Uneasy Encounters

by Teresa Limjoco

A Modern Conversion Story
Sally Read
Ignatius Press, 2016, 152 pages.

She was a liberated Englishwoman, and her unlikely conversion to Catholicism began when she decided to write a “handbook” about the vagina and present “just the facts” to the reader.

This quietly stunning memoir by poet Sally Read is one of the most beautifully written conversion stories to date. There is an economy and eloquence to the writing that reflects Read’s skills as poet.

Her words draw you in, and as if by sorcery, cease to exist on the printed page; instead, you soon find yourself lost inside the scenes, the characters, the colors and emotions vividly evoked in your mind.

Divided into five chapters – The Father, The Spirit, The Son, The Mother, and The Mystery – it is a work suffused with love, and with a longing – the kind of achiness suffered by a loved one in desperate pursuit of an unseen yet overwhelming Lover, this commanding yet gentle Being, who has drawn this staunchly atheistic modern woman completely unto Himself.

While Read’s father might have been
an atheist (and insisted that his family be so, too), her choice of an altruistic profession was influenced by her father’s admonition to always help the weak. Read’s choice of profession in psychiatric nursing also speaks to a certain sturdiness of character, to be drawn while in her twenties to the sometimes overwhelming challenges presented by this type of work.

While Read’s atheism offered little consolation in her patients’ often heartbreaking stories (not to mention in the deaths of her own parents), she still felt duty-bound to care for each patient with love and respect as an intrepid Irish nun sets the example for her early on.

Some patients seemed like ghosts of their former selves, having lost their memories completely; some remembered certain details, but only a few painful or sad ones. Some seemed bedridden, immobile, and unable to communicate – or were they?

Even in those days of her avowed atheism, Read seems to have already possessed – perhaps unawares -some niggling doubts about the absoluteness of her atheistic beliefs.
When not at her parents’ home on the weekends, Read would join her fellow nurses in off-duty hours for alcohol-drenched recreation, often laced with black humor.

Others indulged in sexual adventures. Read herself had been nurturing a facsimile of a romance with a London doctor, a tenuous type of affair now so commonplace. One day, however, she wakes up to a dreary realization.

She writes, ‘I remember sitting on the floor of my flat in Belsize Park and saying lucidly, “This is hell. I’m in hell.”’ Shortly thereafter, the liaison comes to its painful end. Fortunately, Read finds that writing offers her solace from the pain, and thus is born her vocation in poetry.

Years later, she is married to Fabio, an Italian carabiniere, with a young daughter in tow.  They live in the seaside town of Santa Marinella, a half hour outside Rome. After the success of her first book of poetry (which dealt with the themes of sex, motherhood and death), she starts preparing for her next book.

Steeped in the “liberated woman’s” mindset, her next project was to be a kind of “handbook” about the vagina and present “just the facts” to the reader. A physician-friend specializing in sexual health was to be her collaborator. Read had planned to interview women of all classes and worldviews, religious and non-religious alike, literally, from prostitutes to nuns.

Such was Read’s first uneasy encounter with devout Catholics.  To her credit, she had the intellectual honesty to examine without prejudice why these women held so tightly to such ideas, as aberrant, appalling and misguided as they seemed to Read. 

While most women she asked were enthusiastic, a few absolutely refused to talk to her about the book.
These were Catholic women who had one thing in common, husbands who were students at the pontifical universities in Rome. Their children happened to be playmates of her daughter, Flo.

Not wishing to deprive Flo of friends, she decided to just put up with their medieval-sounding, cringe-inducing views on sex.

These Catholic mothers’ intractable stance on the topic piqued her curiosity.  What, she wondered, lay behind their adamant resistance?

Especially since the Church to which they belonged was riddled with horrible scandals, a Church whose teachings about homosexuality, condom use, abortion and more she vehemently disagreed with.

Meanwhile, as she explored these questions with her priest friend, a Byzantine Catholic priest named Father Gregory, her creative powers stalled. 

An intractable insomnia and psychological malaise descended upon her, and this time, writing offered no comfort, until an unexpected revelation suddenly strikes. To her surprise, she receives an explanation for her longstanding compulsion to write.

This was to be the beginning of her journey towards the Roman Catholic Church. She would learn about the Church’s teachings from Father Gregory, as well as from a devout expatriate Texan Catholic mother who would soon become a bosom friend. 

Such is the mystery of sanctified grace that Read would find herself helpless against this pull upon her soul, especially by the Holy Eucharist. She recounts this strange and supernatural phenomenon with poignancy in her final chapter.

She cherishes the serenity and gladness that follow her conversion. Prayer and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament become desires, not chores. Hers is a solo voyage, however, as even her culturally Catholic Italian husband does not feel the same longing to explore the faith that he grew up in.

Once more, one recalls St Augustine’s enduring words in his Confessions: “Our hearts were made for You, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in you.”  Unless a soul is ready to receive the Holy Spirit, no profound change transpires.

Every conversion story rewards the reader with a renewed appreciation of his Faith, of things deep, simple, or magnificent, that might have been otherwise unknown – even unknowable.

This slim book offers such to all comers, whether they be devout, lukewarm, or even lapsed Catholics. Or perhaps just open-minded and open-hearted readers.

The profound truths on darkness and light, sin and forgiveness, and God’s boundless love for us invest Read’s deeply engaging story.

Ultimately, those books that promote with suspicious facility the power of “positive thinking” and the “prosperity gospel” as keys to earthly happiness are all rendered hollow in comparison.

Certainly, the lack of belief in God deprives one of genuine hope and joy, as many a seeker like Read has
found out.

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