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From atheist to believer

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A woman is pictured in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in London July 4, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. CNS photo/Isabel Infantes, PA Images via Reuters

From St Augustine’s Confessions to the testimonies of RCIA candidates in our parishes, conversion stories have a power to fascinate and inspire. None more so in recent times than Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story, a memoir by UK poet Sally Read.

It details what happened to her during “nine electric months” that led to her being baptised in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 2010.

But the story also remains a mystery; she received a direct, transformative encounter with God in the midst of a heart-felt and at times difficult search for truth.

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Sally’s extraordinary spiritual quest began when she emailed a priest asking for help to find nuns she could interview for a book about female sexuality.

Sally has since written two more books, Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World, a letter to her daughter Flo who was struggling with faith before her first Holy Communion, and Dawn of this Hunger, her first collection of poetry as a Catholic. She’s now compiling an anthology of poetry for Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

She answered some questions in this email interview for The Catholic Weekly:

Given the way you described yourself before 2010 it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely person to fall in love with Christ and choose Catholicism than you. But you say you can now see the seeds of your conversion were evident in some earlier poems. You’ve even called them mystical. How do you account for this?

Astute readers did notice that I often referred to Mary in my pre-conversion work. But the poems I produced were very feminist, quite shocking and certainly heretical. Still, the very fact the idea of God and Mary wouldn’t leave me alone was, on reflection, a positive thing.

That’s why when someone seems very anti-Catholic, they can often change their minds quite suddenly. It’s indifference that is the killer.

Were you surprised by the reception of Night’s Bright Darkness? Why do you think so many people have loved your conversion story?

I didn’t know what to expect! I was very nervous about sharing the story. I had no idea how typical my experiences of prayer or conversion were. But I think the reason the book was received so well was that my experiences are, in a sense, very typical. I mean, my conversion was dramatic and unique, no doubt about that.

But also, I have had so many people write to me to tell me that they have had similar feelings and experiences after Communion or during Adoration, for example. So, I think people connected with it because they recognised themselves in it.

And also because a striking manifestation of God in anyone’s life is heartening. I think the book brings people hope in that sense. If God can visit an atheist in such a way, it shows just how present he is in all of our lives.

Children should see their parents on their knees praying, advises former atheist Sally Read. The acclaimed British poet entered the Church in 2010 and is currently preparing an anthology of poetry for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Ministries. Photo: Supplied
Children should see their parents on their knees praying, advises former atheist Sally Read. The acclaimed British poet entered the Church in 2010 and is currently preparing an anthology of poetry for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Ministries. Photo: Supplied

Soon we’ll all be thinking of making our New Year’s resolutions. Would you recommend Catholics read or listen to more poetry in 2023? Why?

Definitely! I’m very aware of how poetry is linked to the faith. God is a poet – the Bible is full of poetry.

We need metaphor as a way of explaining things that are beyond our ken, beyond our grasp. Poetry is a wonderful way to get consolation, discover beauty, and even learn about the truths of the faith. There are great Catholic poets to discover – Robert Southwell, Thomas Merton, Denise Levertov, to name a few.

You’ve said that poetry and art in general are the best ways, apart from prayer, to communicate with God. Can you say more about this?

Reading and writing poetry can be very prayerful. It’s about going outside of our normal, tight mental processes and allowing for association, the unconscious, and, of course, a shot of the divine! A great part of the faith is the acceptance of mystery, and every good poem has an element of mystery, a space which we cannot explain – we just have to feel the presence of the Creator.

What has been your favourite piece of feedback about Dawn of this Hunger? Or any of the books you’ve written after entering the Church?

I’m really pleased that people have found Dawn of this Hunger useful in their prayer life. I know it has been used in Adoration, for example. I love the fact that Annunciation helps so many people with their anxiety and negative feelings.

And I love the fact that Night’s Bright Darkness has inspired so many to investigate the faith or go back to the Church.

What would you say to Catholic parents who want to pass on the faith to their children but feel unqualified or not confident to do so?

I think that fundamentally we can only lead by example. Children should see us on our knees. They should see us trust and turn to God at all times. There are wonderful books that can help them.

Prayer, of course, is the greatest help. God hears our prayers for our children. But we also have to remember that every person has their own path to God – and often that involves detours, backtracking, falling down and getting up. Everyone has their story. People aren’t, generally, born saints.

Any new books or other ventures from coming from you?

I’m most excited about the poetry anthology from Word on Fire. Then, I’m also engaged with a lot of writing about the Virgin Mary. I think she is key to helping us through some of the messes that society finds itself in.

Related:

Meet the atheist scientist who believes in miracles

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