e-mail us


Patterns of a journey to the Unknowable


By Morris West
Harper Collins, 157 pages, $18 cloth


In the little room in the house on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome where the English romantic poet John Keats died, there are displayed for the public replicas of both his life mask and death mask. They are wondrous artifacts to behold because they bridge something of the distance between Keats' time and our own. Of these, it is his death mask that is more beautiful, imparting a sense of perfection and completion to the brief yet intense years that Keats spent on this earth. It is not sad. It is a testament to a full life and to the human spirit that animated it.

The face of a life, especially that of a seeker of beauty and truth, no matter how young or old, contains a sense of unity that somehow, magically, is shared with us when we look upon it with a desire and openness to possess something of that very life. That is precisely the case with A View from the Ridge, novelist Morris West's testimony of his life as a 20th-century Christian. In this work, we gaze upon the life mask, as it were, of an old man who faces his final days on this earth; and what we see is a life radiating with the gift or grace of faith, which every pilgrim receives from the divine in proportion to his or her quest for full life and understanding.

A View from the Ridge captures with vivid recollected detail the truth of one man's life seen over seven decades of a most complex and tragic century. The reader learns many things about how this particular man lived, moved and existed in his time. He was born in Australia, studied for the religious life, married, divorced, remarried, wrote many novels, traveled and so on. However, A View from the Ridge was written not so much to tell tale on the past as to elucidate the gift of faith, which has made West's life a subject worthy of close attention. What makes this account most worthy is the fact that, far from being a mere narration or summary of a religious man's deeds, the 11 chapters gathered here, individually and cumulatively, achieve for the work that most precious human thing, the examined life.

Eloquent and stirring, this spiritual autobiography records not just a journey from birth to old age but the pattern of a journey to the Unknown and Unknowable. As West writes, "I do not see, feel or hear this Unknown in whom, nonetheless, I am aware that I love, move and have being. My act of faith is a daily leap through a paper hoop."

The three terms here -- to love, to move, to be -- derive from the epigraph to West's book, a quote from the Acts of the Apostles: "In him we live and move and have our being." By changing "live" to "love," West grasps the mystery behind these words of Christian belief. Indeed, both the mystery and acceptance of faith are illuminated through love in a book whose writing is filled with both eros and agape.

Readers will find some hard-won truths here from a Christian artist who never shirked his responsibility as either a Christian or an artist. On the nature of evil, for example, West deftly examines the logic of insanity as used by governments to coerce, debase and destroy human beings who question authority or dare to prophesy.

As an aged man, West has come to terms with dying, but he has steadfastly refused to turn a blind eye to the dehumanization prevalent in the 20th century. When confronting the face of evil, and asking himself if he believes in God, he replies, "Yes, I do, though I cannot reason him into existence, though I do not believe all that is written, or approve all that is done, in his name. I believe that all creation is a mask of God."

Yet "God is not everywhere, or always in evidence in his own creation," he adds. This kind of quarrel with himself reveals the good faith in which West has examined his life and its contexts. In the final analysis, he knows that humankind is prone to insanity. But he also affirms that only love, hope and forgiveness ennoble humankind so that it can look itself in the face and see something of the divine image in which it is made.

Some of the most engaging and thoughtful insights in this testimony are those about the church and its changing role over the course of West's lifetime. Most revealing are the two memorials to two different popes set side by side. West's concern with the church has a moral and political motive as well as a religious one, for he sees it as a product of the men who have too often imposed their authority upon people without explanation.

A View from the Ridge gives encouragement and coherence to Christian identity through its clear, unbiased vision of our time. One hopes that readers will go back and re-read West's novels where, in fictional form, they will see another version of a pilgrim's ascent to the place where Love awaits us all.

Andrés Rodríguez is NCR's opinion editor.

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997