Arts and Culture

A Book Can Change a Life

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.