by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Two of my favorite books for 2016 were written by now-ardent Catholic women who had previously been convinced atheists.
The first of these two books — “Something Other Than God” by Jennifer Fulwiler — I referenced and quoted in my Dec. 23 Leaven column.
The second book, written by Sally Read, a gifted British poet and author, is entitled: “Night’s Bright Darkness.”
Sally Read describes her childhood formation in an unbelieving home: “I was brought up an atheist. At 10, I could tell you religion was the opiate of the masses; it was dinned into me never to kneel before anyone or anything. My father taught me that Christians, in particular, were tambourine- bashing, intellectual weaklings. As a young woman, I could quote Christopher Hitchens and enough of the Bible to scoff at.”
At the same time, her father modeled for her great natural virtue. He taught her to protect and advocate for the weak and the vulnerable. Although her father suggested women had surrendered much of their “power” by embracing the practices of the sexual revolution, Sally had no moral code to make her wary of — much less protect her from — the allure of drugs, drinking and the promiscuity so prevalent in secular London culture during her years of young adulthood.
She describes herself as a strident feminist who eagerly embraced the notion of the necessity of contraception and abortion in order to make possible for women uninhibited sexual expression. Sally had a particular disdain for the Catholic Church, which the sexual abuse scandals only served to confirm and deepen.
For some time as an author, Sally thought that language itself was redemptive. She felt that her ability with words to name — or, better yet, describe well a particular experience — gave her power and liberty. However, at some point, she began to experience disquietude regarding the impotency of contemporary poems, her own included, to ask, much less answer, the “big questions.”
At this point, Sally was living in Italy, married with a 1-year-old daughter. In her search for English-speaking playmates for her child, she encountered several devout American Catholic women whose husbands were studying or teaching at one of the pontifical academies. She was concerned about her daughter associating with these Catholic children but, in the end, decided they were better than no playmates at all.
Another crack in Sally’s world view was caused by her difficult experience with some of the physical side effects of oral contraception. Sally began to collaborate on a book project with a female medical doctor, who had suffered some of the same physical problems with contraceptives. Their concept was to author a book on female sexual and reproductive health.
Her own health issues made her intrigued by the concept of natural family planning. She wanted to interview a Catholic woman about the church’s perspective on these health issues, but all of her Catholic acquaintances turned her down, suspecting that the church’s teaching was not going to receive an unbiased treatment. In desperation, she reached out to an Eastern Rite Catholic priest, whom she barely knew, in the hopes that he could facilitate an opportunity to interview a Catholic nun. Her plan was to balance off the nun’s perspective by interviewing a prostitute.
Her conversations and dialogue with this priest proved to be the catalyst that propelled her on a spiritual journey resulting in her being received into the Catholic Church inside the Vatican by a cardinal. However, her conversion was not the result of logical arguments, but a personal experience of God’s love for her.
Sally describes the completeness of her unlikely conversion: “No one argued me down from any of my liberal or progressive positions, but the logic of Christ’s love was penetrating deeper and deeper into my heart. I was aware of being known as I had never been known before. He knew me beyond the limits of my self-knowledge. He knew me as an eternal soul, but also as a physical and sexual being. It astonished me, even then, to think I had ever thought of the Church as sexually repressive. In Western post-feminist culture, with its obsession with pornography and extreme sexual acts, normal women, in the eyes of some men, are diminished, certainly boring, almost rendered obsolete. The church made me feel the reverse — fully human, fully a woman, sensual and potent in my very ordinariness.”
During the Christmas holidays, I was listening to Jennifer Fulwiler on her Sirius Satellite Radio show respond to a question posed by a listener: “Did she recommend giving her book to family or friends who are atheists?” Jennifer responded ambiguously by leaving it up to the questioner whether to give “Something Other Than God” to the caller’s atheistic brother-in-law.
At the same time, she was crystal clear that more effective than any book in opening an unbelieving heart to the reality of God was the witness of a Christian life well-lived. There is something innately attractive about experiencing an example of the love and joy of the Gospel lived with authenticity and passion.
If you are looking for inspiring and insightful books to read in 2017, I recommend “Something Other Than God” and “Night’s Bright Darkness.” Jennifer Fulwiler and Sally Read are both masterful authors who recount with honesty and precision their own stories of spiritual transformation. I am not certain the impact either of these books might have on convicted atheists, but for those of us who were blessed to be raised Catholic, they have the power to help us appreciate the gift of our Catholic faith through fresh eyes.