This memoir begins with the author contemplating Saint Augustine’s famous words, “God, send me chastity . . . but not yet.” This quotation is a clear sign that Gilman is writing his own spiritual autobiography as the latest in a tradition of which Augustine is at once the originator and greatest example. Like Augustine, Gilman gives his life structure and rhythm, peaks and valleys, with the reappearance of key themes—sexuality, death, and faith—and his closeness to or distance from God.
Normal chronological structure, specific dates and times, are deliberately discarded in favor of these other devices. Gilman ignores normal concepts of chronology to the extreme of not giving the reader his birth date. Dates are used only when Gilman wishes to mark the beginning of his conversion, “on a very hot day in the summer of 1952,” and when he wishes to indicate how long he held various jobs. Except for these examples, Gilman’s life exists as a spiritual drama on the stage of eternity, a drama in a world outside of and beyond worldly time.
The raw materials of Gilman’s life and ideas are books and the realm of literature. Books are more real than most people, and their simple physical qualities have a sensuality that is superior to his recollections of his own sexuality. His favorite childhood pastime of reading the encyclopedia unites intellect, sense, and soul.
When Gilman opens the encyclopedia, he has one of the most important experiences of his life, one which combines the powerful feelings of faith, sexuality, and death which will dominate his life.It’s a snowy winter day, already dark, and I’m in my cave. . . . I’m two-thirds of the way through F and I turn a page. Then I’m stricken, ravished, seduced beyond hope of recovery. Across a double page is a huge title—“France: a Name that Rings Like a Battle Cry!”—and below it is a photograph of an equestrian statue of Joan of Arc, the one at Rheims, the Maid in armor on a rearing horse, her hair cut in bangs, her lance held high, pointing to the heavens. My love affair with her, wholly without conscious erotic elements at its inception, and of course without religious elements either, began with these pages in the encyclopedia.
All the conflicting elements of Gilman’s spiritual and psychological nature are present in this experience. Gilman is ravished and seduced by the picture and words that indicate the sensual pleasure provided by reading and also his favorite erotic fantasy, the domination of a powerful woman. In these words, Gilman takes the traditionally passive female role. The dominance of Saint Joan is underlined by her armor, her control of her horse, the attraction of religious mystery in the lance pointing to the heavens and to God, and her sainthood. The problem of death is present subtly and by implication, since this statue is the one marking the spot where the saint was burned at the stake.
The continuing elements of religious mystery, sexuality, and death are part of all the carefully described peak experiences; their reappearance in slightly different forms provides the continuity not provided by more ordinary structural devices such as chronology. All Gilman’s ideas begin in experiences of one or several of the five senses. Then, based on these immediate sensations, ideas grow in his mind which provide the structure for strongly held beliefs. When Gilman makes his first Communion, he finds himself holding on his tongue a “papery object that dissolved very quickly and left scarcely any taste.” Transubstantiation becomes almost impossible for Gilman to comprehend, even at his time of strongest belief in God as represented by his new faith, precisely because the papery object is so very real. When Gilman tries to imagine what the Church tells him about transubstantiation, the crossing over of the body and blood of Christ into the wafer, he is repulsed by this apparent cannibalism. At the same time the union of church members in the mystical body is equally difficult, because the only way he can accept it is by creating it as a palpable thing, “a gigantic skin in which we were all encased or as a warm Jell-O-like sea in which we floated side by side, all of us, men, women, children, babies, along with the peaceful dead.”
Thus, the style and structure with which the religious experiences are portrayed gives the reader the dual impression of a sincere search for real religious experience and the ultimate failure of that experience to supply structure which will defeat the problems posed by sensuality, in its powerful sexual form, and death. From the time of Gilman’s first Communion, his withdrawal from the faith community is inevitable, much as Augustine’s contrasting acceptance is just as logically foreseen.
Gilman’s fall away from the Church is symbolically marked by a failure of those sensual associations that were so important in the creation of faith. Gilman states that in contrast to the weeks immediately before his baptism, his falling away from faithhas no such clarity, no thickness of remembered occasion or object. Particular beliefs became obscure, grew faint and at last vanished; urgencies melted and crumbled; attachments loosened and came undone. The world I had been inhabiting shifted and rearranged itself along a new axis.
Appropriately, the beginning of the end is in Paris, continuing the French associations implied in seeing the picture of the statue of Joan of Arc. When Gilman finds himself unable physically and spiritually to continue on up the steps and into Mass at his parish church back in New York, his sensual experience renews itself. The odd sensations in his head and throat are like “the incident of the uneven paving stones near the end of Remembrance of Things Past.”
For Gilman, the time of faith has ended and he must build his life, ideas, and sensual experiences out of new events and associations. This is the style and purpose of Faith, Sex, Mystery; ideas become part of a man only when they have been woven into one another, creating a fabric equally emotional and intellectual, the warp and woof of the cloth.
This memoir is unusual in the lack of importance assigned to conventional chronology as a mode of recording and molding the author’s growth and changes. Only in the last chapter does Gilman try to pin down to specific years the times when he held a particular job or worked for one magazine and then changed to another. Instead, in the words of the introduction, the shape of life is the distance from or closeness to God and a specific religious community. In the introduction, Gilman says:What I write about my life has its chief potential value in the way it bears upon the idea of religion and the actuality of spiritual experience as they took their course within me. . . . This omnipresence of the spiritual idea and its fate, my sense of it as sometimes having lodged in me with beautiful clarity and pertinence and sometimes having merely fanned me with a distant wing has led me to allow a certain number of meditative passages to insert themselves within the narrative, and to yield to digressions on a few occasions.
Significantly, Gilman begins the first chapter of his memoir with a discussion of Augustine’s great spiritual autobiography, Confessiones (397-400; Confessions). The similarity between the two works in shape and style, if not in achievement of religious certainty, is striking. In both works, the spiritual events on the path to and away from God provide the rhythm of perception. Continuity is also achieved through the threads of Gilman’s major problems, sexuality and death, and the partial if unsuccessful solution, the mystery of faith.
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