Alec Guinness and the Spanish mystics

Guinness rehearses Alan Bennett's Habeus Corpus (PA photo)

It was my birthday recently and among other gifts I received two books: one was My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor viz Alec Guinness, who kept the diary kept between January 1995 and June 1996; the other – I have to groan at this point – was The Prophet by Khalil Gibran.

Guinness’s diary is full of jottings such as (14 December): “It was at the beginning of the war, many years before I became a Catholic, that I became interested in a totally uncomprehending way, in the Spanish mystics. St Teresa of Avila’s autobiography – which must be one of the greatest given to the world – set me off, reading it nightly by the kitchen fire in a tiny cottage we rented for a few shillings a week. As Teresa was a pen friend with St J of X [St John of the Cross] I wanted to delve into him as well. But he is tougher going and hasn’t the endearing jokes that make St T of A almost fun. Among qualities they have in common is a breathtaking honesty.”

It says so much that although Guinness found these this couple of heavyweight mystics “uncomprehending”, he also knew instinctively that he was in the company of two great and holy people who displayed the kind of honesty that is only possible when you stand in the presence of God.

Another entry runs, “Many years ago… I wandered one day into Brompton Oratory. Spotting a little screw of paper lying at the feet of a statue to St A, I was inquisitive to know what might be written on it. ‘Please St Anthony, help me find my handbag’, perhaps; or ‘Where did I drop my penknife?’ I looked round furtively to make sure I wasn’t being watched and then unfolded the paper. I read it, folded it and gave it back to the statue. Any superior smile had been wiped off my face. What I had read was very simple: ‘Please St Anthony, help me find work.'”

The famous actor is humbled by the simple piety – and desperation – behind a prayer of petition to a saint traditionally trusted to find lost objects. In another passage, Guinness mentions warmly the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, whose most celebrated saying, often quoted, is: “And all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

Mention of Julian with her homely, poetical, Christian wisdom brings me to that arch poseur and windbag, Gibran, whose airy pretensions have been aptly described as “gibberish”. What does one make of lines such as: “For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters”? Or again: “For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?” Naturally the book is illustrated by the author, with his own boneless, epicene figures.

All this doubtless makes me sound a little ungrateful to the giver of this present; and I would be, if I didn’t know for a certainty that he spent less than five seconds on the choice (I am referring to my dear brother here, so I know what I am talking about.)

A final apercu from Guinness: “One of the depressing things about arriving in a fifth-rate hotel is the knowledge that you are going to find bent wire coat-hangers jangling in a rickety wardrobe.” It could almost be a metaphor for The Prophet.