Posted on 16 May 2012.
by Father Robert Lauder
Third and Last in Series
There are several reasons why, even though it was published more than 25 years ago, Richard Gilman’s “Faith, Sex, Mystery: A Memoir” still seems very relevant to me.
One reason is that in his memoir Gilman describes his outlook before he converted to Catholicism as that of a secular humanist. My opinion is that secular humanism is the predominant philosophy among American intellectuals, at least the intellectuals who put out the newspapers and magazines, who create the films and plays, who write the bestsellers and who teach at many of our universities and colleges.
Some of the basic tenets of secular humanism are that there is no God or supernatural and no life beyond the grave, that we are the chance products of evolution and that we can construct an ethics without any reference to God. I think that most secular humanists are either atheists or agnostics.
Another reason, which I have mentioned in an earlier column in this series, is that Gilman’s life reveals the power that literature can have in a person’s life. Gilman identifies Catholic novels as being very influential in moving him toward his eventual conversion to Catholicism. When I read about his interest and even excitement in reading some Catholic novels, I can relate very much to that experience though Gilman was reading them as someone wondering about Catholicism and I was reading them as a Catholic. I observed the same interest and excitement when I persuaded other Catholics to read some Catholic novels. Gilman writes:
“Of all the novels I read during those weeks the most affecting and important to me were Bernanos’s ‘Diary of a Country Priest,’ Mauriac’s ‘The Desert of Love,’ and Greene’s ‘The Heart of the Matter’ and ‘The End of the Affair.’ I’ve read them all again recently. The Bernanos, that grave, lovely tale of the dying young curate, afflicted with a ‘deep, inexplicable incompetence, a supernatural clumsiness,’ who is devoted to God yet anguished by his impending loss of the world’s beauty, is the only one of them that isn’t concerned in some way with sexual desire and, though I don’t think it’s for that reason, the one that holds up most firmly as literary art… The first time I read these novels what took hold of me was the theme of human love, caught in the trap of religious belief, the idea of sexual hunger in fierce relation to the transcendent, the struggle between erotic desire and the imperious purity of the supernatural. Whereas now, in my nearly total state of unbelief, the religious elements strike me as somewhat forced, in a peculiar way almost irrelevant.”
I can understand Gilman’s initial enthusiastic response to the novels. I can even understand and sympathize with his experience of reading them after he had lost his Catholic faith. However, I cannot agree that the religious elements seem almost irrelevant. If we take God and the supernatural out of the novels that Gilman mentions there is no story left. I think that the main character in Greene’s “The End of the Affair” and also in “The Power and the Glory” is God. Remove God and the entire meaning of the novel would change.
When “Faith, Sex, Mystery” was published it received a long review in the Sunday New York Times (Jan. 1, 1987). A large excerpt from the book had appeared in The Times about a year before the book’s publication and in the excerpt Gilman made some of the main points that he would elaborate on in the book. I think the word “nearly” is important in Gilman’s description of his unbelief. I suggest that he was still some kind of believer or he could not have written so intelligently and insightfully about fiction that deals with the Transcendent.
In an interview that appeared around the time that the book was published, Gilman spoke with Ari Goldman of The Times, who points out that near the end of his book Gilman describes himself as “a lapsed Jewish-atheist-Catholic. Fallen from all three, a triple deserter!” Goldman writes the following: “Yet, when pressed about where he stands religiously, he falls back on his adopted faith. ‘I think if I were dying, I would want a priest.’”
Posted in Arts and Culture
Posted on 09 May 2012.
by Father Robert Lauder
Second in a series Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.
RE-READING Richard Gilman’s “Faith, Sex, Mystery: A Memoir”, I am remembering why I liked the book so much the first time I read it, which was probably right after it was published in 1987. Many of Gilman’s experiences in reading are similar to mine and I agree with much that he says about mystery. His experience of being profoundly moved by literature provides evidence for me of the importance of reading.
In 1953, about a year after Gilman became convinced of the truth of Catholicism through reading Etienne Gilson’s “The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy,” he visited the parish library at St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Manhattan. Having indicated to the priest he met in the library that he was interested in Catholicism, Gilman received from the Jesuit a novel by Francois Mauriac and a copy of Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory.”
Apparently the priest didn’t think highly of the writing of either Mauriac or Greene but, perhaps from talking with Gilman, somehow guessed that their writing would appeal to Gilman, who before reading Gilson’s book, would have described himself as an atheistic Jew. Recalling the meeting with the priest, Gilman writes the following:
“Remembering him, I pause for a moment to honor what he did, for it was a very bold thing. He had seen that I could never have been reached by conventionally pious Catholic literature of the sort he mainly dispensed; he knew that such writing, to the extent that I’d exposed myself to it, had in fact violently increased my doubts about the Church’s disposition toward intellect and imagination. I might have told him, or more likely he intuited it, that I needed something much harder, riskier,…So even though he accompanied the whole transaction with a mild warning about problematic theology and disturbing ‘pessimism,’ he readily gave me the books that were to prove decisive in the turning of my abstract conversion into a living one.”
In writing about Mauriac, Gilman refers to the remark by the existentialist atheist Jean-Paul Sartre that God was not a novelist and neither was Francois Mauriac. Apparently Sartre thought that Mauriac weakened the freedom of the characters in his novels by having the grace of God influence them. I suspect that Sartre was thinking of God as a physical cause forcing the actions of the characters by taking away their freedom. I think that Sartre did not realize that God is not a physical cause but a love cause and love causes freedom. When characters in a story respond to God’s grace they are more free than ever.
To Sartre’s criticism of Mauriac, Gilman responded: “Sartre, I’ve always thought was only half right: God isn’t a novelist but Francois Mauriac certainly was.”
Mauriac once commented that a chance meeting between people can have implications for eternity. I think the meeting between Gilman and the Jesuit priest was such a meeting.
Of course God is not a novelist but I do believe that each person’s life is an ongoing dialogue between God’s freedom and the person’s freedom. Divine Providence is very mysterious but God is always present, inviting a person into a love relationship. Whether the person responds with a “Yes” or a “No” to God’s invitation determines whether the person is or is not saved.
What especially interests me about Gilman’s recollection of the Jesuit priest is Gilman’s statement that the priest gave him books that helped turn his abstract conversion “into a living one.”
The books that the Jesuit gave Gilman were what I call “Catholic novels.” After reading the two novels that he received from the priest, Gilman went on to read other Catholic novels, some given to him by the priest, whose name was Father Walsh.
As I write this column, I am trying to imagine what the experience of reading this type of literature must have been for a person who only a short time before he engaged in this type of reading was an atheist. It must have been like entering a strange, new, wonderful world, a world of which he had been previously totally ignorant.
Though I have never been an atheist but rather a cradle Catholic, I think I know something of Gilman’s entrance into a new world. When in high school I was introduced to Catholic novels, I felt I was entering a “literary world” that I hadn’t known existed. I had never read literature that made both sin and grace so real, so important, so thrilling, had depicted religion and faith as so adventurous.
That literary journey, begun in Catholic high school and still continuing, I count as one of the great blessings in my life.
Posted in Arts and Culture
Posted on 02 May 2012.
by Father Robert Lauder
First in a Series
I THINK IT was Elie Wiesel who said that God created human beings because He loves stories. Wiesel’s insight, I think, is profound. There are as many stories as there are human persons and none of the stories are unimportant or insignificant. There are no unimportant people.
I am not certain why particular books impress me more than others. An obvious reason might be the simple fact that some books are just better than others. I suspect that the time in my life when I read a particular book can greatly influence my reaction to the book. What my interests and preoccupations are at the time that I am reading a book also plays a role in my experience of reading.
Wiesel’s comment has been on my mind because I recently pulled from my bookshelf a memoir that I read more than 25 years ago. When I first read it, I thought it a very interesting book. Looking through it now, I have not changed my opinion. If anything I am more convinced of its importance. The book is Richard Gilman’s “Faith, Sex, Mystery: A Memoir” (Simon & Schuster). Exceptionally well written, Gilman’s book interested me back then and still does now because it deals with several topics that I think are perhaps perennially relevant to anyone interested in literature and faith.
Brought up in a secular Jewish household, Richard Gilman in 1952 was a bored, depressed, 27-year-old atheistic Jew. One day something strange happened to him while he was visiting a library. He had gathered together some books that he wanted to take out when he felt strangely attracted to a book on the shelf. The book was Etienne’s Gilson’s “The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy.”
Gilson, a neo-scholastic philosopher, was well known in Catholic academic circles. I recall that when I was studying undergraduate philosophy in the seminary “The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy” was strongly recommended reading. Taking Gilson’s book down from the shelf, Gilman began to leaf through it and read some passages. He had been actually struggling to leave the room but felt he was in the grip of some unknown pressure. Gilman writes the following:
“The book was a big one, a real tome, and as I reluctantly leafed through it, turning the pages with an effort and forcing myself to read a few lines here and there, it struck me as dry, technical, full of alien language and ideas…as much as I could make out of those. In any case it was nothing in which I could conceivably have any interest, I told myself.
“So I put it back on the shelf, picked up the books I’d chosen before, turned around, found myself without any power to move, turned back again, took the Gilson book from the shelf once more, put it back, repeated the whole mad cycle three or four more times and then, besieged, light-headed as though I had a fever, nearly sick to my stomach, put the book with my others…”
This fascinating incident was the first step toward Gilman’s conversion to Catholicism. When he arrived home, Gilman reluctantly began to read Gilson’s book. He would put it down and pick it up again several times. Getting through the book was almost a physical struggle. Finally when he finished it, Gilman, alone in his room, said out loud to himself and to the air something like, “It’s true, all of it, it’s all true.”
Looking back on his experience of arriving at belief in Catholicism, he describes his experience as completely intellectual. The elements that won him over were entirely philosophical and intellectual. The experience that happened through reading Gilson was not accompanied by any moral conversion. Gilman was not especially preoccupied with any sins from his past life but only with the truth of Catholicism.
Judging from my experience as a priest with people who have converted to Catholicism, an intellectual conversion such as Gilman describes is relatively rare. Something like that may have happened to Jacques and Raissa Maritain or to Thomas Merton but it seems far from typical.
The fact that Gilman’s conversion began through reading philosophy probably is one of the reasons why his book appealed to me as a professor of philosophy. Also it probably appealed to me because as an academic I believe in the importance of books and reading. Books can be a strong force in someone’s life. I can think of several books that I have read which I can honestly say changed my life. Even as I write these words, titles of books that greatly influenced me are coming to mind. Certainly Gilson’s book changed Gilman’s life.
Posted in Arts and Culture
Posted on 15 March 2012.
by Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Permissive attitudes toward sex, cohabitation before marriage and acceptance of same-sex marriage can damage individuals and are harmful for society, Pope Benedict XVI told a group of U.S. bishops at the Vatican.
“It is in fact increasingly evident that a weakened appreciation of the indissolubility of the marriage covenant, and the widespread rejection of a responsible, mature sexual ethic grounded in the practice of chastity, have led to grave societal problems bearing an immense human and economic cost,” the pope said March 9.
Meeting the bishops of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, who were making their “ad limina” visits to report on the status of their dioceses, the pope said ignorance of or challenges to Church teaching on marriage and sexuality were part of the “intellectual and ethical challenges” to evangelization in the United States today.
The pope did not focus on current tensions between the U.S. bishops and the Obama administration, particularly over health care coverage of contraception and other practices that violate Church teaching. But at the beginning of his speech, Pope Benedict reiterated his concern about “threats to freedom of conscience, religion and worship which need to be addressed urgently so that all men and women of faith, and the institutions they inspire, can act in accordance with their deepest moral convictions.”
Healthy Understanding of Sexuality
Concentrating his remarks on the need to promote and explain Church teaching on sexuality, the pope said the Church’s key concern is “the good of children, who have a fundamental right to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships.”
Acknowledging the clerical sexual abuse scandal, the pope said, “It is my hope that the church in the United States, however chastened by the events of the past decade, will persevere in its historic mission of educating the young and thus contribute to the consolidation of that sound family life, which is the surest guarantee of intergenerational solidarity and the health of society as a whole.”
The moral virtues espoused in the Church’s teaching on sexuality are “the key to human fulfillment,” he said, because they promote sexuality as “a source of genuine freedom, happiness and the fulfillment of our fundamental and innate human vocation to love.”
“The richness of this vision is more sound and appealing than the permissive ideologies exalted in some quarters,” which are “powerful and destructive,” he said.
One of the first steps, he said, must be to help Catholics “recover an appreciation of the virtue of chastity,” which forms the human heart to love in the most authentic way.
Pope Benedict told bishops he was aware of “the powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage” so that it would include same-sex couples.
“The church’s conscientious effort to resist this pressure calls for a reasoned defense of marriage as a natural institution,” which is “rooted in the complementarity of the sexes and oriented to procreation,” he said.
“Sexual differences cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the definition of marriage,” the pope said.
Defending traditional marriage is not simply a matter of Church teaching, he said; it is a matter of “justice, since it entails safeguarding the good of the entire human community and the rights of parents and children alike.”
Pope Benedict praised the U.S. bishops’ 2009 letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” and he asked them to continue reviewing and strengthening both religious education materials and marriage preparation programs.
In conversations with the bishops during the “ad limina” visits, he said, some of the bishops have expressed concern about how difficult it is to communicate the Church’s teaching effectively and some have told the pope there are decreasing numbers of young people in their dioceses asking to be married in the Church.
“We cannot overlook the serious pastoral problem presented by the widespread practice of cohabitation, often by couples who seem unaware that it is gravely sinful, not to mention damaging to the stability of society,” Pope Benedict said.
The pope said that in responding to situations in which many engaged couples already are living together, there must be “clear pastoral and liturgical norms for the worthy celebration of matrimony which embody an unambiguous witness to the objective demands of Christian morality, while showing sensitivity and concern for young couples.”
Posted in News