Memoir traces circuitous path to a religion writer's life

By Bill Williams
June 22, 2009
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Paul Wilkes has written an honest and revealing memoir in which nothing is held back. The book seesaws between times of deep searching and periods of drunkenness, drug use, and sexual promiscuity.

The author grew up in a strict Roman Catholic Slovak family in Cleveland, studied journalism at Marquette University, dreamed of becoming a priest, became a Methodist after marrying a Methodist, moved to New York to pursue a writing career, left his wife to work with the poor, moved into a hermitage, left the hermitage to marry again, and finally found his true vocation as a married religion writer. That’s the short version.

As a boy, Wilkes “wanted to be a saint,’’ but in high school he was tagged as a troublemaker. One day a priest handed him a copy of “The Seven Storey Mountain’’ by Thomas Merton. Wilkes was mesmerized by the famous Trappist monk’s account of his conversion to Catholicism.

“In Due Season’’ has been compared to Merton’s enduring memoir, and with good reason. Each writer lived a dissolute life before settling down. Wilkes wanted his life “to count for something, and I knew nothing about how to achieve that.’’

After college he entered the Navy. At a port in Pakistan he met a Nebraska missionary who would become his first wife. On the surface it was “a perfect marriage,’’ but the relationship soon became cold and distant. Wilkes carried on an affair.

Inspired by Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement and the biblical words, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor,’’ Wilkes left his wife, got rid of his possessions, and opened a soup kitchen in Brooklyn.

But he also was gaining fame as the producer of a television series about American families based on one of his books. He soon abandoned his mission to the poor and surrendered to his libido. During the 1970s when sex was “blame free, name free, attachment free,’’ Wilkes found himself in a “headlong plunge into hedonism.’’

But Merton’s riveting conversion story kept nagging at Wilkes. He moved into a hermitage near a Trappist monastery in Spencer, west of Worcester, believing he would follow in Merton’s footsteps. But it was not his calling. He returned to New York and proposed to the woman who is now his second wife.

In the mid-1990s, as a happily married husband and father, Wilkes spent occasional weekends living with Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, after which he wrote the book “Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life.’’

“In Due Season’’ excels on many levels. Wilkes is a felicitous writer who can be read for the simple pleasure of connecting with a prose artist. The book’s apt title is taken from a biblical passage that says a tree yields its fruit “in due season.’’

The story is filled with dizzying switchbacks between “little miracles’’ of spiritual growth and licentiousness. Wilkes reminds us that St. Augustine, Merton, Day, and many other admired icons were sinners before they were saints.

Wilkes chronicles the upheavals that rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the second half of the 20th century, from the sweeping reforms of Vatican II, which elated him, to the more recent priest sexual abuse scandal, which sickened him.

Looking back on his long career, Wilkes concludes, “The wind of the Holy Spirit ruffled my conscience and cooled my brow, filled my sails, sent me in directions I didn’t seek and at other times calmed the seas just when I was about to drown.’’

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

IN DUE SEASON: A Catholic Life
By Paul Wilkes
Jossey-Bass, 283 pp., $24.95

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