A new conversion story

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‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ is the story of the poet Sally Read’s conversion from atheism to Catholicism in nine brief months. It opens with a description of Sally as a young student nurse laying out a body for the first time. She doesn’t spare the reader the practical details of handling a dead body. When she had finished, the Irish nurse who was instructing her told her to open the window “to let his soul fly”. However, Sally was an atheist and the idea of the soul seemed like an anachronism.

Her life was not without compassion. She trained to become a psychiatric nurse in order to help the weak and vulnerable. She sought for some spark of personality left in patients whose minds had gone, leaving behind the living husk of the body. When her father died, she didn’t allow herself any delusions. She remained firm in her belief that there was no transcendent being, and that all that was left of her father was his ashes. During this difficult period, her atheist convictions almost pushed her into the void. She describes sitting down one day and saying, “This is hell.”

God did not step in at that point. However, he caught up with her years later when she was living in Italy with her husband and small daughter. Research for a book she was working on, brought her into contact with a priest. ‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ tells the story of how from that small opening her life and convictions were turned upside down.

Some things I like about this book

‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ is not always a comfortable or an easy read, but it is a beautiful book. True to her poetic calling, Sally Read doesn’t waste words. Each passage counts. She gives vivid, succinct descriptions of her life in London and Italy. The story is fast-paced as the fire of her conversion rapidly burns through her previous liberal and atheist beliefs.

At times she grapples with describing experiences which go beyond the logic of the five senses. She describes grace “as if I had been blindly rifling a thick black backdrop before I unexpectedly put a hand through where the two halves of the fabric met.”

The book is not written in strict chronological order. The author has divided it into chapters on the Father, the Spirit, the Son, the Church, the Mother and the Mystery. Each contains relevant reflections on her life before and after she became Catholic. She mentions things which I recognise from my own journey towards the church, but hadn’t really thought about. Writing about her first confession, she says, “The Catholic Church, which I had always seen as wrapped in barbed wire and brambles, was as yielding, accommodating and non-judgemental as a mother.”

Sally Read does not shy away from describing the painful adjustments her family had to make in order to accept not just her new faith, but the fact that she had also changed as a person. I appreciate her frankness in writing about things which are probably experienced by many converts. Conversion affected all of my relationships, and it took some time before I and the others in my life could accept these changes.

This book fills a gap

My own conversion was like a deep, strong current pulling me seemingly unstoppably to a place I had just about sworn I would never go. During this period, I trawled the internet devouring conversion stories in the hope that they would help me understand what was happening.

Most of the stories I found were written by North Americans. Almost all of them described the painful process by which Evangelical Protestants question their church and eventually, despite all their initial objections, turn to the Catholic church for answers. These stories were important. They helped me to understand and answer the questions I had about Catholic faith as someone coming from a Protestant background.

However, I longed to find a conversion story from a culture closer to my own. I also carried the burden of turning away from the church, mocking belief and wanting nothing to do with organised religion.

None of the conversion stories I read during this period described the process of going from almost hating churches to a deep hunger for the Eucharist. However, ‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ fills this gap. It describes how God can turn a life in a completely different direction and replace atheism with the peace of his presence.

It’s important to record these mysteries because the fire of conversion eventually cools. Sally Read says, “We have to remember…, because these feelings, so right and pure, get muddled and muddied in the daily tramp of life and all its obligations. History disappears down the long line of dates; the supernatural recedes into some distant sky.” I appreciate this story, because at a time of doubt and darkness, it has helped me to remember the sure sense of God’s presence which drew me into the church.

Towards the end of the book, Sally Read describes her struggles to bear witness to her faith as a mother, as a writer and translator, as a parishioner organising adoration, and as someone whose love for her faith spills over into conversations. As she says in the last paragraph, this is an unfinished story about an ongoing journey. She writes with insight, honesty and passion, and I hope that she will share more in future books.

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No-one has a monopoly on Christ

 

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Last week the Pope visited the Lutheran church in Sweden in order to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

It might seem strange for a Catholic Pope to commemorate in any positive way an event which caused a seemingly irreconcilable split in the Christian church. However, Pope Francis said, “With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to Sacred Scripture in the Church’s life.”

When I first became Catholic, I might have felt threatened by this. I wanted to assert my Catholic identity by kicking against the church I had come from. There was a very great temptation to see everything Catholic as good, and what I had left behind in the Protestant church as bad or at least inadequate.

However, I’ve come to recognise that a part of me will always be Protestant. By becoming Catholic, I didn’t change my personality or my family background. A priest who is a Protestant convert told me to treasure this part of me, because it would make a positive contribution to the church. I didn’t want to listen to him at first. However, I now recognise the wisdom of what he said.

Christ broke down barriers

If Christ was here today, I am sure that he wouldn’t stick to one church and ignore the rest. He would reach out to all sorts of people in many different kinds of churches. He would also hang out with people who wouldn’t dream of darkening the door of a church. Christ would be found in pubs and betting shops and at street corners. He would talk to homeless people in doorways and lost and lonely people in mental hospitals and care homes.

During his ministry, the sharp end of his tongue most often fell on the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of his day. He criticised them for burdening people with rules. In the stories he told, the poor and dispossessed are invited to a wedding feast and a father gives the son who squandered his fortune a lavish welcome.

Jesus was someone who tipped over conventions and broke down barriers. He healed on the Sabbath day. He mixed with women. Not only that, he mixed with women from other religious backgrounds. His disciples were astonished to find him conversing with a Samaritan woman. He healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman and the servant of one of the Roman soldiers who was occupying Palestine.

Five hundred years ago, part of the Christian church branched away. Since then it has divided many times. I was brought up in a church which had split at least four times since the Reformation. There are so many differences in interpretation of the Bible and forms of worship that the differences between churches seem irreconcilable. However, what is impossible in a human level is not impossible for God. Perhaps, beneath it all, there is an underlying unity which we miss because we are so concentrated on the surface details.

Recognising the other

What I am sure about, is that Christ is not constrained by our barriers. He sees what we cannot. In an article in the Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, the Lutheran archbishop emeritus, Anders Wejryd, said of the Pope’s visit to Sweden, “When it comes to ecumenism, the first stage is diplomacy. That you acknowledge that the other is there and that the other church is more or less a real church, even if you don’t share all of its opinions.”

He describes what to me is a Christ-like attitude. At a time when politics seems to be increasingly about divisions and Us against Them, it is advice which could be applied not just to religious differences, but to our daily life. Barriers will only be broken down when we learn to see others as they really are.

Mary as Christ’s mother

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Marian devotion was my biggest sticking point when thinking about becoming Catholic. I had no instinct for it. Eventually I decided that since I was convinced about other aspects of Catholic faith, I would trust the church on this one.

Even before I was received into the church, I felt drawn to praying the Rosary. I wouldn’t be without it now. Meditating on the life of Jesus and Mary in this way often brings me peace when nothing else can.

However, I still puzzle over devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Our priest says that people fall into two errors when it comes to devotion to Mary: either they show too much devotion, or not enough. But what is enough? What role does she play? How does she fit into the picture? When praying the Rosary, she sometimes emerges as a concrete, human figure, but at other times she can seem elusive. Most of the time I feel more connected to my favourite saints than I do to Mary, the mother of Christ.

A dream

Recently I had a dream which helped me understand Mary’s role a little better. It was the kind of vivid dream which wakes you in the middle of the night and keeps sleep away for a while. In this dream, I was in a modern-looking church in which benches fanned out in a semi-circle from the altar. I felt apprehensive as I looked around. Many of my relatives and friends where spread out around the church and I knew that they would take a dim view of a Catholic Mass.

When, the priest began, I was on edge, hoping that the Protestant visitors weren’t feeling too out of place. It turned out to be one of those days when a hymn was sung in praise of the Virgin Mary. I felt like sinking through the floor of the church as I imagined the reactions of my Protestant friends. Why on earth did they had to turn up on a day when particular devotion was shown to the Virgin Mary? In my experience, Catholics are much more likely to sing a hymn in praise of the Eucharist than in praise of Mary or the saints.

 At this point, the Protestant visitors began protesting. I can’t remember everything that was said, but they argued strongly against Marian devotion. One of my relatives delivered the final blow. He stood up and declared that Catholics give Mary an equal position to Christ. They claim, he said, that she is co-mediatrix, an equal partner in our salvation.

My faith tottered. I wondered if I was deeply offending God by having any devotion to the Virgin Mary. I knew that I had to stand up and say something, but I had no idea what. I got to my feet and to my surprise words came to me. I said that Mary was as much a partner in Jesus’ work of salvation, as my mother was in my getting a degree.

An Analogy

These few words were enough. I awoke. It was dark and I was in my own bed, but the dream still felt very present. When I thought about it, it seemed that I had been given a good analogy.

My mother never had the chance to get a college or university education. She didn’t understand my degree subject, and I enjoyed teasing her by coming out with strange facts which she had trouble accepting. However, without her help, I would never have got a degree. She gave birth to me and brought me up to have a respect for education and knowledge.

My parents provided financial support. My Mum fed me up at half-term and sent me off again with packages of food. She didn’t bat an eyelid when I turned up with some of my strange new friends from university and told her that they needed a meal or a bed for the night. When I was lonely or things were difficult, I called her from a red telephone box in the rain. At the time I took my mother for granted, but now that I’m a mother myself, I appreciate her a lot more. Without her support, I wouldn’t have achieved what I did.

There is a parallel with the role of Mary in God’s plan of salvation. Christ, her son, did it all, and yet she was an essential part of God’s plan. She gave birth to Christ, and brought him up to love others and to love God. She encouraged and supported him, and even followed him to the foot of the cross.

Christ was fully human and yet fully divine. Like other human beings, he didn’t come from no-where. He had a family and that family helped to create the circumstances in which he could carry out his ministry and his work of salvation. Perhaps part of the reason we show devotion to his mother, is because he wants us to join him in appreciating the part she played in his life.