A China Connection

During his first year in Boston at Harvard Med, Arthur Guyton met Ruth Weigle. He and a fellow student had ridden bicycles 15 miles as far as Wellesley College to take advantage of a pleasant day. Ruth was walking with a friend whom the young men had met at a party. They talked a while. Nothing came of it, but she impressed him enough that she stuck somehow in his memory.

He met her again about 2 years later. Arthur recalled the early encounter; Ruth politely said maybe. At that time each of them was seriously interested in someone else.

In Arthur’s case, that someone else was one of Ruth’s best friends. The young woman tentatively accepted his proposal of marriage, but they decided not to make a public announcement. After they visited each other’s homes, the enchantment began to dim. Arthur found that life for his fiancée and her family tended to revolve around the country club. That was not his scene. Ruth followed a similar path – that is, she became engaged, but likewise the initial charm grew faint.

In late 1942 Ruth chanced to see Arthur with a new girl at a play in Boston. In her view, he was now unattached, and she acted quickly. She went shopping, bought a new dress, and invited him to chaperone with her a holiday dance held at Pine Manor Junior College in the town of Wellesley.

By this time through mutual acquaintance they knew a little about each other. At the dance they found they had much in common – a love of education and unsolved problems, a sense of mission, and a mutual fondness for teasing that bubbled quickly into laughter.

In less than a month, they took a cold winter walk around Lake Waban (pictured above) at Wellesley College. A whimsical legend foretold marriage for any couple who walked the full 2 miles around the lake together. Both of them were still semi-attached to others. They finished the walk, stopped, and kissed – and kissed. Ruth looked at him intently and asked, “Arthur, what shall we do?” With just a slight hesitation, he replied, “I guess we’ll have to get married.” Her response was a little longer coming: “Yes.”

“Do not be unequally yoked,” reads a verse from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church. The full passage is

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?[1]

These strong words directly advise young Christians not to marry nonbelievers. How did Ruth Weigle, daughter of a divinity school dean and past president of the Christian Association at Wellesley, come to ignore Paul’s admonition?

Wedding day, 1943

We should set aside any speculation that Arthur hid his agnostic beliefs from her. Their lifetime marriage lasting 60 years proved too strong to be based on an initial deception. Their love ran both shallow and deep. They enjoyed each other’s presence. Their cup overflowed with conversational walks in the evenings, oft-repeated ribs and jokes, raising children together, bridge and dinner clubs and discussion groups, and travels abroad together. He did not go to church with her, but he encouraged and participated in her community work like the PTA. She took immense pride in his work in physiology. She hosted the departmental picnic each summer in their large back yard. His friends became her friends, and mostly vice versa, except her church friends.

Daddy once told me that their marriage was a very happy one, but he did regret that he and Mama did not share philosophical or religious beliefs. Mama encouraged the children to go to Sunday School and church, and she was disappointed when we stopped or thought about stopping. Yet I never heard a word of religious condemnation from her, either toward Daddy or toward any one of the children.

Except once. When I was “on fire for Christ” as a committed young believer, I announced my plan to drive from Jackson to Atlanta with several friends for a weekend conference. It so happened that my older brothers would be home that weekend from Ole Miss and from medical school in Boston, a rare occasion to have the whole family together. Mama objected strenuously to my leaving for the weekend. Having the family together meant that much to her. I went anyway.

Why did Ruth Weigle submerge the Biblical advice to seek a Christian union? I hunted through her notebook from 1941-43 for a clue. The notebook resembles a scrapbook more than a diary. About this lifetime decision she had written not a word. Not that she really had much time to write down her thoughts, accepting his proposal within less than a month of serious courtship. Which she had initiated!

But there was a clue I didn’t recognize at first. Her notes make repeated references to an author named A. J. Cronin. She typed out 9 quotes from his book The Keys of the Kingdom.

Who was this? From the quotes I thought A. J. Cronin might be a Christian philosopher like Elton Trueblood or a teacher at divinity school like my grandfather.

Cronin was actually a Scottish physician who became a novelist. In medical school he was agnostic. china-thekeysofthekingdomvideocoverAs Medical Inspector of Mines for Great Britain, he personally witnessed a major disaster, much as Frances Perkins had in New York, and he reported on coal dust as a cause of pulmonary disease. After little more than a decade as a physician, he was sidelined by a chronic duodenal ulcer and decided to indulge his dream of writing fiction. By this time, he had returned to belief in God – a subject featured in several novels. Hollywood turned several of his books into films. In 1939 he moved with his wife and 3 children to California, later to New England.

The Keys of the Kingdom tells the story of Father Francis Chisholm, whose thoughts and works through the novel stray far from the customary path of a Catholic priest. I’ll reproduce here 6 quotes from the book that Ruth typed and pasted into her 1941-43 notebook. (The movie version catapulted Gregory Peck to stardom as Father Francis, but it would not appear until 1944.)

Here is Cronin’s sense of the presence of God, from a passage in Francis’ diary –

“Who can describe those moments that come to one suddenly: alone upon the back road to Doune, walking in the darkness in one’s silent room, remaining behind, quite solitary, when the scraping, coughing, whispering mob has gone in the empty yet breathing church. Moments of strange apprehension, of intuition. Not that sentimental ecstasy which is as loathsome to me as ever – Query: why do I want to vomit when I see rapture on the Master of Novices’ face? – but a sense of consolation, of hope.

“I’m distressed to find myself writing like this – though it is for no other eye than mine. One’s private ardours make chilling stuff on paper. Yet I must record this inescapable sense of belonging to God which strikes at me through the darkness, the deep conviction, under the measured, arranged, implacable movement of the universe, that man does not emerge from, or vanish into, nothing.”

Here he marks both the distance and the possibility of belief –

Momentarily, the seismograph of his mind faintly registered the shock: a glimmering of the knowledge of the incomprehensibility of God. He prayed fervently. Oh dear God, we don’t even know the beginning. We are like tiny ants in a bottomless abyss, covered with 1 million layers of cotton wool, striving…striving to see the sky. Oh God…dear God, give me humility…and give me faith.

When Ruth Weigle found the love of her life in the person of “a decent agnostic,” she opened Cronin’s book to read this:

“There is one thing we most of us forget. Christ taught it. The church teaches it…though you wouldn’t think so to hear a great many of us today. No one in good faith can ever be lost. No one. Buddhists, Mohammedans, Taoists.… If they are sincere, according to their own lights, they will be saved. That is the splendid mercy of God. So why shouldn’t He enjoy confronting a decent agnostic at the Judgment Seat with a twinkle in his eye: ‘I’m here, you see, in spite of all they brought you up to believe. Enter the Kingdom which you honestly denied.’”

Ruth chose to focus on “fundamentals – love for God and our neighbor”, as described in these words in Father Francis’ diary:

“I love my religion, into which I was born, which I have taught, as best I could, for over thirty years, and which has led me unfailingly to the source of all joy, of everlasting sweetness. Yet in my isolation here my outlook has simplified, clarified with my advancing years. I’ve tied up, and neatly tucked away, all the complex, pettifogging little quirks of doctrine. Frankly, I can’t believe that any of God’s creatures will grill for all Eternity because of eating a mutton chop on Friday. If we have the fundamentals – love for God and our neighbor…surely we’re all right? And isn’t it time for the churches of the world to cease hating one another…and unite? The world is one living, breathing body, dependent for its health on the billions of cells which comprise it…and each tiny cell is the heart of man.…”

Here are 2 more excerpts from her notebook, quoted from The Keys of the Kingdom:

The Church is our great mother, leading us forward. But perhaps there are other mothers. And perhaps even some poor solitary pilgrims who stumble home alone.

My friend, I have often said: There are many religions and each has its gate to heaven….

What surprised me most about The Keys of the Kingdom, however, was not its universalist tone, but rather that half the book recounted Father Francis’ lifetime work as a missionary in China.

The China theme, I think, really explained Ruth’s passionate attachment to the book.

Arthur certainly would have said that they had “something in common.” Ruth, more sensitive, could have seen it as a sign from God. What were the odds that 2 young adults in the eastern U.S. would meet who were so connected to China as they were?

Ruth spent most of 6 months there at age 14 with her father and mother, the cultural adventure of her life. Arthur’s mother, who so profoundly influenced him, taught math and physics in China for 5 years. He grew up with vases and painted screens and wisdom from the East. If Ruth and Arthur’s marriage had a stamp, it might say, Made in China.

In Cronin’s book, Father Francis Chisholm returned to Scotland as an old man and took on as his ward a boy named Andrew, orphaned grandson of the only girl who had ever attracted Francis’ romantic interest. The following scene from The Keys of the Kingdom describes an afternoon outside with these two plus an investigator, Monsignor Sleeth, sent by the bishop:

The old man had a mania for making kites, great paper things with waving tails, which flew – Sleeth grudgingly admitted – like monster birds. On Tuesday, coming upon the two breezily attached to the clouds by humming twine, he had ventured to remonstrate.

“Really, Father. Do you think this pastime dignified?”

The old man had smiled – confound it, he was never rebellious, always that quiet, maddeningly gentle smile.

“The Chinese do. And they’re a dignified people.”

“It’s one of their pagan customs, I presume.”

“Ah, well! Surely a very innocent one!”

He remained aloof, his nose turning blue in the sharp wind, watching them. It appeared that the old priest was merging pleasure with instruction. From time to time, while he held the string, the boy would sit in the summer house taking down dictation on strips of paper. Completed, these labored scrolls were threaded on the string, sent soaring to the sky, amid joint jubilation.

An impulse of curiosity had mastered him. He took the latest missive from the boy’s excited hands. He read: “I faithfully promise to oppose bravely all that is stupid and bigoted and cruel. Signed, ANDREW.  PS. Toleration is the highest virtue. Humility comes next.”

He looked at it weakly, for a long time, before surrendering it. He even waited with a chilled face until the next was prepared. “Our bones may molder and become the earth of the fields, but the spirit issues forth and lives on high in a condition of glorious brightness. God is the common father of all mankind.”

Mollified, Sleeth looked at Father Chisolm. “Excellent. Didn’t St. Paul say that?”

“No.” The old man shook his head apologetically. “It was Confucius.”

Sleeth was staggered. He walked away without a word.[2]

Francis did not return from that great civilization, which he nominally ventured to change, unchanged himself. Nor did Kate Smallwood or young Ruth Weigle.

Ruth met her mother-in-law Kate for the first time on her wedding day. She had received letters from Kate and had heard many stories. The day thrilled her for that meeting as well as her wedding. She could not foresee then how greatly she would later depend on Kate, how close they would become over the course of years.

The swinging gate was again in motion. Ruth marked the passing of time, but remained content to live in the present. She wrote in her notebook this quote from Fra Giovanni in 1513, entitled “The eternal now”:

No heaven can come to us unless we find rest in today.
No peace lies in the future, which is not hidden in this precious little instant.
There is a radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see.


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Header image:  Mallard ducks and ice at Lake Waban, Wellesley, Massachusetts. By Igal Shkolnik/Shutterstock.com.  Wedding picture, family photo.  Movie poster for The Keys of the Kingdom with Gregory Peck, Wikimedia commons, Fair use.  Chinese philosopher statuette and balsa or cork carving, personal items, own photo.

[1] 2 Corinthians 6:14-15, English Standard Version of the Bible.

[2] Cronin, A. J. The Keys of the Kingdom. RosettaBooks for Kindle, 1941, electronic version 2015. Kindle locations 5320-5339.


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