By Dr. Donald DeMarco
Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000), a convert to Catholicism, is best known to modern movie aficionados as Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Knight of the Jedi. Ironically, he almost turned down his memorable role in Star Wars.
Commenting on the film’s benevolent power in the universe and the oft-repeated phrase – “May the force be with you” – Guinness said that as a Christian he does believe that something like the “force” exists, “But not as expressed in Star Wars.”
That “force,” that is, the grace of God, was surely with Sir Alec throughout his lifetime and was filtered through to him in the form of many friends whom he regarded as “Blessings in Disguise” – also the title of his 1985 autobiography. Counted among his innumerable friends are: Dame Edith Evans, Sir Ralph Richardson, Dame Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier.
He treasured his friends, as indicated by the closing line of his autobiography, “Of one thing I can boast; I am unaware of ever having lost a friend.”
In 1945 he met Pius XII. “I felt for the first time in my life that I had met a saint,” he later wrote. He also met Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. He was among the pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square in 1994 for the Easter morning Mass celebrating by Pope John Paul II.
“I decided,” he relates, “that his voice is the most beautiful and dignified speaking voice I have ever heard.”
Boastfulness was not in the least characteristic of Sir Alec. Despite his great success on stage, screen, and television, he confessed that “he is not at all proud of his achievements and repelled by the limelight.”
With regard to acting, he saw himself as a mere “interpreter of other men’s words.” Although acting was the fulfillment of his adolescent dream, he longed for something more, something that revealed the wholeness of his personality.
Two tensions threaded their way through the life of Alec Guinness. One was personal, the other historical.
When he was asked to write his autobiography he found the proposal most flattering to his “Ego,” but appalling to “I” that had to do the job and somehow make it a worthwhile enterprise.
“Ego seems to have disappeared,” he informs us. “But not for long, I know. I can hear his lightest tread.”
He was constantly trying to keep ahead of his demons, “Impatience, Fretfulness, Hurt-Pride, Laziness, Impetuosity, Fear-of-the-Future, and lurking nearby, Lack-of-Commonsense.”
The other tension was between history and the moment. For him, one of the most penetrating statements of G.K. Chesterton is that “the church is the one thing that saves us from the degrading servitude of being a child of his own time.”
There was nothing terribly special about his entrance into the Catholic Church, “just a sense of history,” he tells is, “and the fittingness of things. Something impossible to explain.”
Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “The incommunicable part of us is the pasture of God.” Who can explain what transpires in that unique moment of grace between man and God?
There were specific moments on the road to his conversion that are, perhaps, more palpable. In 1954 he was in France and playing the role of Father Brown in a movie released in the United States as The Detective. When he was on his way back to his lodging, dressed in clerical attire, a young boy of seven or eight came up to him, held his hand tightly, addressed him as “mon père,” and kept up a nonstop prattle. Guinness did not dare speak to him “in case my excruciating French should scare him.” Suddenly, with a “Bonsoir, mon père,” and a bow, he disappeared through a hole in a hedge.
Guinness 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 and creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”
His son, Matthew, then 11, was stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down. The future for Matthew looked doubtful. After dropping into a little Catholic church several times, Guinness made a negative bargain with God.
“Let him recover,” he said, “and I will never put an obstacle in his way should he ever wish to become a Catholic.”
About three months later, Matthew was able to walk. Not too long after that, he could play football. At age 15, Matthew became a Catholic.
The time and circumstances surrounding his birth were something to escape from rather than something to perpetuate. Guinness never knew his father, whose name was left blank on Alec’s birth certificate. His mother was variously described in obituaries and biographies as a “part-time barmaid” and a “prostitute.”
Alec had three different last names before he turned 15. When he set out to seek his fortune, he had but four pence in his pocket. The man who was destined to be knighted never forgot his humble beginnings.
Guinness speaks of having “near-psychic experiences.” The objective reader of Blessings in Disguise would no doubt rate them as “genuine.” One of these experiences would be of particular interest to fans of the cinema.
It was the autumn of 1955. Sir Alec had arrived in Los Angeles to appear in his first Hollywood film, The Swan. While at a restaurant, “a fair young man in sweatshirt and blue-jeans” came up to him.
“My name is James Dean. I’d like to show you something,” he said, bursting with pride. It was a sports car, wrapped in cellophane and tied with ribbon. It had just been delivered and its new owner had not yet driven it.
Guinness, rather than share the stranger’s joy, “heard himself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own, ‘Please, never get in it’.” He looked at his watch. “‘It is now ten o’clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this same time next week’.”
Returning to his normal voice, he apologized for what he had said. Nonetheless, at four o’clock in the afternoon of the following Friday, James Dean was dead, killed while driving his sports car.
Sir Alec Guinness was a most extraordinary person. He will be remembered mainly for his superb acting skills. But he was far more than that. He was a man of deep faith, unusual modesty, and exceptional spiritual acumen.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Conn. This editorial appeared in the May 18, 2017, edition of The Wanderer.