The Book that Changed My Life

[This is the fifteenth installment of my memoir, The Long Walk HomeClick here for a complete table of contents.]

My father planned and pulled off a famous 75th-birthday party for himself, complete with a DJ and a roomful of old-fogey friends. Since Dad figured his buddies wouldn’t get up and dance the way he saw himself doing, he went to the local health club and asked the receptionist if she would wiggle at his party. That was his term, wiggle. My choirboy father assured the woman that he wasn’t asking anything inappropriate. He wanted a cocktail dress, high-heel shoes, and just enough movement to get the old farts off their asses (my words, not his, Dad was too much the gentleman).

The formula was brilliant. The woman brought a friend in a matching dress, and the wigglers anchored a chorus line that included my four sisters, my wife, and my two teenage daughters. While the DJ boomed out tunes from the Big Band era and Broadway favorites, the line shimmied demurely. Dad knew how to throw himself a party.

Gulliver used to boast of his parties, claiming that you could judge the health of an organization by the parties it threw. He three five or six parties a year—Christmas, Easter, his birthday, and the birthdays of his favorites—all of the parties having the same core characteristic. That is, Gulliver always sat at the center of things, demanding attention to his person when it wasn’t proffered.

By the time he turned 75, however, Gulliver was pretty much out of the party business. He had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and suffered a major stroke. Toothless, angrier than ever, visibly unhappy about almost everything, he was just no fun to be around. As a consequence, most of his followers had left camp. Gulliver got around alone in a motorized wheelchair. Having no one left to push around, Gulliver was left without anyone to push him around.

It is one of the unaccountable mysteries of my soul, for which I take absolutely no credit, that even after Gulliver’s horrible abuse [chronicled here and here], I could not leave him behind entirely. It was not that I had forgiven his abuse; as I’ve tried to explain, I had forgotten it. In place of proper memory I had only a vague but persistent sense that “I would not be who I was if not for Gulliver.” Those who knew me best, such as my wife, might have said that therefore it were better I had never met him. Because unfortunately I sometimes modeled Gulliver’s abusive verbal behavior; and the ways I ran my businesses occasionally reflected his unorthodox, manipulative methods. No one knew these character defects better than my wife.

Still, I had received good things from Gulliver too, including killer work habits and a persistent interest in Catholic culture. Ten years removed from the Gurdjieff system of ideas, I had dallied with daily mass but still made no commitment. With that as backdrop, I went to a bookstore the week before Gulliver’s 75th birthday, looking for a gift to send him at his home in upstate New York. I gathered from friends who still saw him that Gulliver seldom read any more; the stroke had attenuated the razor-sharp attention with which he once had lasered listeners. Still, maybe a book would say something.

On an evening in October 2007, then, when my wife was out for a tennis evening with girlfriends, I popped into Borders looking for a 75th-birthday gift for Gulliver. I wandered over to the bargain table near the entrance and saw a cover that seemed to shout at me like a carnival barker. Then I thought, rationalizing my sudden interest, Gulliver might like that. What I was really thinking was, I might. The title was My Life with the Saints. The author was James Martin, a Jesuit.

I knew what a Jesuit was because Gulliver had explained it to me in Paris 36 years before, either just before or just after he had seduced me. I had bought the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in French and read the Jesuit training manual by an open-air swimming pool. Motivated in part by that small IOU still stuffed in my wallet, I picked up the book off the table. I flipped it open and ran headlong into an old friend. Martin’s book tells the stories of the saints who inspired him on his road to and through the Society of Jesus. The first of these saints—the opening chapter of the book I now held in my hands—was Joan of Arc. Martin had me at Orléans.

It was a Friday evening. I took the two books home and wrapped Gulliver’s copy to send out for his Tuesday birthday. By Sunday evening, I had read my own copy to the end. The following morning, about ten years after my last tryout, I attended weekday mass. I noticed a very old man in the first pew who had arrived before me and was already kneeling. At five minutes to the hour, stooped but steady, he was still kneeling. This impressed me as Ammie’s faith had done. I did not receive communion, but I continued attending daily mass every morning, sitting in the same pew.

That week I called the church rectory to ask what you had to do to become a Catholic. I was told that RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, a/k/a boot camp for converts) was beginning the following Sunday morning. I signed up, arrived hopefully for my first class, and soon met the elderly woman who became my sponsor.

In fact, I knew very little about the Catholic Church when I began attending daily mass and signed up for RCIA. I did not know the first thing about the Catechism, and I mistook my iconography. I thought that the statue at the front of the church opposite Mary was Peter, not Joseph. If I had not been so foggy about saints and their symbols, I might have looked for keys in Peter’s hands and seen a flowering staff instead. I did not know the Hail Mary by heart, though I had recited it in multiple languages with twenty thousand pilgrims on a candlelit night at Lourdes in 1972. I did not know how to say the Rosary or even how many beads it had or why, only that I wanted to learn to say it. Thankfully, the pastor advised from the pulpit within a few days of my arrival that one could learn the Rosary on line. It was not the only time during those early months when I thought the priest was addressing me alone.

Plain and simple, I had fallen in love. One doesn’t ask every reasonable question the moment one falls in love. One simply follows the beloved. So I began following the Catholic Church.

To put the matter more rationally, I didn’t know why I was going to mass but I understood. This was a critical distinction in the Gurdjieff teaching that I had never appreciated so much as now—between knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is the inventory of one’s brain, the facts and proofs piled up in the storehouse of memory, stuff that lets you win arguments at cocktail parties or boarding school. Understanding is something else again. Understanding is something like the arithmetic mean between a man’s knowledge and his being, a third Gurdjieffian term. Understanding is the alchemical combination of what you know and what your sum total of life experience would boil down to over a hot fire. Knowledge might get you through college, but understanding alone—according to Gurdjieff—can write your ticket to the kingdom of heaven.

Now I understood that in thirty-five years of trying to observe and remember myself—applying the Gurdjieff Work to the best of my ability—I had seen precious little. Occasionally while sitting in a group led by Gulliver or by my second teacher of Gurdjieff in Massachusetts, I had sensed a certain surprising stability creep over me, a feeling of warm pleasure in my chest, a refreshing flow of energy. Exercises in attention often calmed me, preparing me for whatever came next, but they offered few lasting insights about me or anything outside myself. Borrowing from Gertude Stein's comment on Oakland, California, my own native place, I found studying the Gurdjieff teaching that there was no out there there. It was all in here. Maybe I was more obtuse than average while my mates in the Work made self-discoveries by the bushel. As for me, when I looked in here, I saw little but darkness.

Now at daily mass I entered a universe of beauty and meaning bathed in light. Two thousand years of Catholic culture came to life for me. I was part of it, of them—a centuries-long procession of saintly and not-so-saintly men and women all following Christ in his Church. Sunlight funneled through stained glass onto statuary and Stations of the Cross and a white marble altar surmounted by a crucifix. I listened intently to a liturgy that was close enough to the Episcopalian of my youth to evoke nostalgia. Admittedly, the residues of my efforts in the Gurdjieff Work helped here. They concentrated me more in prayer. I made efforts, I did my best to be present before God in his holy temple.

What really sold me on the deal, however, was the saints, the subject of James Martin’s book. The saints were my Catholic closers. Francis of Assisi, Thomas More, and Joan of Arc—my three musketeers—took me by the hand and led me into church. There they introduced me to hundreds of other remarkable men and women spoken of in year-round readings and prayers and homilies.

Then I tried explaining my decision to my parents. When I had finished with the words I had mapped out in advance, the way Dad had presented his birds-and-bees lecture fifty years before, my father looked at me across the white linen tablecloth and said, “My mother would roll over in her grave.” After a few minutes of back-and-forth, Dad’s deeper feelings surfaced. “There are a couple of things in my life that I’ve done,” he said, “that I am deeply, deeply ashamed of. I haven’t even told your mother about them.” I am quite sure my father repeated the word deeply. My mother, looking on, parted her lips but said nothing.

Then my father said, “Maybe I’ll tell your mother what they are on my deathbed.” He didn’t have to explain. It was clear to me that my father associated the Catholic Church, my Church-to-be, with confession. Like other people I have talked with about the faith since that night, Dad had some things he wanted to get off his chest. I don’t know whether he ever did so.

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved. 

To read the following excerpt, “With Gulliver at Mass,” click here.

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