Subsequent tributes, such as one by Holy Cross professor Steve Vineberg in the Sunday New York Times, mentioned him with Redgrave, Richardson, Olivier, and Gielgud, noting that his "self-presentation was more modest ... his manner was deceptively ordinary." He suggests that we mark his passing by watching "Last Holiday," an early film. One may agree and yet wonder how what was central about this good man and great actor was not mentioned at all: His profound spirituality and deep Catholic faith that were seamlessly integrated into his life and work.
In this political season in which candidates are trying to show us how publicly religious they are, with the media underscoring their relationship to Jesus or to orthodox ritual, it is remarkable to have had the company of a man who was truly religious and who ended up with nobody noticing it.
But perhaps that tells us something about genuine faith and how, when it is practiced well and deeply, it does not get attention because it does not cry out for it as it quietly informs every aspect of a person's life.
I never met Sir Alec but I knew him and spent a lot of time with him, but not because of his movies that cinema savants think are all that he left behind.
I was in his company in the three memoirs he wrote, the last of which, the prophetically titled, "A Positively Final Appearance," appeared last year. In this and in "My Name Escapes Me" (1996) Sir Alec allows us to accompany him through the seasons of his later life as, with his wife of more than 60 years, Merula, they keep their gardens, feed their fish, visit, and are visited by, the famous, and make delightful journeys into London and beyond.
One could say, more truly than it was said of Seinfeld, that nothing happens. And yet everything happens and he greets it all with a sense of wonder that would have done credit to G.K. Chesterton, that genius of everyday miracles. For Sir Alec faces every day with a vision of a redeemed world, of a universe just rolling free, like a ball of stars, from the hand of its Creator, seeing it and seeing into it with faith at the same time.
There is nothing tortured, no pious underlining, just the natural reflections of a man whose Catholic faith illuminates everything as effortlessly as he made his acting seem. How could the obituary writers miss what he wrote about with such grace on almost every page of his charming books?
It may be that, after he had become a Catholic, just before making "The Bridge on The River Kwai," he felt, as many other converts have, that he had come home and that he no longer needed to search spiritually.
He writes about his conversion at length in "Blessings in Disguise" (1986), telling a story that the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago found of such great insight that he passed it on to priests who, in that time when charges of pedophilia were being made against their ranks, needed support for their trustworthiness.
Sir Alec was not needed on the set so, in his cassock for his role as Chesterton's Father Brown, he started walking back to his quarters in the French town of the location shooting. He had not gone far, he writes, "when I heard scampering footsteps and a piping voice calling, `Mon pere!' My hand was seized by a boy of seven or eight, who clutched it tightly, swung it and kept up a nonstop prattle. He was full of excitement, hop, skips, and jumps, but he never let go of me. ... Suddenly with a `Bonsoir, mon pere'... he disappeared through a hole in the hedge ... and I was left with an odd calm sense of elation. ... I 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 ... as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices."
How could they miss the stream of goodness that nourished Sir Alec's soul and still nourishes our own?