For September’s Open Book link-up, I offer Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim by Malcolm Muggeridge (Harper & Row, 1988).
This month, it’s back to my personal library to pick up this short treat for the first time in many years. It’s not a full-dress autobiography (see Chronicles of Wasted Time for that). Instead, Confessions is a brief survey of the phases in journalist Malcolm Muggeridge’s life, each a stage on what he recognizes as his pilgrimage. He was late in life, 79 years of age, when he was received into the Catholic Church. In Confessions, he looks back at the uneven route he took to get there.
I have always felt myself to be a stranger here on earth, aware that our home is elsewhere. Now, nearing the end of my pilgrimage, I have found a resting place in the Catholic Church from where I can see the Heavenly Gates built into Jerusalem’s Wall more clearly than from anywhere else, albeit if only through a glass darkly.
Each phase of life gets a chapter – The Boy, The Journalist, The Soldier, and so on, sketched with a lifelong journalist’s deft touch. I knew before I picked up the book how it was going to end; Muggeridge was a celebrity whose conversion made news. The heart of Confessions lies in the way he describes what led to that conversion: the steps and missteps and unlikely occurrences in his life.
He gives credit to Mother Teresa, whom he met in the course of a documentary project that remains his best-known work, at least in the United States (Something Beautiful for God). She gave a nudge, and left the rest to time and God’s grace. In her, Muggeridge’s lifelong skepticism met its match.
The younger Muggeridge would have been astounded to know where that would lead: “It was the Catholic Church’s firm stand against contraception and abortion which finally made me decide to become Catholic.” That was a countercultural claim, even thirty-odd years ago, particularly from a worldly man.
Despite such blunt declarations, Confessions is full of warmth and humor. I love his insight into what he calls “The Steeple and The Gargoyle.” Since reading this for the first time, I’ve never looked at a photo of an old church in the quite the way I did before.
This assumption that a sense of humour and a Christian faith are incompatible is totally mistaken….
The true function of humour is to express in terms of the grotesque the immense disparity between human aspiration and human performance. Mysticism expresses the same disparity in terms of the sublime. Hence the close connection between clowns and mystics; hence, too, the juxtaposition on the great medieval cathedrals of steeples reaching up into the Cloud of Unknowing, and gargoyles grinning malevolently down at our dear earth and all its foolishness. Laughter and mystical ecstasy, that is to say, both derive from an awareness, in the one case hilarious, in the other ecstatic, of how wide is the chasm between Time and Eternity, between us and our Creator.
Let us then, while, as we should, revering the steeples, remember the gargoyles, also, in their way, purveyors of God’s Word, and be thankful that, when the Gates of Heaven swing open, as they do from time to time, mixed with the celestial music there is the unmistakable sound of celestial laughter.