Faith, Interrupted : A Spiritual Journey

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2010-04-06
  • Publisher: Knopf
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The biographer of Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart now tells his own extraordinary story, in a profoundly personal, deeply felt exploration of the mystery of faithhaving it, losing it, hoping for its return. In a candid and rigorous analysis of his belief, Eric Lax writes about the deep religious faith and acute moral compass he developed in his youth as the son of an Episcopal priest. These early convictions guided him away from military service in Vietnam and toward conscientious objector status and the Peace Corps. He writes eloquently about the illuminating dialogues, probing all the avenues and aspects of religious conviction, that he had at the time with his father, a man of faith with a worldly sense of humor, and with his close college friend, George "Skip" Packard. In counterpoint to his own story, he relates Packard's decision to enter military service and mortal combat. And he describes how both he and Packard grappled afterward with their decisions, delving into the process of spiritual choice and conviction. Finally, and perhaps most movingly, he describes the arc of Packard's lifehe becomes a priest, then Episcopal Bishop to the Armed Forceswhile recounting how his own growing religious doubts led to a loss of faith and his subsequent, still ongoing desire to recapture it.

Author Biography

Eric Lax is the author of Conversations with Woody Allen; On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy; Life and Death on 10 West; and The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat; and coauthor (with A. M. Sperber) of Bogart. His biography Woody Allen was a New York Times best seller. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and the Los Angeles Times. An officer of International PEN, he lives with his wife in Los Angeles.



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 inThe 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 letterschiandrho(forChristus 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.

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