Sir Alec Guinness, Convert
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Thu Aug 10 23:26:25 EDT 2000
Sir Alec Guinness, convert
By Terry Mattingly
When Sir Alec Guinness began pouring himself into a new character, the
first thing he focused on was the legs.
The goal was to discover how the character carried himself day, after day.
Once Guinness had the walk right, he could ask why the man walked that way.
This would then affect his stature, speech and mannerisms. If he could get
the feet and legs right, the rest would follow.
This truth also could be applied to Guinness, 86, who died last week (Aug.
5). What, for example, would compel this most reserved and private of
superstars to run through a London street and then fall on his knees?
In his autobiography, "Blessings in Disguise," the actor described one such
scene: "I was walking up Kingsway in the middle of an afternoon when an
impulse compelled me to start running. With joy in my heart, and in a state
of almost sexual excitement, I ran until I reached the little Catholic
church there ... which I had never entered before; I knelt; caught my
breath, and for 10 minutes was lost to the world."
Guinness was at a loss to explain his actions. He finally decided it was a
"rather nonsensical gesture of love," an outburst of thanksgiving for the
faith of the ages. The actor dashed into that church not long after March
24, 1956, when he converted to Roman Catholicism and ended his pilgrimage
from atheism to Christianity.
The actor liked to quote the witty British writer G.K. Chesterton, who
said: "The Church is the one thing that saves a man from the degrading
servitude of being a child of his time."
Public tributes to Guinness have emphasized his remarkable range in a
66-year career on stage and in film, from "Hamlet" to "Murder By Death,"
from "The Bridge on the River Kwai" to "Star Wars." Few have mentioned his
conversion -- including a faith-free 3,100-word New York Times obituary --
or pondered its impact.
"Guinness didn't have to show off his faith. It had soaked in," said Joseph
Pearce, author of "Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of
"He just was who he was. All that we really know about Sir Alec Guinness --
right down the line -- is that he did not consider his life to be public
property. ... He was particularly irritated when people would, literally,
come up to him after Mass and try to talk to him about his movies."
Now there's a scene. Picture someone confronting Guinness, moments after he
had knelt to receive Holy Communion, and asking about Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Guinness took his first steps to faith while playing Father Brown,
Chesterton's great detective-priest. Shortly before work began on the 1954
film, which in America was called "The Detective," the actor's young son,
Matthew, was stricken by polio. As Guinness walked home each night from the
studio, he began visiting a Catholic sanctuary, to sit -- alone.
Finally, he struck what he called a "negative bargain" with God. If his son
recovered, Guinness vowed never to prevent the son from converting. Soon
the boy walked, and then ran. The next year, Guinness made the first of
many retreats to Mount St. Bernard Abbey. By 1957, father, mother and son
It's crucial, said Pearce, to note that Guinness converted in an era when a
spiritual lightning bolt crackled through British intellectual life --
affecting the faith and work of Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, C.S.
Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Graham Greene, Malcolm Muggeridge
and many others.
"It would be wrong to try to see Alec Guinness in isolation," said Pearce,
whose book covers this period and drew a letter of gratitude from the
actor. "But Guinness was not as outspoken as some others. He did not wear
his faith on his sleeve, like a Chesterton. He was not an evangelist. ...
But his faith did affect his life and his work.
"For most artists who are Christians, there is just no way of disentangling
the two -- the life and the art. It's a meaningless question. That is, if
the person was genuinely committed to practicing his faith, which Guinness
most certainly was."
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) leads the Institute of Journalism at the
Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. He
writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.
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