Mary McCarthy's parents died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 when she was six years old. She lived first with an aunt and uncle, who mistreated her cruelly, then was taken in by her maternal grandparents in Seattle. Her grandmother was Jewish and her grandfather Episcopalian, but to honor the intentions of Mary's Catholic parents, she was sent to a prestigious Catholic boarding school. Mary's education was excellent, but she remained questioning about matters of religion.
When Mary was twelve, she was attending a new school and decided to create a sensation in order to be noticed. But how was it to be done? One day, the perfect idea dawned:
People are always asking how I came to lose my faith, imagining a period of deep inward struggle. The truth is the whole momentous project simply jumped at me, ready-made. ... "Say you've lost your faith," the devil prompted, assuring me that there was no risk if I chose my moment carefully. Starting Monday morning, we were going to have a retreat, to be preached by a stirring Jesuit. If I lost my faith on, say, Sunday, I could regain it during the three days of retreat, in time for Wednesday confessions. Thus there would be only four days in which my soul would be in danger if I should happen to die suddenly. ... The idea seemed so obvious, like a store waiting to be robbed.
Mary refused to take communion and declared that she had lost her faith. The nuns and priests of the convent considered this a disaster and her fall from grace caused all the stir she had hoped. Father Dennis, the convent's head priest, spoke seriously with Mary and as she disputed points with the priest, Mary became more and more excited.
... It had come to me that Christ really could have been a man. The idea of Christ as simply man had something extraordinary and joyous about it that was different, I perceived, from the condescension of God to the flesh. I was glad I had started this discussion, for I was learning something new every second. All fear had left me and all sense of mere willful antagonism.
But once more he cut me off. "You must accept what I tell you," he said, almost sharply. "You are too young to understand these things. You must have faith." "But you're supposed to give me faith, Father," I protested. "Only God can do that," he answered. "Pray, and He will grant it." "I can't pray," I said automatically. "You know your prayers," he said. "Say them." He rose, and I made my curtsy. "Father!" I cried out suddenly, in desperation at the way he was leaving me. "There's something else!"
He turned back fatiguedly, but the wild look on my face must have alarmed him. "What is it, my child?" He came a little nearer, peering at me with a concerned, kindly expression. "My child," he said gravely, "do you doubt the existence of God?" "Yes," I breathed, in exultant agony, knowing that it was true.
When Father Dennis failed to restore Mary's faith, the visiting priest spoke with her.
... "Natural reason, Mary," expatiated Father Heeney, will not take you the whole way today. There's a little gap that we have to fill with faith." I looked up at him measuringly. So there was a gap, then. How was it that they had never mentioned this interesting fact to us before?
Mary McCarthy pretended to regain her faith in order to restore her standing in the parochial school, but in fact her life was changed. The title refers to this change: the "first step" was what started out essentially on a whim, but with results that were dramatic, unintended, and permanent. McCarthy "came out" as an atheist in her early 20s and was forthright about her non-belief in God for the rest of her life. She rather famously stated, "I do not mind if I lose my soul for all eternity. If the kind of God exists who would damn me for not working out a deal with Him, then that is unfortunate. I should not care to spend eternity in the company of such a person."
McCarthy became a bestselling author, theatre and social critic. Her writings on women's lives, high society, and the Vietnam War were often scathing and scandalous, but she was never one to mince words. She held a mirror up to the country and asked if Americans liked what they saw. In 1984, she was honored with the National Medal for Literature. She died in 1989.
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Last updated on Friday, December 9, 2011.