MY GRANDFATHER'S HOUSE

A Genealogy of Doubt and Faith

By Robert Clark

Picador. 288 pp. $24

Reviewed by George Weigel

The modern ironic sensibility can list among its literary victims the confessio, or "confession," an autobiographical exercise that depicts the subject's growth into self-understanding not from the microcosm of an analyst's couch but on the ampler canvas of a lengthy ramble through the personal and familial past. Augustine's Confessions typifies the genre. It is full of spiritual insight because, in Augustine's intense self-examination, self-absorption finally dissolves under the pressure of a more relentless love -- God's.

To revive the confessio tradition at this moment in our cultural history is no small thing. But that is what Robert Clark has done in this beautiful, captivating memoir, whose central theme is that the "ultimate privation" is the loss of God. Clark, a novelist, biographer and cultural historian, tells the story of his return to (or, as he nicely puts it, his being "taken back" by) the Catholic Church through the prism of a complex family history.

That tale begins in late-medieval England, an intact Catholic culture saturated with the sense that, as Thomas Aquinas wrote, "Deus est in omnibus rebus et intime": God is in all things, and intimately so. Then came the English Reformation, a "campaign of demolition whose destructiveness exceeded that ever wrought by any of England's foreign invaders," which destroyed far more than shrines, monasteries, convents, vestments, chalices and statues. It destroyed a way of experiencing the world as charged with the presence of God and the saints.

When Clark's family moved from Elizabethan England to Puritan New England as part of the great "errand into the wilderness," issues of faith and doubt emerged in even sharper form. Clark has a novelist's eye for the telling historical detail that illustrates what is, ultimately, a theological point: for example, that the average 17th-century New Englander spent 15,000 hours of a lifetime listening to sermons. A Christian apprehension of the world and of life could no longer be conveyed by the richly textured sacramental imagery and action demolished by the Puritan reformation; the New England divines evidently hoped that it could be conveyed by argument.

That they were not altogether successful is the story of Clark's relatives among the 19th-century New England transcendentalists, the world of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and their successors -- men like Henry Adams and Henry James. The transcendentalists and their progeny, Clark observes, were epigones of a "new age that was losing its ability to believe in redemption but not, needless to say, in sin." One striking result of the ensuing torment was the fascination the Virgin Mary held for some Puritan agnostics. "That it should be Mary -- the emblem of Christianity at its least rationalistic and most affective, tender, and corporeal -- who would so intrigue the arch-intellectual Margaret Fuller and the post-Puritan pessimist Nathaniel Hawthorne is a curious thing," Clark writes. Yet there was something oddly fitting in the fact that "Hawthorne's younger daughter, Rose, did indeed convert to Roman Catholicism . . . [becoming] a Dominican lay nun and establishing an informal association of other converts she called the Daughters of the Puritans."

For those who had lost their faith in redemption but not their profound sense of sin, the next step, at least in the 20th century, was often into psychoanalysis. Clark gently but unsparingly recounts his own encounter with the contemporary therapeutic culture. It was Walt Whitman's dream, he writes, a religion in which "every man shall be [his] own priest . . . through the divinity of themselves." But redemption as "self-actualization" is pretty thin gruel, and eventually Clark had to confront the truth embedded in Augustine's Confessions: "You have made us for yourself and our heart is ever unquiet until it rests in you." In this instance, as Clark recounts, the path home led through the unstinting love of his wife. And so Clark re-entered the sacramentally supercharged world that Henry VII and Thomas Cranmer had stripped away from his Tudor-era ancestors almost 500 years earlier, a world in which the extraordinary lies just on the far side of the quotidian.

"The fact of reality may not prove God, but it implies Him," Clark writes. To ignore that implication is to risk losing touch with reality itself, as the world disappears into the dungeon of the self-absorbed self. That solipsism is the baby-boomers' curse. And it can be exorcised only by radical, self-emptying love -- which, as St. John wrote, is the truth of God in Himself.

"Our being and our discovery of it are an analogy to God's being and . . . expression, which is to say, his love." That was Robert Clark's great rediscovery. We are in his debt for his sharing it with us in such a compelling way. I suspect that his late-medieval forebears are pleased, too.

George Weigel is author, most recently, of "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II."