The National Catholic Review
Ron Hansen

In the introduction to this fascinating and frankly confessional memoir, Paul Wilkes notes: “Recollecting and reassembling the various shards, scraps, and fragments of my life, I find that some of the most horrific moments were gateways to grace. Some of the potentially holiest were mere tin idols. I have changed dramatically, and I have remained the same person I was from childhood.”

That childhood was spent in Cleveland, Ohio, where Wilkes was born in 1938 and attended the Slovak parish school of St. Benedict’s and then Cathedral Latin School, where he initially aspired to the heroism of becoming a Maryknoll priest but was distracted by “the sweet sinfulness” of sex. Continually getting into trouble in high school, Wilkes was changed for a while when a Marianist brother gave him The Seven Storey Mountain:

There was something in the writings of Thomas Merton I had never encountered before.... There were no sanctimonious paeans to God, no once-and-for-all, life-altering conversion experiences. Merton continually confessed his sinfulness, his conflicts, his desire to be and do good, and his ultimate failure in both.... And what was even more appealing was the way he spoke about his relationship with God. It was an uneven and unpredictable love affair, but both sides were committed to its ups and downs.

Thomas Merton would continue to be an extraordinary influence in Paul Wilkes’s own ups and downs. And they were many. In 1956, having just been accepted to Marquette University, Wilkes was driving his mother to a liver specialist in Akron when the car skidded off the highway and she was killed. And so he became an angry young man in college, scrounging money with factory work at night, just getting by in his classes, and finding relief with cheap booze in Red Arrow Park. Somehow managing to graduate, he joined the Navy, served as a communications officer during the Cuban missile crisis, fell in love with a Methodist missionary he met in Karachi, and became a teetotaler and Protestant when J.C. (the only way he identifies his wife) and he married.

A reporter’s job with a Colorado newspaper led to a surprising acceptance to the famous graduate school of journalism at Columbia University. Crossing the George Washington Bridge, Wilkes halted his Corvair and U-Haul trailer in morning traffic in order to scream to the Manhattan skyline, “New York: you’re going to know about me!”

Soon New York did. Hired as a freelance writer for a variety of slick magazines, “I was in the locker room with basketball stars; on the set with television celebrities; in a restaurant watching the mother of women’s liberation, Betty Friedan, attack a mound of steak tartare and tell me about the perils of male domination; at La Grenouille hearing the chef swoon to Women’s Wear Daily’s John Fairchild about the green beans just flown in from France. It all seemed to be going so well.” His Brooklyn brownstone was featured in House and Garden, but his marriage, which seemed so right at first, was going wrong. Reawakening to his Catholic faith and co-founding the Bronx storefront community Christian Help in Park Slope only widened the rift between husband and wife, and soon he was separating from J.C., choosing voluntary poverty and making pilgrimages to monasteries in order to try out the ora et labora of Benedictines and Trappists.

But then his first book, Trying Out the Dream: A Year in the Life of an American Family, became a major television series for which he would be the producer and on-air host. Wilkes took up drinking again and ditched his former life for the fashionable Hamptons where he was “handsome, popular, and, despite my own insecurities, quite the lady’s man.” This was America in the 1970s, and “The new god had arrived. It was me.” Eventually, he felt the chiding of Merton’s example and fled the high life for a hermitage near St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Mass. “Once a New York bon vivant, the life of the party who rubbed elbows with Capote and Vonnegut and Warhol, I was now a rural solitary, living in a simple, wood-shingled house set on a knoll that overlooked my freshly tilled garden and beyond.” But after months of frustration and desolation, Wilkes discerned that the monk whose writing had excited his spiritual yearnings was leading him not to the Trappists but to a second marriage.

With his wife, Tracy, Wilkes started a family he thought he didn’t want and found renewed success as a journalist with his wonderful New Yorker profile of The Rev. Joseph Greer, which was published in book form as In Mysterious Ways: The Death and Life of a Parish Priest. “A different kind of spiritual and religious life was slowly taking shape, intermingled with a writing life I could have only dreamed about. The constraints of a family, blessed stability, and a sense of purpose conspired to focus me as never before in my life. I was discovering a new voice as a writer, a clarity about what to write about, and a way to write about it.” That “it” was “the sights, the sounds, the smells of Catholicism,” which “captured my imagination and pierced my heart far more deeply than the Church’s dogmas, doctrines, laws, and prohibitions. It is the difference between wanting to believe in something I found attractive rather than having to believe in something I was told I must.”

Shifting his home to Wilmington, N. C., Wilkes found Mepkin Abbey to the south and began visiting the Trappist monastery for part of a week each month in order to “write about what I experienced and how it worked—or didn’t—in my life.” The “aspiring monk and aspiring writer at last were introduced to each other.”

The inspiring book on his retreats with the Trappists, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life, was succeeded by The Good Enough Catholic: A Guide for the Perplexed and by Lilly Endowment studies of Catholic parishes and Protestant congregations. All told, Wilkes has published hundreds of articles and some 20 books. And this compelling memoir is possibly his best, for in his fierce honesty about his failings, his strivings, his ups and downs, and his discovery of the holiness in the ordinary, Paul Wilkes has described our own lives, too, and offered both absolution and hope.

Ron Hansen’s novel Exiles, about Gerard Manley Hopkins and “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” is now in paperback. He teaches at Santa Clara University, Calif.