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A Spiritual Journey

Written by Eric LaxAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Eric Lax

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List Price: $12.99

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On Sale: April 06, 2010
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59315-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Faith, Interrupted is a profoundly personal, deeply felt exploration of the mystery of faith—having it, losing it, hoping for its return.

The son of an Episcopal priest, Eric Lax develops in his youth a deep religious attachment and an acute moral compass—one that he is willing to go to prison for when it leads him to resist military service in Vietnam. His faith abides until, in his mid-thirties, he begins to question the unquestionable: the role of God in his life. In response, Lax engages with the father who inspired him and with his best friend, a Vietnam War hero turned priest. Their ongoing and illuminating dialogues, full of wisdom and insight, reveal much about three men who approach God, duty, and war in vastly different ways. Lax provides an unusual and refreshing perspective, examining religious conviction sympathetically from both sides as one who has lost his faith but still respects it.

Excerpt

One

An Episcopal priest is celebrating Holy Communion for seventeen congregants settled in the dark-stained oak pews in a small wood-and- stucco church in a tiny Southern California town in 1953. The prayer he is reading is for the whole state of Christ’s Church. It begins, “Almighty and everliving God, who by thy holy Apostle has taught us to make prayers, and supplications, and to give thanks for all men. . . .” He is about ten minutes into a service that began at 7:30 a.m. and will be over by 8:00. This is the quietest and sparest of the three weekly Sunday services: no hymns, no music, no sermon. There are only the lyrical words written in 1545 for the reformed Church of England by the poetic and Machiavellian theologian Thomas Cranmer. This is the same Thomas Cranmer who in 1529 wrote the thesis supporting King Henry VIII’s claim that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid; who for his efforts was made archbishop of Canterbury; who aided Henry in invalidating his second, fourth, and fifth marriages; and the same Thomas Cranmer who, when Protestantism was not kindly looked upon following Britain’s return to Catholicism with the coronation of Henry’s daughter Mary I in 1553, was burned at the stake as a heretic. (He received the courtesy given to those of a certain rank of being garroted just before the fire was lighted, but in the event, all breath was not wrung out of him, and thus he suffered every agony of both the wire and the flame.)

Neither Cranmer’s beautiful language nor his grisly death is on the mind of the eight-year-old acolyte kneeling on the altar step in his red cassock and white cotta (rather like a large linen T-shirt worn over the cassock), a silver cross on a red ribbon around his neck that he received after his first year as an acolyte; there is a silver bar engraved 1953 between the cross and the ribbon, to commemorate an additional year of service. Every Sunday the boy is there to assist the priest at this service, and every Sunday for three or four weeks now he has mysteriously become vertiginous at this very point. As the prayer continues, he will wobble to his feet, his face pasty white and clammy, slip out of the church through the tiny sacristy appended to the priest’s office, and double over the four-by-four wooden railing on the small cement porch just in time to vomit onto the rosebush below it. In a few moments his stomach will settle, the color will return to his cheeks, and by the time the prayer ends he will be back on his knees, ready to join the congregation in reciting the General Confession: “Almighty God, father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness. . . .” (His parents, who are at the service and who believe, though not to extremes, that one should follow the ancient tradition of fasting after midnight before Communion so that the sacred food at the Lord’s supper is not touched by worldly fare, soon find that soda crackers and a glass of orange juice before leaving home prevent further attacks.)

The boy quickly refocuses on his duties. He has already moved the red leather-bound missal that contains the order of the service from the right-hand, or Epistle, side of the altar following the reading of the Epistle (a selection from one of St. Paul’s letters, or from the Acts of the Apostles or Revelations) to the left, or Gospel, side for the reading of the Gospel (the congregation stands for the Gospel as an acknowledgment of the time in the early Church when there were no pews); brought the priest the ciborium, the sterling silver box of inch-round Communion wafers to place on the paten, a silver plate on which there is a three-inch-round Host, which the priest will raise above his head and break during the Prayer of Consecration in recognition of Christ’s broken body on the cross; and, after a quick count of the parishioners in the dozen pews, quietly whispered, “Seventeen.” When blessed during the service, the wafers become symbolic of Christ’s body, meant to be dissolved on the tongue, rather than chewed. He also has held out the cruets of water and wine for the priest to measure out into the chalice, and poured water over the priest’s fingertips and into the silver lavabo bowl so that any crumbs of the Sacrament are caught.

As he does every Saturday night before going to sleep, last night the boy knelt beside his bed and read the same two of the 250 pages in The Practice of Religion, the three-by-five-inch book given him at his confirmation by his parents and signed by the bishop. He is expected to say in his mind the eight short Acts of Faith, Love and Repentance and the Anima Christi: An Act of Devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament (“Soul of Christ, sanctify me / Body of Christ, save me / Blood of Christ, refresh me. . . .”) goes on for half a page, which he does unhesitatingly and without thought as to why, as an accepted part of his evening to prepare him for Communion.

He is not thinking of those prayers now. The holiest time of the service approaches, the Prayer of Consecration: “For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took Bread; and when he had given thanks he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you. . . .” To honor the moment, the boy folds his body down in obeisance to God, so that his buttocks are on his heels and his head rests on his hands on the altar step. He has had trouble concentrating on the words of late, his thoughts running to baseball and other distractions. He wonders if somehow the Devil is testing him, and he tells himself to concentrate harder this time, not to miss this sacred moment, but these very thoughts become a new distraction, and when he hears “Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father,” the start of the second part of the prayer, he realizes with annoyance and disappointment that time has jumped and once again his mind has wandered.

The remainder of the service passes quickly: The Lord’s Prayer, followed by the Prayer of Humble Access: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. . . .” The priest gives Communion to the boy, who then places a narrow cushion on the floor in the gap in the communion rail that he and the priest entered through and that divides the sanctuary (the area around the altar, where the priest conducts the service) from the chair stalls and the nave (where the congregation sits), and then pulls the sliding rail shut; the cushions that run along the rail provide comfortable kneeling for the communicants, as many as seven at a time. The boy kneels to the side of the altar so that he does not trip the priest as he administers Communion to the seventeen faithful. The priest then consumes the few wafers and little wine that remain so that they are not defiled by being thrown away, and the boy splashes water from the cruet onto the paten and into the chalice to gather up any remaining bits of the consecrated Element. The priest drinks the water with one backward toss of his head and then wipes the chalice with a fair linen cloth.

The priest recites the Prayer of Thanksgiving—“Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou didst vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ. . . .” Then the priest, as he does every Sunday, reads as an extra selection of Scripture the Gospel for Christmas Day, the first chapter of John: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” As one, the priest and congregation say “Thanks be to God,” and the priest closes the missal.

All is quiet as the priest and boy exit the sanctuary and go into the sacristy. The boy returns with a bell-shaped damper to put out the altar candles. When the last flame is turned to a curl of smoke, the congregation takes that as a sign of dismissal and rises to leave. The priest, who has used this minute to hurry from the sacristy and go down the cement walk by the side of the church, next to the dusty unpaved parking lot, is there to greet them at the church doors as they file out.

By 8:15 the priest, the boy, and the church treasurer are back in the office, emptying the pledge envelopes and counting the loose offering. The treasurer, an accountant on weekdays, notes the amount in the pledge envelopes in his black ledger, which holds the details of the parish’s finances. Working crisply but carefully, he uses a retractable pencil to make neat columns and notations, then closes the ledger and puts it in his carrying case. Few words are exchanged as the money is sorted. When the job is done, the conversation picks up as the priest takes the loose offering, five or ten dollars at most, and adds it to the small amount he keeps in a black metal cash box in a drawer of his desk as the discretionary fund most priests have to help a parishioner or a stranger down on his luck.

They walk out of the office and stand for a moment beside the church. It is a relatively long rectangle with a low peaked roof, perhaps two thousand square feet in all. Half is the parish hall, half the church. What is now the church was formerly the parish hall of a small mission formed in 1900, a few miles away. Following the flow of population, it was moved to this site four years earlier and a new parish hall was attached two years after that. The property is one arc of a circle separated by six streets that intersect it at equal points. In the center of the circle is the Presbyterian church, larger and older, the biggest in this town of five thousand people. Its landscaping is more mature than its newer neighbor, the eucalyptus trees that edge the property tall and densely leafy. The high bushy cedars along the building’s walls are a counterpoint to the sparse vegetation around the Episcopalians’, evidence that it is established and well-rooted, while its neighbor is still settling in.

The congregation has gone home by now and the only car by the church is the treasurer’s. He drives off after good-byes are exchanged, leaving the priest and the boy. The rectory, finished just months before, is next to the church, down one of the streets that are like spokes to the hub of the circle and across from a vacant lot with high, scraggly weeds. The priest and the boy turn to walk the twenty-five yards to the rectory, for they are father and son.

The boy is an only child. As he and his father enter the one-story house, the smell of frying bacon greets him. His mother, who hurried home to make breakfast after chatting with the parishioners, soon has rashers crisped, and she brings them out with runny-yolk eggs basted with bacon fat and accompanied by slices of homemade bread. Grace is said by the priest, always the same succinct one: “For these and all His mercies may God’s holy name be praised. Amen.” The three dig in without much conversation because there is less than half an hour to eat and get ready to leave the house again. The family service, with organ and choir and enough people this time to pack the nave, begins at 9:15, and each of the three has a role to play.

The boy’s mother, the most devout member of the family, is head of the altar guild. The day before, she and one or two other women arranged flowers for the altar and set up the eucharistic vessels. A gracious companion to her husband, she is always by the church door before and after services to greet the congregants. She invariably sits in a pew about two-thirds of the way back, and her clear soprano helps lead the singing of the hymns. The priest will preach a sermon he thought over during the week and wrote the day before. It may be on that Sunday’s Gospel but usually is on a more generic topic; either way, it will be conversational in style and instructive of Christian teaching and will last about ten minutes. The boy, having quickly read the comics in the Sunday paper, will once again be an acolyte, joined this time by a second one. The boy does not find this double duty strange; Sunday is his father’s busiest workday, and it is as if he is with him in his office.

In the sacristy, the boy and his fellow acolyte, one of his best friends, joke while slipping on their cassocks, cottas, and crosses. The priest deftly puts on his layers of sacred garb: a white linen alb; a green stole, the color of the ecclesiastical season—purple for Advent and Lent; white for Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Trinity; green for the twenty-four Sundays after Trinity and the twelve after Epiphany; black for Holy Saturday; red for Pentecost, All Saints’ Day, and the feasts of the martyrs—held in place around the waist by a cincture, a ropelike length of woven cotton; an oval silk chasuble the color of the stole, elaborately decorated and embroidered with a cross, the Greek letters chi and rho (for Christus Rex, Christ the King) interwoven; and a maniple, a long, narrow strip of the same color and material as the chasuble and stole, draped over his lower left arm and attached to the alb with a metal snap. Originally meant as an ornamental handkerchief, by the Middle Ages it came to suggest the bonds that held Jesus’ hands and to symbolize the sorrows of earthly life.
Eric Lax|Author Q&A

About Eric Lax

Eric Lax - Faith, Interrupted

Photo © Patricia Williams

Eric Lax is the author of medical/science books Life and Death on Ten West, an account of the UCLA bone marrow transplantation unit, as well as Woody Allen: A Biography, each a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat, about the development of penicillin, was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.

Author Q&A

Q: Amid the current battles over faith and religion, there appears to be a silent majority of people who don’t align themselves either with the fundamentalists or the atheists, who don’t know quite what to believe about their faith. Your book gives a reasoned and passionate voice to this group; was that your intention?
 
A: It certainly was my hope. So many books about faith—and many written by really intelligent people—take a single line: “You’re crazy if you have faith” or, “You’re crazy if you don’t have faith.” I marvel at their surety. I’ve always experienced faith as a mystery, when I had it, and now that I don’t. But I have no assurance that I’m right in my thinking or that I’m even close to an answer about belief. I just know in retrospect how wonderful it was to have faith, and that I can’t fake having it when it’s not there. I suspect there are many people with my dilemma, and I hope that my experience will be useful to them as they struggle with their own changing faith, or its loss. And I hope as well that people of faith who read this will be understanding of friends who grapple with belief.
 
 
Q: You are perhaps best known for your books on film stars like Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart. What made you want to write your own story? And why now?
 
A: I’ve also written about life on a bone marrow transplantation ward, and the development of penicillin, so I like a lot of different topics. I’ve been thinking about this book for at least 10 years. I’ve long been curious about how people come to faith, how they keep it or lose it, and how they use it for good or ill. An omnibus book about faith didn’t appeal to me (nor do I have the scholarship to write one). As I thought more about the subject, I realized that my own story, intertwined with those of my father, an Episcopal priest, and my college roommate George Packard, whose youthful faith mirrored my own, might be a way to examine the subject in a way that would be enjoyable for me to write and also draw readers into a story that would prompt them to consider their own faith as well. As for why write it now, I’m at a point in life—my mid-sixties—where if you aren’t thinking about God and faith and what happens next, you’re not paying attention. As there are no definite answers to these questions, I knew the book had to be short.
 
 
Q: In writing Faith, Interrupted you went back through piles of old letters and documents. Was it at all difficult to relive your past so closely?
 
A: First, I was astonished that I had saved so many letters. My teens through my thirties are quite fully documented by letters I sent to my parents, and those they sent to me, as well as dozens to and from friends. Of course, it was a sobering experience to literally run into the person I was 40 years ago. Some of the stuff I read made me cringe, but then some of it made me feel I was a reasonably thoughtful guy. But it wasn’t difficult to go through the letters—although there were times that memories good and bad flooded in—so much as it was enlightening. For instance, I had long felt that I didn’t tell my parents very much when I was in the Peace Corps and was grappling so intently with being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War on grounds of religious training and belief. Then I discovered that my most coherent writing about it was to them. Without the letters, I don’t think I could have written this book. I would have had to come at it another way, because I would have had to rely on memory, which we tend to shape to our purposes over the years, instead of being able to draw on the actual feelings and descriptions of the time.
 
 
Q: As you mentioned, there are two men whose stories are closely tied to your own faith journey, the first being your father. What kind of influence did your father have on you when you were growing up?
 
A: My father was a monumental influence on me. He was very funny, not the first thing you associate with a priest, and he had a great understanding of and sympathy for human nature. So although he was very devoted in his faith, he was not rigid. That doesn’t mean he didn’t strictly adhere to the teachings of the Church, but he understood and practiced forgiveness, and held love as the central tenet of Christianity. I was an acolyte from age 6 and was as comfortable in church as I was at home; being in church with my dad was like visiting him in his office. I learned my practice of faith by his example, just as I learned the value and enjoyment of humor through his jokes, puns, and shaggy dog stories.
 
 
Q: You write that you started losing your connection with religion after your father’s death. How do you think he would have reacted to your “interruption” of faith?
 
A: I like to think he would have accepted and perhaps even admired the honesty of it—and then would have prayed very hard that I find my way back to the Church.
 
 
Q: The other man whose life you chronicle is your friend George Packard or “Skip.” Why did the direction his life took become so important to you?
 
A: Skip and I were much alike in our faith as college students. We both were acolytes from an early age and we both were active in the college chapel. Then Skip’s army experiences—many officers considered him the best leader of an ambush and patrol platoon—and mine in the Peace Corps were so dissimilar that our lives were no longer parallel. After the army Skip entered seminary and in the years following, his faith grew in ways much different and deeper than my own. But because we started at more or less the same place, he has been a natural touchstone for me, and the direction his life in faith has taken is what for a long time I thought mine might be.
 
 
Q: Do you ever wish that you followed the path that Skip did and had become an Episcopal priest?
 
A: My father always said that you don’t decide to become a priest; you answer a call from God to become one. There were times in my teens and twenties when I thought I heard at least the first rings of that call, but it never was strong enough for me to answer it. So, no, I don’t wish that I had followed Skip’s path, although under different circumstances, it would have been interesting if I had.
 
 
Q: Can you tell us more about what led you to take the position of a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War?
 
A: In the months leading up to my graduation from Hobart College in 1966, the scale of the war in Vietnam increased greatly and it was clear that the draft awaited pretty much everyone who didn’t have a deferral for graduate school. From the start of my senior year I had given thought to whether I was a CO and if so, what was I willing to risk? I concluded that my religious training and belief taught me that killing was wrong, and I had the support of the Episcopal Church, which had long honored such a stance. I rejected the option to be a non-combatant medic because I felt that whatever I did would only support the war and put soldiers back in a position to do what I was opposed to. By declaring myself a CO I was not evading the draft. I believed I could be called to serve the country and was happy to do that in any capacity outside the military. I was born in Canada and could have gone there, but I wanted to work within the law as a citizen and take the consequences. If that meant going to prison in lieu of being drafted, were my CO denied, I would do it, and I told that to my draft board.
 
 
Q: Looking back a little earlier, do you think that you would have joined the Peace Corps if not for the Vietnam War?
 
A: Yes. The Peace Corps ideally suited my talents and needs. I was drawn to the idea of service, and I didn’t have much of an idea of what I wanted as a career. I wasn’t looking to take an advanced degree in English or go to law school, so it was a great way to do something responsible and gain time to come to a decision about what I wanted to be. Without the Peace Corps, I don’t know that I would have ended up a writer. The Peace Corps was also the perfect choice for someone who didn’t want to be drafted. So in all honesty, joining served two ends.
 
 
Q: Are there other memoirs that you’ve read that inspired your own work?
 
A: Memoirs are a lot like Tolstoy’s description in Anna Karenina of unhappy families—each is distinctive in its own way, though in the case of memoirs, they don’t have to be unhappy. The point is, every memoir is unique to the person telling it, and so the story and how it’s told are unique as well.
 
 
Q: What was the most important thing that you learned about yourself through the writing of this book?
 
A: In tracing the path of my spiritual progress (or regression), I was able to understand how I’ve come to where I am in a way I did not know before. One of the biggest questions most people have to answer is where we stand in our faith. Whatever the degree to which we believe or disbelieve, we have to honestly face our deepest feelings, reservations, and doubts. I think only then can we find our way to meaningful faith, or accept that we have none. And in that self-examination I came to realize that the foundation of the faith I had, articulated again and again by my father—that the heart of it is to love one another—has not disappeared, even if that foundation no longer is “religious.”

Praise

Praise

“An intelligent, elegantly composed and open-hearted memoir. . . . Valuable, even instructive. . . . [Lax] is a writer of gentle precision and clarity.” —Los Angeles Times
 
“Lax has written a steady, quiet love letter to a faith he has lost. . . . Sympathetic and engrossing.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“A poignant, sensitive and thoughtful memoir that illuminates the complexity of the phenomenon that we call faith.” —Karen Armstrong, author of The Case for God
 
“Candid and heartful. . . . Faith, Interrupted resonates because Lax confronts questions common to believers everywhere, and he does it without pomposity, self-righteousness, or condescension.” —America
 
“A gentle, rueful book . . . Lax’s polished writing style and lack of assurance that he has all the answers are . . .  definite pluses.” —The Christian Science Monitor
 
“Heartfelt. . . .  An honest and affecting memoir.” —Boston Globe
 
“Lax is a good storyteller, careful with words and reflective of the many ways in which he has had to ponder the eternal questions. This is not a book that ends with faith restored, God in God’s heaven and everything right with the world. But it is a book in which faith is taken seriously and, in the end, respected, even if the author cannot count himself among the faithful.” —Faith Matters
 
“Insightful. . . . Although this book is as much about a fascinating life as it is about religion, it will appeal to a wide audience both for its engaging subject matter and first-rate writing.” —National Catholic Reporter
 
“Vietnam . . . was at the core of the experience [Lax] recounts as part of his spiritual journey. . . . This book brings back with warmth, compassion and riveting detail what those days were like. . . . [A] deeply touching and personal meditation.” —The Globe and Mail
 
“Spiritual memoirs rarely command the same interest to others as they do for their authors, but Lax’s ability as a writer . . . makes his memoir an exception. . . . Lax’s journey, told with a fine sense of narrative shape, is a kind of paradigm of the spiritual struggles of the first wave of the Baby Boom and will speak eloquently to that generation.” —Library Journal
 
“Eric Lax’s moving and riveting memoir reflects a Christian boy’s struggle with faith and doubt, tradition and discovery.  His encounters with other beliefs reflect as well his sense of empathy for, and solidity with, victims of destiny.” —Elie Wiesel
 
“Jesus said that he who would save his life must lose it. Does that go for faith, too? Do you have to lose it to save it? If there is any single question that Eric Lax’s luminously honest loss-of-faith memoir most clearly raises, this would be it. We live in two faith cultures. One culture only wants to hear how you lost your faith, the other only how you found it. But some of us have a foot in both cultures: dubious as plain believers, equally dubious as plain unbelievers. Eric Lax’s unfinished, interrupted story is a good one for us, and for better or worse our name is Legion.” —Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography
 
“In an age when it’s so fashionable to mock religious belief, Eric Lax gives us a quiet, very moving meditation on his own spiritual trials and turns.” —Paul Hendrickson, author, The Living and the Dead


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