Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531
Faith, Sex, Mystery: A Memoir is divided into five chapters plus a brief but significant introduction. In it, Richard Gilman traces the growth and decline of his religious life from a childhood in a home which was Jewish only in its ethnicity to baptism and active membership in the Roman Catholic church to his present position as a nonparticipatory theist. The first chapter is the longest, 82 out of the 253 pages.
Gilman is originally attracted to Roman Catholicism by its intellectual structure, especially its appearance in the great literature of the world. Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy: The Gifford Lectures, 1931-1932 (1936) seems to give him an intellectual framework with which to comprehend the world, especially those problems that are to shape his life and this narrative: sexuality and death. Ruth, a beautiful and mysterious older woman, a convert like himself, serves as his spiritual mother, and the first chapter ends with the breakup of his marriage and a trip to Colorado Springs, culminating in his baptism. In the second chapter, Gilman’s religious honeymoon, he learns the fascinating ceremonies and ritual of his new faith and deals with his intrusive sexuality in a trip to New Orleans. In the third chapter, he returns to New York City and tries to renew his marriage. The new Catholic magazine Jubilee gives him both a community of coreligionists and the job he desperately needs that will use his liberal arts education and wide, if eccentric, reading. Once again, however, sex and death become spiritual problems, this time to a new and difficult degree. The love-motivated suicide of a coworker and the question of a religious identity cause a crisis of faith; Gilman considers his and his Catholic coworkers’ religious identities as they relate to personal identities. Is a Catholic’s goodness the result of his faith or his personality? Is Gilman himself still more Jew than Catholic, even though he is technically still within the Catholic community?
The fourth chapter marks a definite downturn of the author’s faith: He has a crisis of sexuality in the death of his marriage and the rejection of his spiritual mother, Ruth, whom he encounters again by chance. Gilman’s withdrawal from the faith community is seen in his exchange of what he calls the “little box” of the religious confessional for conventional psychoanalysis, first by Catholics and then by seculars. The final chapter begins with the last time the author tries and fails to attend Mass, going down the church steps without going in. He briefly summarizes his second marriage and the birth of his three children as well as his increasingly successful career as a drama critic and university professor.
He ends the memoir with a brief summary of the roles of sexuality, death, and faith in shaping his life:I think now: sex and death have been the dominant words in this book, the rubrics under which I’ve tried to organize what’s happened to me. Sex and death and mystery. I came into the Church because of death and left because of sex. I didn’t trust mystery, which is the same thing as saying I didn’t give myself.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1874
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 wholesome sex within the context of marriage was not a plausible ideal for him. At the time when he first became intrigued with Catholicism, Gilman was married, and he admits that his sexual habits had alienated his wife. With evident embarrassment Gilman recounts his obsessive fantasies about dominant, muscular women. He made a fetish, for example, of a poster of Marlene Dietrich showing her muscular thigh encased in a garter belt and stocking. This dream of female aggression in turn made Gilman a passive lover; he seems to feel it natural that his young wife was disappointed in him.
Already guilty about his sexuality, Gilman became all the more concerned with the problem after his conversion. In one section of Faith, Sex, Mystery, he considers the relationship among the seven capital, or deadly sins, and he concludes that lust is of a different color than the others. He finds that he is able to rationalize away most of his sins: For example, when he feels worldly ambition or pride he reminds himself that the greatest achievement is to serve God. Yet he cannot drive away desire in a similar way. Lust, he concludes, springs from the unconscious and is not subject to man’s deliberate control. Eventually one of Gilman’s major frustrations with church practices stems from what he sees as the failure of most priests to understand the nature of his sexual concerns. Repeatedly he steels himself to confess his sexual sins only to find that the priest listens without apparent response, assigning him a mild penance and advising cold showers. Gilman’s near despair about these matters is finally largely relieved by the words of a sympathetic English-speaking French priest who reminds him that God’s love is ineffable and does not depend on obedience or even on scrupulous practice of Catholicism. That God’s love is mysterious is a source of wonder for Gilman throughout his life, even after his repudiation of the conventional trappings of Catholicism.
As suggested in the preceding paragraph, Gilman felt more successful at conquering his ambition than his lust. Yet an important part of this story is the growth of Gilman’s career as a journalist, eventually specializing in the drama criticism that led him to his prestigious position at the Yale School of Drama. Other aspiring writers will take comfort in noting that Gilman did not begin to write professionally until he was in his thirties, and that his first position, for the Catholic magazine Jubilee, was earned only after a stint selling subscriptions. Working at Jubilee was eye-opening in one important respect. At the time of his conversion, despite his love for Catholic doctrine, Gilman had what can only be called a snob’s attitude toward most practitioners of the faith. Whenever he went to Mass, he found himself surrounded by people whom he assumed to be his intellectual inferiors, and he believed the Church administrators to be “at best indifferent to social and political injustice and oppression and, at worst, frankly aligned with the most reactionary and even fascist forces everywhere.” At Jubilee, however, Gilman learned about a more liberal Catholicism, one concerned with the rights of the oppressed and engaged in social activism. Writing retrospectively, Gilman now sees himself and his fellow workers as naïve for hoping to make a difference either in the prevailing philosophies of the Church or in the larger world, but at the time it was a cleansing experience for him to be associated with people of such good will.
In the long run, though, his stint at Jubilee helped Gilman in his career, since it provided his entrée to Commonweal, another Catholic magazine but one with a much wider audience; it was there that he began to write drama criticism, teaching himself as he went along the theater history necessary for the position. As his status in the literary world became more secure, he found his attachment to religion slipping away. Newsweek magazine offered him a post at four times the salary he had earned at Commonweal, and his move to the secular world was apparently complete. He began to be what he had long wished to be: “well-known.”
Another issue that Gilman takes up is the meaning of having become a Catholic after a Jewish upbringing. He felt no need to repudiate Judaism, since to him the religion had always connoted an ethnic identity rather than a specifically religious one. And in fact, although he felt Catholicism to be true as a religion in a way that Judaism was not, he had what he calls an instinctive sense that Jews as people were superior to most of the ethnic groups typically associated with Catholicism, including Italians, Poles, and Irish. Ironically, as a child Gilman believed that all Christians were his enemies, and never informed his parents of his conversion, and although he can never quite explain it to himself, he has been proud to be a Jew—throughout the period of his active Catholicism and afterward.
In his foreword, Gilman expresses embarrassment at the arrogance of autobiography. He seems possessed of an ambivalence about his own status: Is he so unimportant that no one will care about his experience, or so well-known that he risks an incapacitating scrutiny if he reveals his story? He resolves his ambivalence by suggesting that our present secular society (secular despite what he calls “the fundamentalist twitchings on the surface”) is ready for a consideration of the spiritual, and that he can speak as one who, for a time, took instruction and comfort from an otherworldly realm. He speaks also of a kind of freedom to be found in exploring a subject that is so patently unfashionable as religious belief. He finds it liberating to address himself to a subject that his professional peers consider outside their realm of interest; as Gilman astutely points out, people may appear to lose interest in things which are mysterious and unknowable, yet the possibility of renewed interest is very close to the surface.
By the time one comes to the last pages of the book, moreover, one has the sense that Gilman, in his sixties, twice divorced, is looking for the meaning of his life beyond the real, but limited, fame he has achieved as a theater critic and professor. He genuinely believes that he was singled out, in that long-gone day in the Cathedral Branch of the New York Public Library, but he has never been able to come to terms with the meaning of his selection. When he writes the last words of his book he is still awash with bemused uncertainty.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51
Baumann, Paul. Review in Commonweal. CXIV (February 13, 1987), pp. 85-88.
Davis, R. G. Review in The New Leader. LXIX (December 1, 1986), pp. 11-12.
Eykerp, Muriel Crowley. Review in Library Journal. CXII (March 1, 1987), p. 71.
Prose, F. Review in Vogue. CLXXVII (January, 1987), pp. 100-101.
Sullivan, A. Review in The New Republic. CXCVI (February 16, 1987), pp. 37-38.