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‘And Then The Universe Opened Up…’

The Tree of Life (Anne Mathiasz/Shutterstock)

In the current issue of the New Yorker, there’s a really interesting assessment, by Louis Menand, of Norman Podhoretz and his scandalous late Sixties memoir Making Itwhich has just been re-released. Menand’s essay includes this fascinating passage:

The reaction to the book changed Podhoretz’s life. He started looking for academic positions, and he began drinking when he was at home alone, almost a fifth of Jack Daniel’s a day, his stepdaughter later told Jeffers. He had a contract to write a book on the nineteen-sixties—he had hated the Beats, and he regarded the counterculture as the legacy of the Beats—and he went to Yaddo, the writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, where he had written much of “Making It,” to work on it. Writers’ colonies are not where you ideally want to be if you have a drinking problem. One day, a fellow-colonist, the critic Kenneth Burke, told Podhoretz that he needed to straighten out. So Podhoretz got in his car and drove, a little under the influence, to a farmhouse he had bought in Delaware County, and it was there, in the early spring of 1970, that he had a vision.

As he told the story to Jeffers, he had finished his writing for the day. He was walking outside, carrying a Martini and feeling content, when it happened. “I saw physically, in the sky, though it was obviously in my head, a kind of diagram that resembled a family tree. And it was instantly clear to me that this diagram contained the secret of life and existence and knowledge: that you start with this, and you follow to that. It all had a logic of interconnectedness.” Not quite Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” but strangely close. The vision lasted thirty seconds, and when it was over Podhoretz realized what the diagram was telling him: “Judaism was true.” He did not mean the ethical teachings of Judaism; he meant Judaic law. He vowed to change his life.

To all appearances, he did. He stopped drinking, he began interrogating friends about their spiritual condition, and he transformed Commentary again, this time into the scourge of left-wing permissivism and progressivism.

As most of you readers know, the same issue of the magazine contains Joshua Rothman’s incredibly generous profile of me. Compare the Menand bit with this from Rothman:

In South Louisiana, religion was everywhere, but, as a kid, Dreher was indifferent to it. Then, when he was seventeen, his mother, Dorothy, won a trip to Europe in a raffle and sent Rod in her place. He visited Chartres and felt judged by the beauty of the cathedral. He began to take religion seriously.

That’s like saying Julia Child began to take food seriously after tasting sole meunière just off the boat in Rouen.  I did not have a true mystical experience like Norman Podhoretz did, but I very much count that teenage visit to Chartres as one of the most formative experiences of my life, though I could not have known it at the time. It marked the moment when I turned my life around, and began the long, slow, messy pilgrimage back to God. Somehow, in that cathedral, I knew He existed, in a way I never had before — and that He wanted me.

Rothman quotes a more straightforwardly mystical story from my book How Dante Can Save Your Life:

Two life-changing events occurred after Dreher began the regimen of prayer. He was alone at home one evening, lying in bed, when he sensed a presence in the room. “I felt a hand reach inside my heart and put a stone there,” he said. “And I could see, in some interior way, that the stone said, ‘God loves me.’ I’d doubted all my life that God really loved me.”

That really did happen. And my God, it changed my life.

Question to the room: did one or more mystical experiences change the direction of your life, for good or for ill? Tell that story, or those stories. Make yourself anonymous in the comments if you feel the need to.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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