Richard Gilman grew up in a Jewish family who did not follow strictly the precepts of that faith, and by the time he reached his late twenties considered himself an atheist. A series of miraculous-seeming events, however, forced him to reconsider his view of the divine, and at the age of nearly thirty he was baptized as a Catholic. For a period, a mysterious grace seemed to hover over his life, but within three years he began to suffer what a priest told him was spiritual aridity. Before long he ceased attending Mass and eventually lost his belief in God, although not his more generalized conviction that a spiritual realm exists.
Gilman’s narrative consists of more than a recounting of the events suggested in the preceding paragraph. The book also includes intermittent passages of spiritual meditation in which Gilman tries to recapture how, as a newly converted Christian, he had come to terms with such mysteries as the incarnation of God in Christ, transubstantiation, and the Devil. In doing so, he provides readers, Christian or not, with a yardstick against which to measure their own approach to religious questions. It is hard to imagine a reader who could finish this book without engaging in some reflection about his or her own relation to traditional religious dogma. Gilman commands attention by his willingness to reveal his layman’s resolution to complex theological issues.
In a sense then, Faith, Sex, Mystery: A Memoir is two books in one: a theological discourse and a very personal account of some strange and not-so-strange occurrences. The personal history is of special interest and includes events in which a hand from another world seems to have nudged Gilman toward faith. For example, one evening after a conversation with a sympathetic priest, Gilman finds himself reciting the Hail Mary, a prayer he has never heard or read before. The most spectacular such occurrence, however, is the first, in which a casual library visit becomes an unexpected entry into the spiritual world.
On this occasion, against his normal practice, Gilman decides to visit the Cathedral branch of the New York Public Library. Inexplicably he is drawn to the religious section, and then to a book called The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy: The Gifford Lectures, 1931-1932 (1936) by Etienne Gilson. Riding home on the bus he feels an aversion to the book, so much so that he is tempted to throw it out the window but refrains because he cannot afford to replace the volume. Once home, he reads the book in a compulsive day and night, and when he is finished he finds that he believes everything it says: He has been intellectually persuaded of the truth of Catholicism. Later he discovers that this experience precisely mirrors that of Thomas Merton as described in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), including the discovery of Gilson’s book at a particular branch of the New York Public Library and the impulse to throw the book out the window of a Lexington Avenue bus. By the time he learns of Merton’s parallel experience, Gilman has already come to see “the supernatural as real, not a myth, not a human construction out of longing.”
Gilman’s conversion, then, has an intellectual basis, but at the same time a mystical foundation which contradicts all his prior expectations about how things come to be known. His own skeptical temperament pulls the like-minded reader into Gilman’s experience: Grace does seem to be operating in his life. In this category of special events, Gilman includes his friendship with a woman named Ruth, who serves as a spiritual mentor to him in the months prior to his formal conversion. Ruth helps him in practical ways—for example, she explains to him the use of the missal—but she is also a model in larger matters. Herself celibate, she encourages Gilman to practice a similar restraint. To Gilman’s distress, he is sexually attracted to Ruth herself, making her teachings on this subject that much harder to bear. Ultimately he finds that he must tear himself away from this relationship and its disconcerting ambivalences. Nevertheless, Ruth remains in his memory a friend and guide through the phase of his introduction to Catholicism. (In a disturbing episode later in the book, Gilman encounters Ruth after years of separation and finds her unwilling to acknowledge that she knows him.)
As the episode of Ruth suggests, and the title of the memoir emphasizes, Gilman found it difficult to reconcile his sexuality with what he perceived as church teachings. He found that the rosy picture of...