Many Catholics looking for a bit of summer reading might be tempted to pass over Laura S. Gossin’s offering, One Man Perched on a Rock: A Biography of Dr. Warren Carroll, perhaps wondering just who this Carroll character might be or, if aware of Dr. Carroll’s preeminent role as founder of Christendom College and his scholarship on Catholic history, concluding that since they no connection with the College they will have little interest in its founding or its founder.
They would be mistaken to do so, and for several reasons. (Full disclosure: my four children are all graduates of Christendom College.)
First, this very readable book presents yet again proof for the proposition that while every fall from grace may be boringly similar, every conversion to Christ is refreshingly unique. In Carroll’s case, it is a uniquely American story. He was born and raised in ‘Yankee’ Maine in a culture still steeped in a morality of natural virtues such as thrift, prudence, and civic duty derived from its Puritan and Calvinist founders, yet stripped of the theology and religiosity thereof. Inheriting from both parents a passion for reading, storytelling, and intellectual pursuit Carroll was repulsed by what he termed the ‘fundamental skepticism’ – what today we might call the secular humanism – he encountered upon entering graduate school at Columbia. He bounced through the anti-communism of the Cold War, passed through a dalliance with the Objectivism of Ayn Rand and a flirtation with the Puritanism of his Maine forebearers, before undergoing a seemingly rapid conversion to Catholicism just a handful of months after marriage to his beloved wife Anne.
Yet, I say his conversion is only ‘seemingly’ rapid. Gossin masterfully traces the various pieces of his life’s story, the twists and turns and intellectual movements which slowly cultivated a heart open and yearning for truth, making it ready to react suddenly and willingly when finally discovering Truth is a Person whose name is Jesus. For example, Carroll’s revulsion to the ‘fundamental skepticism’ he encountered first at Columbia is amply illustrated in the following quote Gossin offers from one of Carroll’s early works of science fiction, a quote which captures in essence the response most if not all faithful Catholics would offer to our current, dominant culture:
“Sophistication is a mask,” said Sherry in a clear voice, “a mask of obscurity in ideas and artificiality in emotion that hides a great hollowness inside – a hollowness where the simple, honest, the warm, and the forthright qualities of every healthy personality should be, but in the sophisticate, are not. Its causes are hypocrisy, fear, immorality, loss of faith, and perverted standards of social prestige. Its effects are aimlessness, the cult of unsentimentality, the ridicule of the pure, and a growing decline in the educational system, which tends to be the main producers of sophisticates.”
This was written in the late 1950s. Thus, it’s not at all surprising – indeed, it seems almost inevitable – that an intellect so acute in diagnosing the illness should, after just a few prayers from Anne, run to the medicine offered by the Divine Physician. Carroll’s story shows Newman’s favorite aphorism that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant” may need to be amended to “to be deep in history is to cease to be basically anything but Catholic.”
Second, as well as telling Carroll’s personal story, One Man Perched on a Rock also illuminates one of the more vexing debates rumbling in Catholic circles these days, that surrounding the so-tagged Benedict Option. Roughly forty years before Rod Dreher would raise awareness of just how Christians might respond to a culture for which an extreme conception of liberty serves as the lodestar for a descent into decadence, Carroll grappled with the descent just as it was picking up steam. Central to Carroll’s intellectual development in this regard were the minds and personalities involved in the production of the magazine Triumph, which sought to bring a Catholic perspective to the intersection of religion and politics in U.S. society. This included such men as Dr. Frederick Wilhelmsen of the University of Dallas; Dr. Bill Marshner, who would later serve as one of the founding faculty members of Christendom College; and L. Brent Bozell Jr., perhaps best known at the time for his association with his brother-in-law William F. Buckley and Buckley’s National Review.
Carroll succinctly described the cultural landscape of those years in a forward to an anthology entitled The Best of Triumph, published in 2001. Quotes Gossin:
Triumph magazine was published during the most critical period in American history since the Civil War: from 1966 to 1976. These were the years America passed through a near-revolution (1968-1970) and ceased to be a Christian nation, becoming secular and neo-pagan. (p. 139)
Surveying the destruction of those years, Carroll opted for the Benedict Option and founded Christendom College. And while the economic revival of the Reagan years, the spiritual revival of the papacy of St. Pope John Paul II, and the fall of the Soviet Union may have masked for a time the further descent of Western Civilization into madness begun in those years of 1966-1976, there can be little doubt that if Carroll was ahead of his time, he was only slightly so.
Which leads to the third reason One Man Perched on a Rock should be of general interest to faithful Catholics, to wit: in documenting the founding and growth of Christendom, Gossin presents us a case study, an archetype, of the struggles and pitfalls and, ultimately, the providence of God’s grace in undertaking any true apostolate. Indeed, reading the book brings to mind so many similar stories which should be familiar to us: the seeming improbability of obtaining the necessary resources for the undertaking (think of the story of Mother Angelica and her purchase of the necessary equipment to launch her television network); the inevitable personality conflicts inherent in any human endeavor involving committed, strong intellects (think of the scene from scripture of the falling out between Paul and Barnabas); and the almost fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach intrinsic to any venture in which the odds of success are minimal (think of that ragtag fleet of Italian merchantmen and sloops sailing out to meet the Muslim armada at the Battle of Lepanto.) All of these facets of apostolate are artfully presented by Gossin while holding true to one of Dr. Carroll’s last wishes which was his hope that in the telling of his story, it would, “include no detraction” (p. xi).
Finally, and charmingly, the book presents – particularly in its last pages – a love story. We live in an age which romanticizes to the point of exaltation the eros of ‘falling in love.’ Our ahistorical ‘youth culture’ idolizes and idealizes ‘love’ as something consisting solely of a rush of hormones. Gossin’s tender portrayal of Carroll’s last years, with many days perched on a chair in his wife Anne’s classroom reading a book while directing her to students with raised hands, touches the soul with the hope to be found in the true love of agape nurtured through a lifetime of matrimonial devotion.
Perhaps the only flaw of One Man Perched on a Rock is that, too often, rather lengthy quotations (often from Carroll’s own works) are offered where a short summary of the thoughts presented would suffice. Particularly in our rapid-fire internet age, some might be tempted to ‘click’ past these quotations, to get on with the story. And if the reader so desires, this probably wouldn’t be that bad a thing. But for those with a bit more patience, these long digressions into the worlds Carroll created in his science fiction, the relationships he nourished in his personal letters, and the scholarship he presented in his historical works all offer a journey into a mind both unique and uniquely Catholic.
For example, Gossin offers the following from one of Carroll’s early, unpublished works of science fiction, written long before he became Catholic, which captures in its essence the sense of joy Carroll felt should be at the center of any life well-lived. His characters are seeking to rebuild a depressed and barren America of the future. As they band together for the task, one character ruminates on the role of laughter in life. The character reasons, thusly,
… because for all its frequent and bitter perversions laughter is the divinely bestowed instrument of human joy, and of celebration for human victory …. Like beauty, like any of the few human achievements and capacities which are ends in themselves as well as pathways and guideposts to greater things, joy exists in its moment and in eternity, but only by a fractional reflection, in time. It never grows old, its delight is magical because perpetual and undimmed, its impetus ever renewed fresh and pure and crystal-clear, like the outflow from a mountain spring. (p. 86)
Such a joyous attitude toward life gives context to the scenes Gossin peppers throughout the book showing Carroll to be not just an intellectual eclectic, but at times maybe just a bit of an eccentric. There is, for example, Carroll’s failed attempt at building a rabbit hutch. Or, his rather self-described “miserable” stint as an apiarist. Or, finally, his love for the game of Twister. One suspects at some point after Carroll’s conversion he came across Belloc’s rhyme, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there is much laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so, Benedicamus Domino,” and raised a toast in concurrence.
One of Carroll’s favorite historical characters was a man named Pelayo who in the 700s, tradition tells us, launched the Reconquista to free Spain from the Moors by capturing a small patch of mountainous terrain. He would regale hundreds of students across the years with the tale always concluding with what for him was a central truth, “One man can make a difference.” In reading One Man Perched on a Rock, said title deriving from this tale of Pelayo, Catholics can be strengthened again in this belief. In this day and age of stifling indifference and overpowering nihilism, that is reason enough for reading the book.
One Man Perched on a Rock: A Biography of Dr. Warren H. Carroll
by Laura S. Gossin
Christendom Press, 2017