Arts and Culture

A Chance Meeting Lasts a Lifetime

by Father Robert Lauder

Second in a series
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. [hr] 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.

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One thought on “A Chance Meeting Lasts a Lifetime

  1. I enjoyed reading your column. There’s an aura of mystery that surrounded it which I found realistic and thrilling. You held up my interest until the very end though I would confess I had to slow down so I could follow who is saying what. Thanks Father Robert.