The National Catholic Review
Bill Williams

Eric Lax grew up in Southern California with a strong religious sense, shaped by his devout mother and caring father, an Episcopalian priest. When his dad said Mass, the author assisted him as an altar boy. A parish school and a church-sponsored summer camp also helped form his faith.

After high school Lax headed East to study at Hobart, an Episcopalian college in Geneva, N.Y., where he, like many others, wrestled with such questions as “What is the nature of the universe?” and “Why are we here?”

During college Lax experienced “an unshakable sense of partnership with God” and thought he might follow his father into the priesthood. But doubts gradually crept in, and he slowly began to question his faith while struggling with feelings of loss, regret and angst.

Faith, Interrupted is a candid and heartfelt account of the author’s spiritual quest, which continues to this day.

The Vietnam War was pivotal for Lax. He believed it was wrong to kill, and he was prepared to go to prison rather than serve in the military. “I’d rather be locked up than have to shoot someone,” he writes. So he joined the Peace Corps, which assigned him to a tiny island in the Pacific, where he had plenty of time to think about his spiritual beliefs.

While Lax was serving in the Peace Corps, a college friend, George Packard, was sent to Vietnam as a leader of ambush missions that killed countless Vietcong soldiers. The storyline unfolds on parallel tracks, with Packard in the jungle tracking the enemy and Lax on a remote island pondering his convictions about killing and war. In a letter to his parents, who supported the war, Lax wrote, “The war to end all wars has been fought too many times to make me believe a path of war will ever bring peace.”

Eventually, Lax was granted conscientious-objector status. Meanwhile, his friend Packard returned from Vietnam and became an Episcopalian priest. In long conversations with the author Packard described the gruesome particulars of jungle warfare and the nightmares that held him prisoner for decades.

The heart of this well-crafted memoir is the author’s growing skepticism about everything he had been taught and his fear that he would disappoint his father, a gentle man who encouraged his son, and respected his willingness to “die for principle but not kill for it.” On his deathbed, the elder Lax told his son that “Christianity comes down to only one thing. That is to love one another. The miracles are all window dressing.”

When the author’s mother died, he was left with “a mixture of sadness and guilt along with a huge sense of loss, not only now of both parents but of the faith we had so deeply and easily shared.” He felt guilty, thinking he had betrayed his parents.

Lax immersed himself in books by the Trappist Thomas Keating and the daily spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, but his doubts persisted. “It was hard to try to connect with a presence I really didn’t think was there—I felt like someone fiddling with a Ouija board.”

The author’s fall from faith was influenced by “the fact that virtually every religion has limited or still limits equal rights for women, has supported slavery or still condones injustices” and that “members of one religion or another have been willing to shoot, bomb, or otherwise kill in the name of their God.”

Faith, Interrupted resonates because Lax confronts questions common to believers everywhere, and he does it without pomposity, self-righteousness or condescension. The text has an air of sadness regarding the author’s loss of a Christian faith that meant so much to him during his first three decades. One senses that Lax, now in his mid-60s, struggles with doubt as much as he struggled with faith. Thus, the book’s title can be misleading, implying that he has returned to his Christian faith after an interruption, but that is not the case—at least not yet.

Faith, the author concludes, is like love, which withers if left unattended. For years he took his faith for granted. “Then,” he writes, “when my father died, my anchor slipped, and I began to wonder about a God who seems to play spiritual hide-and-seek.”

Lax respects the beliefs of the many people he has known. “I am now separate from their faith,” he says, “yet willing to believe I may be mistaken.… They all found something profound and mysterious that transcends understanding and reason and that guides or guided their lives. Although it is one of the seven deadly sins, I envy them.”

Finally, regarding his loss of faith, Lax ends his account with these revealing words: “I miss it.”

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.