A Winding Path

My Grandfather's Houseby By Robert ClarkPicador. 290p $24

Robert Clark’s parents divorced when he was two, and his father died of polio three years later, so he found himself in the care of his grandfather Griggs, who owned a house in a forest of jack pine and spruce in northern Wisconsin; and that house is, for him, the location of his childhood.

The earth was terra incognita but benign; barring ill weather, a little more of it could become home each day. We cached pennies and dolls and whistles in the bases of trees, and the forest gave us gifts in return....

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It was in that Eden that Clark first became aware of his own unquenchable desires and inadequacies, and in the wake of his loss of innocence the boy underwent his first conversion, at the age of 12, to the Episcopal Church, which he saw as a way back to the awe, mystery, and wonder that I had lost. But then in the 60’s and 70’s he drifted away from organized religion as he discovered psychology, neo-Transcendentalism and the cafeteria selections of many spiritual seekers of that time.

In his late 30’s Clark lost his job, his marriage and his financial assets, but in his 40’s the malaise of his divorce was over, he’d regained the trust of his daughter, and his booksThe Solace of Food, a biography of James Beard, and River of the West, a cultural history of the Columbia Riverwere critically acclaimed. And, most crucially, I was sharing my life with a woman whose beauty, goodness, and love for me I could only marvel at. Caroline, he writes of his wife, finally brought me out of myself, putting a you’ before me to which I had to give assent.

Enabled and freed by her love, Clark could finally give his assent to faith in a religious conversion that occurred in a beach chair as he was writing In the Deep Midwinter, his first novel. It was his habit then to use as mood music 16th-century chant, and he played over and over again the Latin hymns Mater Christi Sanctissima and the Magnificat.

At some point during those weeks, there was an utterance in my headneither a thought nor a voicewhose source was outside myself, and it said that, really, I was going to have to go ahead and believe, wasn’t I? Although it was not in any sense a voice, never mind a vision, it seemed to have a tone of affectionate chiding about it, like a parent wearily but amusedly saying, Come off it nowenough, knowing in advance that I had no choice but to agree. And it was true: the sense of this utterance hung in the air before me all through those weeks, but even the very first time I knew what my answer was going to be. So that was my conversion and my assent: All right, I give up, you’re right, I’ll surrender.

Certain that this utterance, this verbal shadow was from Mary, who, he has come to believe, has a special affinity for overregulated, hyperintellectualized New England hard cases, Clark felt called to become a Roman Catholic and he joined adult initiation classes at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral. And those classes seem to have inspired him to meditate on the religious legacy that he inherited from his forebears.

Benjamin G. Griggs, his grandfather and childhood guardian, was an amateur genealogist whose investigations made it possible for Clark to trace his family tree back five centuries. And what a family it is, for numbered among his clan are the second president of the United States, John Adams, as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Winslow Homer. Even Clark’s grandfather, an insurance salesman, was of note for being a childhood friend of Scott Fitzgerald.

The greater part of My Grandfather’s House is Clark’s sympathetic consideration of the journey of faith and doubt in that genealogy, a history that features a privy councillor to King Henry VIII, a Calvinist Puritan doctor in Salem Village who testified at a witch trial, the feminist educator and critic Margaret Fuller and other writers, artists and churchmen whose creeds ranged from evangelical Protestantism to pessimistic atheism. With Robert Clark that religious legacy comes full circle: from orthodox, medieval Catholicism through the Anglican Church of Thomas Cranmer to later generations of Colonial Puritans, Unitarians, Transcendentalists, agnostics and atheists, until Clark and his children were received into the Catholic Church at Easter in 1997.

Elegantly written and historically informative, My Grandfather’s House is a fascinating, passionate and inspiring spiritual autobiography. It is superb in depicting a self-consciousness that is both an affliction and the greatest gift of all. Religion is the hard and lifelong labor of using it well. Doubt does not negate faith, but affirms its difficulty, its arduousness, the toll of ache and fatigue it takes on the heart and the mind. Faith is not much different from work or love, from which life also grants us no rest.

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