome.
Some months later, he was reading Thomas Merton’ s The Seven Storey Mountain. He discovered that ten years earlier, Merton had had the sane experience. Exactly the same. Same hot summer afternoon, same branch library (Lexington and 50th), same inexplicable compulsion, same book, same irritated acquiescence, same temptation to throw the book out the window during the bus ride home (same bus route, too), same uninterrupted reading once home, and same overwhelmed assent. Gilman was, understandably, stunned. If reading Gilson had initiated his conversion, reading Merton clinched it. Now, even so uncanny a coincidence-- along with a couple of other peculiar visitations, neither one quite so mind-boggling-- may sound like an insufficient basis for embracing Catholicism. And there were other, less miraculous influences, notably the writings of Simone Weil, Bernanos, Mauriac, and Greene. But Gilman is a compelling storyteller, and there does almost seen to be a flicker of the supernatural about his conversion, whatever one may think of medieval philosophy.
Enter the serpent. After five years as a Catholic, years of conscientious practice but gradually diminishing joy and ardor, Gilman is overcome by the twin temptations of sex and ambition. His masochistic sexual fantasies, and their increasingly frequent enactment, destroy his marriage. His confessor, doctrinaire and unbending, is no help. And his success in writing for the Catholic journal Commonweal leads (a nice irony) to immersion in secular, literary pursuits. Soon he is once again “dwelling wholly in the immediate”; eventually, despite a residual belief in God, his conversion comes to seen like a distant dream.
Faith, Sex, Mystery is a confession of failure. Like most other people, Gilman sought for some abiding truth about sex and death. Unlike most other people, he found it, or thought he had, and then let it slip through his fingers. Early in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian is beguiled by Mr. Worldly Wiseman and sets off for the town of Carnal-Policy. But he is stopped by Evangelist, who upbraids him with words from Scripture -- “Now the just shall live by faith; but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him” -- and returns him to the right road. Gilman, however, did “draw back”; and his memoir reads a little like the reflections of a wise, worldly Christian who strayed permanently from the path and spent a long, fruitful life in Carnal-Policy (or Vanity Fair). He is dissatisfied, somehow, but the illuminations of the young pilgrim have dimmed, and the life he has chosen seems after all, solider, more real.
The narrator of Faith, Sex, Mystery is brave, intelligent, and likeable. He weeps often in recounting his progress/regress, and I suspect most Catholics (and ex-Catholics) will join him at least once or twice. In the end we feel even a little protective: how will he fare in that final Beckoning? There is, one supposes, some forgiveness for honest unbelief (“invincible ignorance,” Catholics call it). But Gilman, by his own account, turned away from the Light. “You offered me Grace, how can I get round it? And I spurned it, how can I get round that?” He has one excuse: he’s a “stiff-necked Jew also an invincible condition, surely. But finally, he just loved life too much, like that virtuous young rich man from Judaea whom Jesus invited to give up everything and follow Him, and who “went away sad, for great were his possessions.” This rich young man is supposed to be a cautionary figure. Still, faced with a choice between writing some of Gilman’s best essays and saving my soul, I might have faltered, too.
Contemplating Protestant fundamentalism (the sane reaction would be appropriate to Catholic fundamentalism), Gilman longs to “succor God.” It’s true: such are most of its exponents that the supernatural can hardly get a hearing nowadays among the literate. For this reason, if no other, I expect God will gladly forgive Richard Gilman.