‘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.