Gracious Sensibility, Ruthless Self-Examination

January-February 1987By Thomas W. Case

Thomas W. Case is a Ph.D. student in Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Fleeing the Whore of Babylon: A Modern Conversion Story.  By James J. Thompson Jr.. Christian Classics. 159 pages. $9.95.



James J. Thompson Jr. writes in a style reminiscent of no one so much as Willa Cather. This is high praise. There are differences - Thompson has a more extensive vocabulary (which he uses to advantage) and his prose remains a little more distant from his material than does Cather's. He has not quite the closeness to persons or the spareness that makes Cather's work superlative - not yet. But the elegance of manner, the gentleness, the kindness toward human beings and their own art - these things the two authors share. Thompson's prose is a pleasure to read. It is divested of the - what shall I call it? - the Yankee pose of mean emotions and minor cruelties. And (here I am speaking of the book under review) it is desperately honest. It is almost too honest. Sometimes, reading some ruthlessly revealing passages, I wanted to say, "Shut up, Jim, please shut up; you'll only get yourself into deeper trouble."

But it is just this combination of gracious sensibility and ruthless self-examination that makes Fleeing the Whore of Babylon a classic of the genre.

Or perhaps I should say the book is sui generis. How many conversion stories have you read that spend the whole second half of the book telling you what happened after the conversion? The commonly portrayed rite of passage is one of pain and suffering predicated on a life of knowing or unknowing selfishness, and then, on conversion to the Church, immediate sanctity or the constant happy hope thereof, sweetness and light, a resting place, a finality, and the remainder of one's earthly life spent perched on the porch of Heaven singing the praises of God. That is flashy advertising, but it won't wash. It is about as convincing as those romances that end "and so they got married and lived happily ever after."

Shortly after my own conversion to the Catholic Church, things began to go wrong in my life in a new way: Let us say the grace received was immediately assaulted by a lot of testing just in those areas of human conduct I thought I had left behind. A fellow convert told me that this is a common experience of the newly converted. Besides certain humiliations - you keep getting knocked off whatever new horse you are riding - the testing experience gives you an added conviction that there really is a spiritual war going on. And in this age perhaps it is a particularly tough war because it is mostly a guerrilla war with the enemy hidden in the bushes. When I met Thompson last winter, I said what we need is a conversion story that talks about how you join the Church seeking a kind of haven and then all hell breaks loose.

But he had anticipated me. The bare bones of his story are these: a Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing, a failed marriage (here is some of the grittiest writing in the book), a divorce, a summer of despair, and then an entry into the Church of Rome: the Church that knows the squalid depths of human nature and (like its Founder) is here to understand, to forgive, and to heal.

And then, quite soon, a disappointment and a falling away. The disappointment was partially due to the fact that Thompson ran into the same Church I ran into: not the Church of G.K. Chesterton and Graham Greene, of the Little Flower and St. John of the Cross, of devotion to the Mother and the Son of God, but the "New Church" that seems for all the world like an awkward child trying to imitate the antics of adults whose names are Mr. and Mrs. Consumer and Aunt and Uncle Therapy. Or as Thompson says in regard to Confession: "I wanted to be absolved plainly and simply without all that psychological counseling that owed more to Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow than to St. Paul and Thomas Aquinas."

So he fell away. And married again. But the Hound of Heaven sought him out and dragged him back to the Church. With, one might say, an encumbrance. One might say that the timing and sequence of these events were just such as to make Thompson run head-long into the deep bowels of Church polity where the Grinch who stole Christmas holds court.

A great many people, even doctrinaire Catholics, feel that Church marriage laws should be altered. Not thrown out in a further celebration of solipsistic living, but modified in the direction of mercy - as perhaps with the Eastern Orthodox Church. Anyhow, let us take a look at Thompson's situation. According to the Church, he is living as an adulterer and must "put away" his second wife (I wonder if the State of Tennessee, where he lives, would accept such grounds for divorce). Or he must live with his second wife "as brother and sister" (as Thompson says, the notion is "preposterous").

In his present "adulterous relationship," he cannot receive the Eucharist because he has not been absolved. He cannot go to Confession to be absolved because he cannot honestly "make an intention" to live chastely with his wife. Nor is he about to slide around the "intention" with a mental reservation so as to receive an ersatz absolution. He would no sooner bastardize the Sacrament of Penance than spit on the Body of Christ.

He will not pursue an annulment. Why not? Consider what an annulment means. It means that the first marriage was not a real marriage that failed, but a marriage that never really happened. No matter if that putative marriage lasted one year or 10, the two parties were (albeit unknowingly) living in an illegitimate union. Consider what violence this imputation does to the memory of love (assuming there was love in the union) and to the integrity of persons. It is as if a man or woman were to declare his or her own past life a chimera.

Is it a delicately honed and perhaps artificial sense of Southern honor that makes Thompson refuse the messy outlet of the annulment process? Is it too precious a stand? Is it pride and defiance of the Church of God? Maybe. But given the considerations above, and given that the annulment procedure hurts again human beings who have been hurt grievously before, I think Thompson has a point. But let him speak for himself: "I still love (I hesitate to use that word for fear I will be misunderstood) my first wife, though I have not seen or talked with her for over ten years. The love I have for her is not that which led me to marry her…. Rather, it is akin to what one experiences in recalling a beloved friend or relative who has died, leaving the living with grief that gradually transmutes into cherished memories of times past…. Sometimes in my waking hours she slips into my consciousness and prompts memories of good and happy times, memories that stretch back to our teenage years when we were still children and exhilarated by a seemingly innocent love. I recall her infectious laughter, the fierce flash of her eyes when I angered her, the tears she wept at the death of an old and much-loved cocker spaniel…. In divorce, I repudiated her, signed papers that declared our marriage a failure. To obtain an annulment would be to repudiate her again, to say that not only did our marriage fail, but that it never existed. That, I cannot bring myself to do."

Nevertheless, in friendship (I must be this man's friend through his writing alone, even if I had never met him) I must implore him to seek an annulment. If you are a responsible man, you must be responsible to your present situation: in this case, to your present wife. This is where your arena of effective action is, and this where you must tidy things up. You must place the seal of Christ on your present relationship.

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Sidebar:

"Romano Guardini said the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from his Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church." - Dorothy Day



DOSSIER: Marriage



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