Jesus. It makes some people shudder. Jesus. It makes some people shout, or pray, or look away, or look upon. 2000 years of history, means that name evokes all the things, doesn’t it? It’s been weaponized and neutralized and lionized. So I run the risk of opening with it. But this is a book review of a memoir written by a man famous for leading off with Jesus and getting some decent results, even from college students about to riot or evangelicals about to pick a fight with him.
Fr. Peter Gilquist finished his final book, Memories of His Mercy, shortly before his death in 2012. He’d been writing and working in publishing for decades, including ghost writing Johnny Cash’s Man in Black, as well as a number of books about becoming an Orthodox Christian after years working with Campus Crusade. In fact, after the Kent State shooting, while he was chaplain on Northwestern University’s campus, the administration asked him to speak at a rally about to turn riot. Uncertain of what to say or how to begin, he simply started with Jesus.
In Memories of His Mercy, Fr. Gillquist recounts memories that shifted the direction of his life, with early vignettes reading like parallels to the stories of other athletes who became evangelists and pastors who became influencers. Where his story veers begins with putting family first, as a little church, and early on listening to a niggling urge to find the New Testament church. He and other chaplains working with Campus Crusade tried to create Orthodox Christianity 2.0, the evangelical edition, but ended up back where Christianity started. But this is not that book.
This is a book that reminds me of a memoir I helped edit: my grandmother’s memoir of her conversion and my grandfather’s before they fell in love at Bible college, of making love work when poverty and ministry test marriage, of snaking dirt roads of ministry. Fr. Gillquist writes like I imagine he talked. He tells a story, he draws out a purpose, he links it to the mercies of God. It’s never quite a homily, never just a memory, retold like someone else’s dream.
Once, while I helped my grandmother flesh out a chapter of her book she said to me, “I think your grandfather was a better preacher than Billy Graham.” I can’t help realizing how the Graham archetype permeated most of the mid-twentieth century. He was relatable, fatherly, loyal, and kindly, but driven by the urgency of the story of Jesus and how it might transform lives that had been milled in previous decades by the Depression and World War II. Fr. Gilquist’s early anecdotes vibrate with that icon of Christian evangelical, but the 60’s changed us all. He ministered to the young as a Campus Crusade chaplain but in his private spiritual journey, he linked himself to a group who wanted an ancient, wizened faith.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read his Becoming Orthodox, but when my husband and I tossed up our arms and said, “That’s it. I’m not an evangelical Christian anymore,” we ended up at a little church just exiting the group Fr. Gillquist helped to found and entering the Orthodox Church. In our case, the parish was one of the malingerers who came into the Orthodox Church of America, years after Fr. Gillquist and others came to into the Orthodox Church via the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in America. Both are the same church, different organizational leadership due to the USA’s salad bowl of cultures. Orthodox Christianity is worldwide and untidily organized by regions. I rather like it’s decentralized, broad sharing of leadership, but I digress. What I learned in Memoirs of His Mercy is a story that was both familiar since my husband and I left non-denominational evangelical Christianity to become Orthodox Christians at the same time as a whole parish on a similar trajectory with a longer arc, and yet helped to explain the relationship of a rather stodgy, eastern version of Christianity on a continent that is always trying to make everything new.
It’s a bit confessional, and time-bound to admit that I loved reading these vignettes because I have one or two degrees of separation from Fr. Gillquist. I had the joy of getting to know Fr. Peter Jon and Presv. Kristina as they transitioned fresh out seminary and music to the parish just before we trundled off to seminary. We came back to Indiana to find they’d ministered so deeply to dear friends who shared the heartache of still births. We too treasure the precious moments with Schmemann’s (in our case, Mat. Julianna) and Fr. Thomas Hopko. We love Fr. James Ellison who gets a cameo in the latter chapters. We get to rub elbows with him every summer at St. John’s Camp, a ministry out of St. John the Forerunner. And, we love our intimate brothers and sisters in the Antiochian Archdiocese as Fr. Gillquist honored his dear friends in the OCA. What I love most though is that this humanizes what it looks like to make marriages work, to make a slow, steady path of faithful service. We read the lives of those came before us centuries ago. Ever since the first time I read the line, “Mary stored up all these things up and pondered them in her heart,” I’ve looked for examples of the inner and outer journeys of faith of those who have gone before. This collection fills out the numerous tomes of Fr. Gilquist as an account of such faith. We can see how he writes with his own hands what it means to stay true to a full faith in this modern context, an Americanized version.
Finally, I love that Fr. Gillquist gives us a call to action by his life. Faith is a life-long commitment, a discipline. It’s an action we commit to, not a feeling.