Alec Guinness – an ‘unusual’ conversion story

Sir Alec Guinness (2 April 1914 - 5 August 2000)

Sir Alec Guinness (2 April 1914 – 5 August 2000)

It is 100 years today that Sir Alec Guinness CBE first saw the light of day.  The worldwide fame and acclamation he received for his talented impersonations in diverse roles in cinema and theatre, is well known. But Alec Guinness also has a fascinating personal story to tell, including his conversion to Catholicism. From difficult and humble origins, along the way to becoming one of the most admired, outstanding and versatile of  British actors, Alec Guinness found his way to the discovery of truth in the Catholic Church. 

Recent discussion on our blog with some non-believers has resulted in a constant stream of questions and answers going back and forth, with no apparent satisfactory outcome. Of course one can always hope and pray that a tiny seed of faith might have been sown somewhere along the line that will eventually lead to the agnostics rethinking their views, but on the whole such discussions appear to end in an unsatisfactory stale mate!

Discovering faith is usually the result of a long, studious and even painful search, requiring much prayer and big doses of humility, plus a genuine desire to turn away from all that knowingly separates one from God (serious sin).

But “every man treads a virgin path to God” as Leon Bloy is supposed to have said, meaning that there are as many reasons for conversion as there are people who convert.

One of the most delightful I think is the story behind Alec Guinness’ conversion to Catholicism. He was filming an episode of G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” series in a remote French village when:

“One evening Guinness, still in costume, was on his way back to his lodgings. A little boy, mistaking him for the real thing, grabbed his hand and trustingly accompanied the “priest.”

Alec Guinness in his role as "Father Brown"

Alec Guinness in his role as “Father Brown”

That incident affected Guinness. “Continuing my walk,” he said, “I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”

Shortly thereafter, Guinness’s son Matthew, age eleven, was stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down. The future for the boy was doubtful, and at the end of each day’s work on the film, Guinness began dropping in at a little Catholic church on his route home. He decided to strike a bargain with God: If God would let Matthew recover, Guinness would not stand in the way if the boy wished to become Catholic.

Happily Matthew recovered completely, and Guinness and his wife enrolled him in a Jesuit academy. At the age of fifteen, Matthew announced that he wished to become Catholic. Guinness kept his end of the bargain with God: He readily agreed to the conversion.

But God wanted much more. Guinness began to study Catholicism. He had long talks with a Catholic priest. He made a retreat at a Trappist abbey. He even attended Mass with Grace Kelly while he was working on a film in Los Angeles. The doctrines of indulgences and infallibility slowed him for a time, but his description of finally entering the Church said it all: “There had been no emotional upheaval, no great insight, certainly no proper grasp of theological issues; just a sense of history and the fittingness of things.”

Guinness was received into the Catholic Church by the bishop of Portsmouth, and while he was in Sri Lanka making The Bridge over the River Kwai, his wife surprised him by also converting…”

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6679

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27 Responses to Alec Guinness – an ‘unusual’ conversion story

  1. mithriluna says:

    So interesting! Thank you for this!

  2. Toadspittle says:

    The Deal With God That Paid Off Big.
    Rather shaky theology, it seems to me.
    Smacks a lot of, “The End of the Affair,” too.
    (Nothing wrong with that, I should add.)

  3. kathleen says:

    Thank you Mithriluna.

    In the introduction to the article I mentioned the wrangling in the comment section with non-believers on another post. What I should have said, but omitted, is that it was the failure of the agnostics to engage in the clear points brought up by the theists that brought the discussion to its “stalemate”.
    Alec Guinness in his conversion – triggered off by that lovely story of the little boy – was honest and open to the working of the Holy Spirit in his soul. He investigated the claims of the Catholic Church before finally embracing the Faith.
    Those who pretend to be interested, but then point blankly refuse to look at the evidence proffered, are just messing you around it seems to me.

  4. Toadspittle says:

    “..the failure of the agnostics to engage in the clear points brought up by the theists…”
    I disagree with that – but then I would, wouldn’t I? I suggest there are no “clear points” in metaphysics. Or. if there are, it’s hard to come to logical conclusions.
    Matter of opinion, though.
    “..but then point blankly refuse to look at the evidence proffered..”
    It is possible to look at evidence – and then reject it as nsufficient, you know, Kathleen.

  5. kathleen says:

    Toad, I was actually thinking more of Adrian’s failure to address the points Michael made here, more than you. Nor has he shown any signs of looking into any of the books, articles, links, etc. offered to help him. He just kept asking the same old questions that had already been answered over and again.

    I agree that Faith is still a matter of “faith” (if you know what I mean). “For we walk by faith, and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). And, “while we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen [are] for a time, but those that are not seen eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).
    “For we are saved by hope. But hope that is seen, is not hope. For what a man seeth, why doth he hope for?” (Rom 8:24)

    IOW, there would be no merit – and even no Free Will – if we were actually seeing and knowing God now in this world. We would be obliged to believe, and Faith and Hope would therefore be superfluous. Jesus said: “Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed” (John 20:29)
    That’s us! ;-) …. And I hope and pray it will be you one day too. :-)

    P.S. For “signs” that might help you “to see”, try listening to this short homily:
    http://s3.amazonaws.com/airmaria/hmly2/hmly140331.mp3

  6. Adrian Meades says:

    What points did I fail to address Kathleen?

    “Nor has he shown any signs of looking into any of the books, articles, links, etc” Not true; in one reply to you I specifically mentioned watching (listening to) one of those videos, and made a point worth mentioning again:
    “As shown clearly in David Bentley Hart v Richard Norman discussion that Michael pointed us to, discussing metaphysics and subjective experiences doesn’t appear get you anywhere in discovering the truth. You can argue that the Moon could be made of cheese, when none of us are going to believe that is really is.”

  7. crow says:

    Hey Adrian: all of us have a tendency to take a position and then nail our egos to it and defend the proposition. That is all very admirable and can serve its uses, but when it comes to a personal question of faith, it is really just that – personal. It is not an intellectual debate in which point-scoring ultimately matters. To do this, you reduce the soul to the intellect, and we are so much more than that. It is better to embrace the question in a genuine emotion of curiosity. After all, the only person to whom it matters is you: you are free to be sceptical, you are free to test whatever you read or think about and to form your own conclusions. In this respect, freedom to be “curious” is a freedom from modern cynicism as much as naive gullibility. If you engage in genuine curiosity, then the exercise is a rewarding one – and it may be that you still remain an atheist, or it may be that you accept the moral relevance of Christianity, while not embracing the metaphysical – after all, it is a head burner!

    Don’t for one minute think that while the believers, in accepting the faith, are not thinking for themselves, or that you are free from influences and thinking for yourself. You are a product of our societal belief system just as much as anyone, and to dismiss the believers as not thinking the issues through is to completely underestimate the path that it takes to acquire faith. You are a product of consumerism, Disneyland, materialism, capitalism and the brainwashing that goes on via the newspapers just as much as any of us.

    There are many different reasons to embrace faith, and while Toad’s comment on Alec Guiness as “doubtful theology” is undoubtedly true, nevertheless, it probably shows that it is not an intellectual exercise, but something that goes far deeper than that. At the least, the fundamentals of Christianity provide a beautiful and positive foundation by which we can live our lives. It also provides extremely positive answers regarding the journey of our souls and the meaning in which we give our lives – far more positive, I am afraid than the bleak meaninglessness of atheism. If you apply only logic to the question of Christianity and Christian mysteries, then I am afraid you must also apply the same testing to the creed which you embrace, and ask yourself how that creed enriches your life.

  8. Toadspittle says:

    “Don’t for one minute think that while the believers, in accepting the faith, are not thinking for themselves, “
    A very measured comment, Crow. But; re your statement above – some may be “thinking for themselves” , but a great many are not.
    My parents, for example, who were both born Catholics, neither spent, as far I as could see – a microsecond wondering if it was “true” or not. And, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure they never did. Blind obedience.
    So, when I got older and started to ask the same dopey questions I’m asking on here now – the response was always anger mixed with fear, “Don’t say things like that! What an idea! What would Father O”Fartary think, if he could hear you?”
    And I suspect Mum and Dad’s mindset was very much in the majority, although, to be sure, that was 60-odd years ago. Though it still probably is, in places like Nigeria and Puerto Rico.

    In much of Europe, as you say – people now think for themselves.
    With measurable results.

  9. Toadspittle says:

    “It also provides extremely positive answers regarding the journey of our souls and the meaning in which we give our lives – far more positive, I am afraid than the bleak meaninglessness of atheism.”

    Would you describe a tiger’s life as “bleak and meaningless,” Crow?

  10. Adrian Meades says:

    Crow,
    as a friend once said to me (though I’m sure you have heard it before) “to assume, you makes an ass out of u and me.”

  11. kathleen says:

    I’m sorry if you think I have done you an injustice Adrian, and yet I can only repeat what I have said before: you cannot argue against Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) without an understanding of what it professes. You may have looked into one of the various links given to you, but that’s all, and it is obvious you have a very weak knowledge of its beliefs and teachings and the richness it contains.

    If you are genuinely interested – and I would really like to give you the benefit of the doubt here – start at the bottom on a journey of discovery, and then come back and discuss it with us here if you want.
    Crow has raised some excellent points; this is not an “intellectual exercise, but something that goes far deeper than that… etc.” Meditate on his words. No one is obliged to accept anything that goes against their convictions, but this would be a way of giving faith a chance, and would indeed give real meaning to a life of meaningless (which is what atheism is.)

  12. Toadspittle says:

    “…would give real meaning to a life of meaningless (which is what atheism is.)”

    Did Picasso lead “a life of meaninglessness,” then, Kathleen? Or Schopenhauer Or Shostakovich? Or Shelly? Or George Orwell?

    …Does a tiger?

  13. doubting thomas says:

    Dear Toad,
    Picasso, or Shostakovich, or Shelly, or Orwell lived their lives. That you value their achievement in their lives is not in doubt. They made their contribution for the benefit of all. And tigers have their place in the universe.
    Anytime you like, give me Catholic living with doubt, against an atheist living with certainty.

  14. crow says:

    Dear Mr Toad,
    George Orwell would never have been a Catholic, as he was a product of an English education and suffered from the social iniquities he experienced. He became a Socialist, a creed which, as GK Chesterton pointed out, took a single aspect of Christianity/Catholicism, that is, “all men are equal” and disparaged all the other (moderating) aspects. Shostokovitch, I don’t know anything about, except that he wrote beautiful music. Picasso had no room for God – his god was Picasso (idolatry, I would say). But a tiger? Mr Toad – how do you know that a tiger does not believe in God – you assume it is so simply because he doesn’t speak about it. As Adrian so wisely said: Assume makes an ass out of you and Adrian!

  15. Toadspittle says:

    “George Orwell would never have been a Catholic, as he was a product of an English education and suffered from the social iniquities he experienced. “

    Oh, really, Crow? Then how about Waugh and Greene? “What “social inequities” did they suffer from?
    Regardless of that piece of crass imbecility…

    “But a tiger? Mr Toad – how do you know that a tiger does not believe in God – you assume it is so simply because he doesn’t speak about it,”

    Well Crow, I don’t have bleeding any idea if tigers believe in God or not, any more than you, or anyone, does.
    But that’s not what I asked – as you will see if you look again.
    I asked if you think a tiger’s life is, “bleak and meaningless.” Answer that, or not – I really don’t care.
    People on here will see what I’m getting at, which is why I write on here.

    And all this, regardless if whether or not you regard the idiotic idea of all Atheists’ lives being meaningless – or at least no less meaningless than the lives of Catholics.
    ,

  16. Toadspittle says:

    …I shamefully forgot to point out, Crow, that Wittgenstein also pointed out, that, “…If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t be able to understand him.”
    So, we will have to take the tiger’s silence as a, “don’t know,” won’t we?
    A situation Catholics generally seem very unhappy with…. As we must have a concrete answer for everything.
    Even if it’s only, “Well, err, God often works in mysterious ways, do He not?”

  17. Toadspittle says:

    “Picasso had no room for God – his god was Picasso (idolatry, I would say).”

    Well, Crow, you can posit that if you like – I don’t know if that’s true or not (and neither, I suspect, do you) although I’m inclined to doubt it: But the question, as yet unanswered, is not whether Pablo thought himself God or not – but whether or not his life was, “bleak and meaningless.”
    …I doubt if it was, but I don’t know.
    You apparently do.
    How do you know that?

  18. kathleen says:

    Do calm down Toad! What is it that has got you so uptight all of a sudden? Carry on with your agnosticism and your relativism if that is what makes you happy, but don’t start beating us all up on here simply because we don’t share your views… or non-views.

    Tigers, FYI, and all other animals, are quite happy in their own natural world, never asking themselves the “deeper questions” that Man asks about his existence. Now why could that be?
    Surely it couldn’t be because they were not endowed with an immortal soul, Free Will, and made in the Image and Likeness of God, could it?!!

  19. Toadspittle says:

    Yes, I’m sorry, Kathleen, I did use some immoderate language to poor Old Crow.
    Don’t know what came over me. Started to take it all a bit too seriously, I suppose.
    Won’t happen again.

    …Nevertheless, do you think a tiger’s life is “bleak and meaningless.”?
    Yes or no?

    “Carry on with your agnosticism and your relativism if that is what makes you happy, but don’t start beating us all up on here simply because we don’t share your views… or non-views.”

    What do you mean, “start”? I’ve been doing this for years.

  20. crow says:

    Dear Toad – I am sorry – I was provocative. Please accept my apologies.

  21. crow says:

    As to a tiger’s life – I suppose it depends upon whether he is in a zoo or not,,,,,

  22. Toadspittle says:

    I honestly didn’t notice you being provocative, Crow – but I did notice me being unduly insulting. …So I should apologise. And do.
    Good point about zoos. One was reputed to have a sign saying, “This animal is dangerous. If you poke it in the eye with a pointed stick, it will try to bite you.”

    …Bleak and meaningful lesson for us all there, it seems to me.

    Some of the people Beloved of God simply have to be caged up for the security of the rest of us.
    A tiger is caged because he’s a tiger.
    But, if Atheist’s lives – even those still unaccountably uncaged – are “bleak and meaningless” – what about Agnostics? Same?
    Jews? Hindus? Quivering Brethren? Stamp collectors?
    Where do we draw the bleak and meaningless line?
    Just behind our own heels?

  23. Tom Fisher says:

    He became a Socialist, a creed which, as GK Chesterton pointed out, took a single aspect of Christianity/Catholicism, that is, “all men are equal” and disparaged all the other (moderating) aspects.

    Wonderful stuff Crow, all mean are equal, but in moderation — Let’s not have people getting ideas. Orwell’d love it!

    But I’m being a tad unfair, I do see your point
    :-)

  24. Tom Fisher says:

    *mean = men = darn.

  25. kathleen says:

    No need to apologise Toad – and I was being “a tad too bossy” too!

    And yes, in one or another, you have been “beating us all up for years” on CP&S – that’s true!
    A good thing. Keeps us all more ‘umble I suppose. ;-)

  26. Toadspittle says:

    “GK Chesterton pointed out, took a single aspect of Christianity/Catholicism, that is, “all men are equal” “
    I don’t think, since Tom Fisher has brought it up – that Socialism, or even Christianity has ever baldly stated that, “All men are equal,” as they plainly are not.

    Some are healthier than others, for a start.
    And some are more selfish. And some are stupider.
    I’ll just leave it at that, for today.

    …But with a splendid, though only just barely apposite, remark from Flaubert:
    “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”
    That sums it all up, I suggest.

  27. crow says:

    Thank you Toad – that is the best one of all (apologies to GK Chesterton – whom I misquoted by the way)

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