For 15 years I have wanted to meet Robert Coles. I first came across his name at the bottom of a brief article on “The promise of the cross, and what it means to me” in, of all places, Harper’s magazine. What kind of person could get an article on the cross published in a prestigious New York publication?

Over the years, I noticed Coles’s byline popping up in the most unlikely contexts: a review of the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos in the New York Times Book Review, or a discussion of Kierkegaard and Pascal in the New England Journal of Medicine. While other Christians bemoaned the bias of the secular press against articles on faith, Robert Coles—a name unknown to most evangelicals—was writing wherever he wanted, from an unabashedly Christian viewpoint.

In a 1972 cover story, Time called Coles “the most influential living psychiatrist in the U.S.” Yet when did he ever find time to practice psychiatry? He taught courses at Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, yes, but courses in literature, the “literature of transcendence,” as he called his pet list of religion-oriented novels. He seemed a man with a thousand interests, and whenever he found a new interest he wrote a book about it: a book of conversations with the radical priest Daniel Berrigan, a book of literary criticism on novelist Walker Percy, biographies of Simone Weil and Dorothy Day—38 books in all, and 900 articles.

His most impressive work, the five-volume Children of Crisis series, ran to more than a million words and earned Coles a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Later he was selected for a MacArthur Foundation “genius award,” a tax-free, no-strings-attached grant of $255,000. ...

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