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The Christ of Boston Faith : RETURNING A Spiritual Journey by Dan Wakefield (Doubleday: $17.95; 288 pp.)

April 03, 1988|William Griffin | Griffin, a contributing editor of Publishers Weekly and author of "Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life" (Harper & Row), will have two novels published early in 1989. and

"G otcha!" ought to be a word added to the special vocabulary of conversion, along with metanoia and born again, for all converts seem to have had the feeling that they were being shadowed for a long time before the firm, arresting hand on the elbow ushered them toward belief.

"Paranoia" might be another word to describe the experience of converts who have turned around on more than one murky night in life to see a Bogey-man following them . . . except that the trench-coated, felt-hatted, cigarette-smoking figure lingering in the pool of streetlight behind them eventually comes forward to reveal his identity and flash his credentials.

The metaphor is mine, but Dan Wakefield who has recently returned to belief in God and the practice of Christianity was able to look back on his life--from his early years in Indiana, with stops in New York for novel writing and in Hollywood for scriptwriting, to his present life in Boston--and found Jesus tracking him even as he descended into belief.

It was indeed a descent, for his path was full of the sort of hard, downward, slippery swerves an Olympic luge encounters . . . until one balmy spring morning in Hollywood, a month or so before his 48th birthday, he woke up howling with pain, a sort of primal scream for the Prime Mover of the universe, and reached instinctively for a book that had remained unread on his shelf for 25 years, the Bible.

He returned to Boston where he worked hard on an Exercycle in the Stress Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital to restore his physical well-being. On Christmas Eve, he shopped for a church in the Boston Globe. A candlelight service was advertised by King's Chapel at the corner of Tremont and Beacon streets, across from the Parker House; he went, assuming that the most he would have to endure would be the singing of carols. Ahhh, if only the Adversary trailing him for so many years only played fair!

During the course of the service, the Rev. Carl Scovel, no fool himself about the sort of people who showed up in the pews on Christmas and Easter, read a passage from--of all things--Evelyn Waugh's "Helena" in which Constantine's fabled mother addressed the Magi.

" 'You're my special patrons,' said Helena, 'and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents. . . .' "

The wisdom of the collective words of Helena/Waugh/Scovel went like shafts right into Wakefield's soul, and, if "Returning: A Spiritual Journal" is to be trusted, Wakefield has not been the same since.

The book, "Returning," was the direct result of a religious autobiography study done by a few members of King's Chapel in Boston ("Unitarian in theology, Anglican in worship, and Congregational in governance") under Scovel's guidance.

It recounts Wakefield's early years in Indiana, where an apple-shaped minister's wife named Amy Frantz and his Aunt Ollie who was a spiritualist exerted formative spiritual influences; his fraternity rejection at Northwestern and his undergraduate years at Columbia, where he encountered Trilling, Van Doren, and a host of other literary academics; a car crash that left him immobilized in plaster of Paris for three months; his lustrum of psychoanalysis during which he regularly encountered Freud on the couch; his sexuality, which went from impotence on the Richter scale to omnipotence; his successes as a journalist for the Nation; his novels "Going All the Way" and "Starting Over"; his nonfiction works like "All Her Children: The Making of a Soap Opera" and "Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem"; and his much underrated television series, now being happily revived on cable, "James at 15."

Along his pilgrimage, which Scovel had encouraged Wakefield to call the events of his topsy-turvy life, including the agony and ecstasy produced by alcohol and other recreational drugs, he encountered an astonishing array of women--Jane, Alice, Eve, among them--some of whom he slept with, all of whom he fell in love with, mostly in the love of friendship; they tended him during periods of detoxification and destruction and encouraged him in periods of creativity.

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