Finalist, Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography
In the tradition of Augustine's Confessions, Robert Clark tells the story of his return to the Catholic Church through the prism of the religious history of his ancestors. Intertwining their experiences as Catholics in late-medieval England, as Puritan settlers in 17th Century New England, and as 19th Century New England transcendentalists with his childhood in an Episcopalian boarding school and later conversion to Roman Catholicism, Clark presents not only a memoir but a testament of faith.
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About the Author
Robert Clark is the author of the novels In the Deep Midwinter and Mr. White's Confession, as well as River of the West, a cultural history of the Columbia River, and The Solace of Food, a biography of James Beard. He is also the recipient of the Edgar Award for Best Mystery. A native of St. Paul, Minneapolis, he lives in Seattle with his wife and two children.
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The oldest ancestor of whom I have any knowledge was named John Griggs. He was born and lived in a village called Somerton in the county of Suffolk in England, and married a woman named Rose, also of Somerton. He died in April 1497.
Five hundred years and four months later, in August 1997, I brought my wife and my children to Somerton, to the church in which John Griggs was baptized, in which he married Rose, and in whose graveyard what dust is left of him somewhere remains. The church is called All Saints. There is a rectory across the road, and the rest of the village consists of three or four pretty cottages strung along a ridge top. It is sheep-farming country, soft and rolling, green and aglow as though burnished.
The church was locked and I had to fetch the key from the verger's cottage next door. The key was nearly a foot long and must have weighed at least a pound, and it fascinated the children. Tessa, aged thirteen, tried to shift it in the lock, but to no avail. I had no more success, until Carrie, my wife, suggested turning it in the opposite direction. She was right. The lock snapped open, and I returned the key to Tessa. Andrew, not quite two years old, was eager to get his hands on it, and Tessa held it over her head while Andrew danced around, circling her.
I went inside. The main part of the church was Norman, in the vicinity of eight or nine hundred years old, and like most English churches, it has a relatively austere interior, its medieval ornamentation stripped during the Reformation or removed during Victorian restorations. The wallswere white and largely bare, but the hexagonal stone font where John Griggs was baptized remained, as did the "squint" in the chancel wall through which the lepers and the sick were allowed to watch the mass at a safe distance from the rest of the parish.
I had hoped there might be some sign of John Griggs or his family inside the church, a monument or an inscription. We had already visited four other churches that day with no sign of kin apparent in any of them. At All Saints there was, of course, nothing: Most of the funereal monuments and stones would also have been removedalong with shrines, stations of the cross, holy water stoups, and the likeand in any case the Griggses were not a prominent enough family to warrant commemoration inside the church. Outside, among the headstones, there was no sign of them either. The oldest markers dated from the early 1600s, and those, weathered and cloaked in moss, were scarcely legible; and by that date my family, in any case, had moved on.
I felt I ought to know better, but I was disappointed that there was no palpable trace of my ancestors, no sign that might make my presence here into a homecoming. My connection to Somerton would be based on a few church and civic documents, on words alone and my belief in them. It was a bright, warm day and from the top of Somerton I could see the hills all around me where my family must have farmed and herded. The land was empty and verdant and brilliant, and I saw it in a still, perfect clarity, as though not through air but through water or a sheet of sparkling glass. I might say that the scene seemed timeless, but at the same time I felt expectant, as if awaiting something. Out there, on the hills, were the people I had come looking for: John and Rose and their parents and their children, and also perhaps myself, by some way down the years, their child too. I might have been waiting for them, for all of us, to return from hills, to come in from our labors; I might have been standing on shore, waiting for them to come back across the sea.
The church they were born into and to which I have returned says that we ought to pray for the dead, and that in turn we ought to ask them to pray for us. This is one of the doctrines whose rejection by the Protestant reformers led to the stripping of All Saints Church, and eventually, to the Griggses leaving Somerton and then England entirely. But here, now, such prayer seemed utterly true and utterly right; it seemed the only thing I could do here, the only thing that was not futile. So in Somerton churchyard, a little way from the porch and the doorway at which the priest would have married John and Rose, I prayed for them and for my whole family and for myself: that we might all have mercy.
I felt a little lostconfounded where I had expected to find something, and I did not know what else to do. The dead teach us, if nothing else, that we are incomplete. Our losses, our lacks, our privations are nowhere so manifest as in the bare and unalterable fact of the absence in our lives of the dead. It is a lack that perhaps necessarily points to our ultimate privation, to that longing that St. Augustine voiced to his God: "You have made us for yourself and our heart is ever unquiet until it rests in you."
When I had finished, Carrie and Tessa and Andrew were waiting for me. Tessa had given the key to Andrew at last, and Andrew, overcome by the heft of it, had dropped it. They were some way down the path from me, but I thought I heard Tessa say, "Pick it up, Andrew. Pick it up."
It is impossible to speak about the Christian religion in general or conversion in particular without reference to St. Augustine. At the time of his birth in A.D. 354, Christianity had been legally tolerated in the then-disintegrating Roman Empire for a mere forty years and contended for adherents in a sort of New Age bazaar of pagan and gnostic sects and cults. Augustine's mother, Monica, was herself a Christian and prayed that her son might also become one. But Augustine, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and gifted with a knack for philosophy and rhetoric, was drawn elsewhere. He took up with the Manicheans, who saw creation divided in a great bipolar conflict between good and evil, between the physical, fleshly world and that of the intellect and spirit. Later, he studied Neoplatonism, which held that the dualism that really mattered was not between good and evil but between being and nonbeing, the ideal and the real. By the time he was thirty and a professor of rhetoric in Milan, he had come under the influence of Ambrose, Milan's bishop and a compelling homilist and teacher of views not unsympathetic to Neoplatonism.
This brought Augustinenow a veteran of most of the pleasures the Roman Empire could afford in its decadent phase (as well as the father of a son by one of his several mistresses)to the verge of conversion, if only the verge. Among all his many writings, Augustine is perhaps best known for the plea, recorded in the Confessions: "Lord, make me good, but just not yet." The work from which the words come is less an account of his conversion than it is of the multiplicity of ways he for so long evaded or perhaps eluded conversion, even once it had become what he chiefly desired in his life. It is as if, wanting it, he was in no better position to effect itto make himself believe and live according to that beliefthan he had been when he did not want it at all.
When belief at last came, after every sort of agony and relapse imaginable, it came simply, slyly, like something small, forgotten, and unremarkable he had found lying at his feet. He is sitting in the garden of a friend's house. Children are playing next door and he can hear their voices, ebbing and rising in volume and pitch, over the garden wall. Then one of them, with perfect and terrible clarity, says, "Pick it up" as though to him alone. "Pick it up."
* * *
My own first conversion was different from Augustine's, and occurred when I was fairly young. My parents had divorced when I was two and my father died three years later, after being afflicted with polio. I hardly knew him, save as a paralyzed body lashed to a respirator. In the wake of my parents' divorce, my mother became estranged from my father's family, the Clarks, and so we were not close to them; in any case, my grandfather Clark was eighty-four years old when I was born, and therefore not well equipped to play much of a part in my raising. My grandfather Griggs thus found himself, somewhat unwillingly, in the role of proxy father. He was an extremely kind, generous, but ultimately reserved man, uncomfortable with too much noise or disturbance, as I am myself. I cannot say we were close, but what he gave methe family outings, visits to his house in the woods on the lake, the stories, the sentimental regard for the past and its inhabitantsis all I have, is everything I came from; the world he made for me without perhaps even knowing it.
My grandfather Griggs had been raised a Presbyterian, but became an Episcopalian when he married my grandmother, who came from Philadelphia and was born Martha Baker. We went to church with them occasionally, but my mother herself was a Unitarian, at least nominally, although I don't recall us attending the local Unitarian church with any frequency. My grandfather Clark had been a member there, although his wife and daughters were staunchly Calvinist Presbyterians. My father, I gathered, had been neither. So my first encounters with religion were occasional and diffuse, which is not to say I was without feelings on the subject. I was acquainted with the Christmas story (if not, in any detail, with the rest of Jesus' life) both explicitly from Unitarian and Episcopalian accounts of it, and implicitly from its centrality to our family's communal life, and it seemed to me the most moving and wonderful thing I had ever heard. I knew nothing of its place in what theologians call "the economy of salvation," nor would I have wanted to. The story was complete and perfect, redemptive in itself, by itself.
When I was eleven I was sent to an Episcopalian boarding school. In retrospect, it seems to me crazy and cruel to send a child away from home at such an early age, but it was not considered unusual at the time; indeed there were nine- and ten-year-olds among the boarders. In the previous year and a half, my grades had declined and I had become something of a "problem" at school, less malevolent than impetuous, but disruptive enough to attract notice. It was decided that a more "masculine influence" was what I lacked, and that a strictly run boys' school would supply it. My Clark grandparents, who were wealthy, agreed to pay the tuition. The fact that it was a church school had nothing to do with the decision, which was based more on Freud by way of Baden-Powell.
The school, located in southern Minnesota and called St. James, does not now seem to have much to recommend it. Most of the instruction was mediocre and the students were as undistinguished as the faculty. It was organized along military lines, with daily afternoon drills, corporal punishment (meted out with belts or slender oak sticks), ranks and rifle practice, stiff woolen uniforms, and parades overseen by thirteen- and fourteen-year-old "senior officers." But the fact was, I thrived. The schoolwork was undemanding and it was absolutely clear what was required to succeed: to do as one was told. It was easy to be good at St. James and I found I loved being good; here, I was "good" at being good.
The religious component of St. James was as desultory as the rest of its curriculum: Bible instruction of which I can recall absolutely nothing, plus weekly attendance at the local Episcopal church or the chapel of the affiliated school for older boys, Shattuck. But religion gave me yet another way to be good, and indeed an overriding context and justification for all my efforts in that direction. There was nothing calculated about it: I was moved and comforted by the stories, the liturgy, and the language of Thomas Cranmer's Tudor Book of Common Prayer. After my disillusionments of the past few years and the confusing arrival of sexual desire, I had found something that not only made me feel good, but that seemed to offer a way back to the awe, mystery, and wonder that I had lost. Within three months of my arrival at St. James, I announced I wanted to be baptized and formally to join the Episcopal church.
It's not clear what my family made of this. My mother had lost her faith in Christian dogma at college, but she retained a sentimental attachment to the church she was raised in; moreover, she saw that my own Episcopalianism would gain her the approval of her parents, approval that she had doubtless jeopardized through her own lapse from the church and her subsequent divorce. It would be, in short, an opportunity for her to be good as well as me.
I was baptized at my grandparents' church in St. Paul, St. John the Evangelist, on December 27, 1963, which was in fact St. John the Evangelist's feast day. Not that there was anything evangelical about the church of St. John the Evangelist. The Episcopal church, and Anglicanism as a whole, are customarily seen as divided into "high" and "low" church congregations, with the high church contingent being closer to Rome in its liturgy and doctrinal emphases and the low closer to mainstream Protestantism. St. John's was right in the middle. It was a beautiful church, full of carved wood and vibrantly tinted stained glass. The baptismal font stood near the front of the church, inside a gated enclosure a few steps from the pew my grandparents habitually occupied. The font itself consisted of a life-sized statue in what I suppose was alabaster of an angel who held a seashell in which the baptismal water was contained. I remember very little about the ceremony, except for the angel, who seemed an almost translucent white, and the smell of pine and spruce, with which the church was still decorated from the Christmas ceremonies two days earlier. My godparents were my grandfather Griggs and the St. James School chaplain, a smart and engaging young priest named Karl Bell. His example made me think for a while I might want to be a priest myself.
I still have the weekly letters I wrote home to my mother during this period, but they do not reveal what was going through my mind. There's no mention at all of my conversion or impending baptism. The only references to religion are oblique, a mention of having attended church and a request that my mother send me a copy of a Life magazine book called The World's Great Religions. The highlight of my week was the school's Saturday night outing to the movies downtown, usually a showing of something from the beach party genre of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon or a romantic comedy starring Doris Day opposite Rock Hudson or James Garner. Thus, a month before my baptism, I wrote, "On Saturday we saw a movie called 'The Thrill of It All.' On Sunday I went to church. Both the sermon and the lesson were about 'the burning fiery furnace.'"
During the next two years, during seventh and eighth grade, I took my religion seriously. A month after my baptism I report that, after coming home from the Saturday night movie, "I talked about Saints with Mr. Bell."
Today we went to church. It was Holy Communion and lots of boys got in trouble for goofing off in church. We came back from church and then we ate, had rest hour, and went to dancing class. I think I now have a girlfriend.
My life was certainly full. I don't recall anything about the "girlfriend," doubtless one of the girls from town freighted in for us to study the foxtrot with every Sunday afternoon. I suppose nothing came of it. Perhaps she thought I was a prig: What sort of boy, after all, comes home from That Touch of Mink to suck up to the school chaplain, and reproves the other boys' behavior in church in letters to his mother?
The following year, 1965, I was confirmed, served as an acolyte, and won a Bible essay contest on the topic "My Favorite Bible Character." I still have a copy of my entry, on Dismas, the good thief who was crucified along with Jesus. The style has more in common with the "muscular Christianity" team-spirit idealism of Boy's Life magazine and the Hardy Boys than with, say, St. John of the Cross:
When I found out this was the topic of the Bible Essay, I realized I had never stopped to think who my favorite bible character was. After thinking over the matter, however, I decided he should be a worthwhile character and someone who had meaning for me and for otherssomeone who had a message to get across for the world's benefit.
After recounting the story of the good thief I got to the point:
Now let's compare ourselves with Dismas. We don't run off with our neighbor's property but yet we are thieves in a way. We steal our fellow man's time, his friendship, his love, and his respect. We are pickpockets of anything that our neighbor has that might benefit us and if we don't like his reaction we "bump him off" with a few words of hate.
I had a poster of John Dillinger in my room at home, which perhaps had some effect on my train of thought:
I have now pointed out that most of us are really criminals as far as living righteously is concerned.... Dismas's message is one of the ever-living love of God for man. When we are hanging on our "crosses" in times of sorrow God is always willing to remember us. That good thief who was crucified many years ago has a message for us to cherish and live by forever.
I'm conscious now of some calculation in my rhetoric; of an effort to dazzle and persuade in the pep-talk style and the "unexpected" choice of subject. Scarcely knowing it, I pursued religion with the same ambition I brought to the pursuit of rewards and acclaim elsewhere at St. James: I wanted to carry off all the prizes.
After a time I began to feel as though I had exhausted the possibilities of the Episcopal church and wondered if there might be something more elsewhere. For Anglicans of the high and middle persuasion, that elsewhere is perennially Roman Catholicism, which in many ways resembles Anglicanism as much as or more than any of the Protestant denominations. Moreover, it is the mother church, the church thatsave for Henry VIII's divorceAnglicans might still be part of, and thus its attractions rest not only on authority and antiquity but on deep, almost familial emotions.
I experienced that pull, but I still had the prejudices of a Midwestern WASP and the ignorance of a twelve-year-old. So, while Catholicism was at once ethereal and profound in its ancient mysteries, it was also arcane, dark, and somewhat spooky. My friends and I all knew Catholicssometimes as close friendsand their religion often seemed as weird and hermetic to them as it did to us. We knew from them that they had strange dietary customs, that they had to go tell their secrets to a priest in a darkened box, that their teachers at school were nuns who scowled and pinched and lived locked up in hospital-like buildings together. And if that much was acknowledged fact, imagine what we did not know: There were rumors about strange, presumably surgical procedures nuns underwent when they took their vows, and it was said that Catholic girls were sexually insatiable and that Catholic boys had outsized sex organs; at any rate, we'd seen that some of them weren't circumcised. Altogether, with its incense and holy water and holy oil and fish eating, its boisterous Irish and Italian congregations, the Catholic church was, for all its lofty mystery, palpably sensual, swarthy, even carnal.
Despite those misgivings, during vacations I paid a number of visits to our nearest Catholic church at home, the Cathedral of St. Paul. Funded by James J. Hill's railroad fortune, it is a huge and impressive church for a city the size of St. Paul, perched on a hilltop above downtown with a Vatican-sized dome that renders the State Capitol a bit puny. I went in several times just before Easter in 1965, with the statues and shrines shrouded in purple, but never stayed more than a few minutes; I felt a little like a burglar who might be noticed, caught, subjected to some exotic Roman rite of forced conversion or penance. It seemed safer to do my research at the library. I checked out a book called This Is the Mass, by Fulton J. Sheen, the celebrity television bishop of 1950s television. The book consisted of a text, describing each part of the Catholic mass, illustrated by a color photo of Sheen enacting it in his private chapel, assisted by a fresh-faced altar boy who might have been me. I pored over it and renewed it from the library countless times.
I served as a real altar boy in the low-church communions in the school chapel and sometimes at home at St. John the Evangelist. And in the eighth grade, when I was thirteen, I did at least one decent thing with respect to religionor rather, almost in opposition to it. Although St. James was officially an Episcopal school, only a minority of the boys were Episcopalian, the bulk being variously Protestant of other denominations or Roman Catholic. Probably a tenth were Jewish. One Sunday before church, it was announced that hereafter all boys, regardless of their faith, who did not kneel during the prescribed parts of the service would be punished. Moreover, such kneeling was to be in an upright posture, with no slouching of butts against the pew.
I thought this was an outrageous demand, especially for the Jewish boys, although I'm not sure anyone besides me much cared; most objected to kneeling not on religious principle but on grounds of the interminable, paralysis-inducing sections of the liturgy that required it. But it was 1966, and I had among other things been inbued with the protest politics of the times. After church that day, I drew up a petition objecting to this abridgment of religious freedom. I got about ten other boys to sign it, mostly, I think, as a kind of larkas a piece of playacting of the civil rights dramas going on around us in the larger adult world. By Sunday afternoon, the petition had been seized by one of the teachers, and by Monday morning it was clear I was in very big trouble.
It never occurred to me that the school authorities would have any objection to my petition: It was just a piece of paper proposing a reasonable accommodation of religious difference. The gravest crime at St. James was probably smoking cigarettes, which could get you expelled, or leaving campus without permission, offenses that I quaked even to think about. My petition was, by contrast, not much different from the mild, pep-fraught editorials I wrote in the school newspaper. I was stunned, then, to hear the headmaster announce that all the signers of the petition were to be punished. As for me, the "instigator" I would be stripped of all privileges and military rank, confined to the dormitory, and given a good beating.
I would like to say that there was something heroic and self-sacrificing in this episode, that I added Boy Martyr to the other laurels I wore, but the truth was, I had no idea that I had risked anything until after the fact. I took my punishment in the humble spirit that the school administration required of me, but I also believed I was right. That moment constituted one of my first experiences of belief in a principle, in holding to a conviction, which is not so very different from faith; and it was purer or at least clearer and more absolute than anything I had felt about my religion. I had momentarily found in politicswhose simpler polarities were much more graspable than theology's and whose victories seemed easier to attainanother sphere in which to be good; to be good by being, in conventional terms, "bad" by being rebellious in a good cause.
In this, at the age of fourteen, I had stumbled across morality, which is not the same thing as religion, but often seems to be. For if we are saved, by what reason are we saved? By something in ourselvesgood conduct, faith, or destinyor in Godhis goodness, justice, or whimor perhaps both. It seems intuitive that morality and justice have something to do with it. My conversion did not survive my encounter with these questions. Augustine's, of course, did, and although he found agonizing difficulties in them, he did not shy away from trying to grapple with them.