Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000), renowned British actor, converted to Catholicism after playing a priest in the 1954 film The Detective, aka Father Brown.
Perhaps best known for his role as the bearded sage Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars films, Guinness was born into a broken family. His mother, Agnes Cuffe, was unmarried. He never knew his father. Abused by a brutal stepfather, as an adolescent Guinness discovered the solace of the theatre. Confirmed into the Anglican Church at sixteen, as a youth he dabbled in various religions while secretly considering himself an atheist.
Religion, he believed, was "so much rubbish, a wicked scheme of the Establishment to keep the working man in his place."
Acclaimed for his role of Hamlet on the London stage, he went on to launch what would prove to be an equally illustrious film career: Oliver Twist (1948), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951).
In 1954, he was cast as the lead in The Detective, a film based on the character of G.K. Chesterton's crime-solving priest, Father Brown. On location in France, he was walking down the street one evening, still clad in his stage vestments, when a local child mistook him for a real priest, trustingly took Guinness' hand, and began accompanying him down the street.
In Blessings in Disguise, the first volume of his autobiography, he wrote of the incident:
"Continuing my walk I reflected that a Church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its 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."
Just before filming began, the actor's son Matthew, eleven, had contracted polio. Guinness began ducking into "a rather tawdry little" local Catholic church to pray. He made a bargain with God: if Matthew were healed, he wouldn't object should the boy ever express a desire to convert to Catholicism.
Matthew did recover, and Guinness and his wife, Merula, enrolled him in a Jesuit school. Meanwhile, Guinness himself continued to seek God, and was confirmed in 1956. Merula followed the next year. Matthew came into the Church at the age of fifteen.
"There had been no emotional upheaval," Guinness wrote, "no great insight, certainly no proper grasp of theological issues; just a sense of history and the fittingness of things."
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1959 for services to the arts.
A frequent communicant for the remaining decades of his life, he died of liver cancer on August 5, 2000. Merula passed away two months later. The two had been married sixty years.
Watching Guinness now, it's lovely to contemplate the source from which his devotion to family and art sprang. He once described walking a London street when, with joy in his heart, he began running. "I ran until I reached the little Catholic church there...which I had never entered before; I knelt; caught my breath, and for ten minutes was lost to the world."
Heather King. "Sir Alec Guinness." Magnificat (September 2018).
Reprinted with permission from Magnificat.
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Heather King is a sober alcoholic, an ex-lawyer, a Catholic convert, and a full-time writer. She is the author of: Parched, Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Poor Baby, Stripped, Holy Days and Gospel Reflections, and Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website here.Copyright © 2018 Magnificat
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