I recently read Harold Fickett’s 1983 novel The Holy Fool. Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I. It addresses some interesting issues concerning midlife, though, and that captured my interest.
Fickett tells the story of Ted Marsh, a Baptist pastor whose career has seen better times. His congregation is restive under his uninspired leadership. As he puts it, “my ministry seemed to have entered a dark and sodden night of the soul, so to speak, in which I could smell the tar and feathers.” Not only his ministry, but his faith was diminished:
“The question for me had become, Was Christianity true?
“I had no way of telling. Not for sure, although at fifty-five I had already devoted thirty years to preaching the gospel, and wished with everything in me to recover the certainty that I once had.”
As the story unfolds, the issue doesn’t seem to be what Ted believes—he never questions any of the basic tenants of Christianity. It’s more a matter of whether a life devoted to preaching about those beliefs and encouraging others to live by them is in fact a meaningful life. In other words, Ted Marsh is like any other person in late middle age who doubts the value of his or her life’s work. Did he devote himself to something that was worth doing?
He decides that his church needs “an old-fashioned revival,” and invites Paul Corbin, an old friend from seminary who leads a successful international ministry, to be the preacher. Unbeknownst to Ted, Paul is in the midst of his own crisis of faith, and when he is introduced as the speaker literally has nothing to say—he grips the pulpit, stares at the crowd with a pained expression, then walks away.
Following an aggressive outburst towards his insufferably smug assistant minister that puts Ted in even more jeopardy with the congregation, Ted decides that the revival will continue anyway, with him as the preacher. Reflecting on his assault on his assistant, he realizes that his action could best be understood as sin. This leads him to his theme for the revival:
“I would preach that night on sin, and for the next six nights try to recover the rest of the vocabulary of faith, as God chose to reveal it to me, if he would. I saw I must confess the fullness or emptiness of my experience as a Christian and as a pastor under the aspect of this language. My congregation’s revival would be a recapitulation of all their pastor was and knew. . . .”
Ted’s friend Paul tried to preach as a way of circumventing the years of ministry he feared were wasted; Ted plans to start by examining his own years of ministry to see whether there is something in them worth preaching about. Rather than using theology to resuscitate his ministry, he plans to see whether the events occurring during that ministry can resuscitate his theology. For example, during his years as a military chaplain during World War II, he unthinkingly hit a golf shot towards a rival, then in horror recognizes his subconscious desire to rid himself of someone who had wounded his ego. His life since then has been a struggle to contain the “’I’ that resides in my willfulness,” only to see that ‘I’ repeatedly escape his control. This ongoing struggle reveals to him the reality of sin. He tells his congregation:
“Most of you would say you believe in original sin, the depravity of man, but you don’t, really; you believe that there are decent people and then there are scoundrels, and that the two shouldn’t have anything to do with one another. But the Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
On he goes, applying his vocabulary of faith to his years of ministry. His leadership had been designed to enhance his social standing or his power; now he recognizes that he thereby neglected God’s justice. He pastored a church in which a member who claimed divine healing was rejected by the rest of the congregation; this incident now shows him God’s grace in healing and the importance of extending grace to each other. Other events from his life, past and present, teach him of faith, hope, and love. As he concludes his final sermon, he has a mystical experience—he sees not just the faces but the souls of those in attendance, acutely aware of what encumbers each. “And I knew that God’s hatred of all of this was simply his desire to deliver us from the pain we had mistaken for life: his judgment was his love. Even in eclipse, however, the sun of God was to be seen in the transfigured faces of his people: the light was there; God was present as he had been in the pillar of fire before the Israelites.”
Ted’s revival ends up reviving him much more than it does his congregation. He has essentially conducted a life review, something that many of us do in middle adulthood or later. I’ve previously described how my own life memories have made me aware of God’s care for me. Have such memories breathed life into the categories by which I understand faith, as they did for Ted Marsh? Not in the same dramatic way, but of course Ted is a fictional character whose descent to the depths and ascent via redemption is particularly spectacular. As I sit and call life memories to mind, I can identify how each event teaches something about God or the life of the spirit. Thus, falling in love teaches about longing for communion, being a parent teaches about God as Father, my divorce teaches about sin and brokenness, my working with clients recovering from traumas teaches about healing and restoration.
I found Ted’s behavior to be too erratic to be believable. Still, this novel does a nice job of exploring the second journey—the phase of the spiritual life in which previous understandings of oneself and God are shaken by failure, disappointment, or tragedy. Those reflecting on their own second journey are likely to find it worth reading. The book is out of print, so you’ll need to scare up a copy from a used bookseller.