Faith, Sex, Mystery Critical Essays

Richard Gilman


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1296 words.)