As I entered Soho Square the bell of St. Patrick’s Church started to toll.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon. The bell rang out three times and then continued tolling. It was the hour of Great Mercy. It was to this sound of a tolling bell that I entered the church. There the Blessed Sacrament was exposed upon the altar. It was here also where, as arranged, I met Sally Read.
Ignatius Press has just published a remarkable book: Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story by Sally Read. It is a memoir of the author’s conversion from atheism to the Catholic faith. It is a tale skilfully told and beautifully written. No doubt it will speak to many of her generation, witnessing as it does to an escape from a life where pleasure was the guiding principle to one re-imagined by an encounter with the Living God.
Shortly after meeting, we walked through the square to a nearby café. As we did so, I asked her what it was like being back in London. She said she found her former homeland more materialistic than ever, more than her adopted home near Rome where today she lives with her husband and daughter. By way of response, I suggested that, perhaps, it was much the same as when she lived here some twenty years ago, while, privately, I wondered if it wasn’t so much London that had changed as Sally Read. It was of this change I had come to speak to her.
She had been a psychiatric nurse two decades earlier in this city. Her memoir makes clear that during that period of her life she saw much: madness, despair and death, and all at close quarters. That former time working in London’s psychiatric hospitals is now history, however. Today Sally Read is very much a writer, with a newly published book that is already gaining attention.
Maybe this is not so surprising as Sally Read is also an award-winning poet. For now, however, poetry is not on her agenda. Sitting drinking tea together, I ask her why. She sees her former poetry now as a form of ‘mysticism’. However obliquely, she felt it was somehow in touch with something greater, though that ‘something’ the then poet did not fully understand. Nevertheless, poetry, she says, reflects contemporary culture, is closely attuned to it; the culture we live in is so poisoned morally, culturally and spiritually that the toxicity is too much for her to change. She accepts her creative limits in this regard.
In Night’s Bright Darkness the narrative line is so compelling that I asked if she had considered writing fiction. For a fleeting moment she appeared surprised. Then she admitted that she was halfway through completing her first novel. It is in this genre that Sally Read now wishes to explore her vision. She is cautious about speaking of this latest venture. This is not because she wishes to withhold information so much as because she is still feeling her way. Her present work, however, is a literary novel, she says, one that explores ‘life in all its rawness’. Having read her memoir, one would expect nothing less.
Sally Read may be a writer, but she is quick to point out that she is not a ‘Catholic writer’. Like many, she prefers to see herself instead as a writer who became a Catholic. In this case, her awareness of the desire to write came long before any consciousness of God. The vocation to be a storyteller—what she describes as a ‘truth teller’—is paramount. From a young age, she felt this artistic calling, whether expressed through poetry, composing essays, a memoir, or, now, fiction—for her, all of this has a single purpose: the greater glory of God. Her conversion, she says, has only crystallised this pre-existing sense of vocation.
The writers she claims that have influenced her are some one might expect, such as Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor; others are less obvious such as Virginia Woolf. When Sally Read speaks of literary and spiritual matters, there is no dichotomy. They are parts of the same whole. Since her conversion, she has discovered the world of Catholic spiritual writings. Her favourite conversion story, she says, is that of Thomas Merton. It was while reading The Seven Storey Mountain that any doubts she had about putting her own faith journey down on paper evaporated.
Read is still a relatively recent Catholic convert. The publication of her book makes that event seem more recent than it is. In fact, it was in 2010 that she was received into the Catholic Church. Then in the summer of 2014, she started to write the story of her conversion, completing it the following year, before its eventual publication this year.
Had there been changes in her life since the publication of Night’s Bright Darkness, I asked her? ‘None at all’, she said, surprised by the question. The book, she pointed out, has only just been published in America; it has not yet been translated into Italian; and the media round in which she is currently involved has been solely aimed at the US market. In Italy, she is as unknown as she ever was. She may be a writer exciting interest in the English-speaking world, but in her Italian home she is a wife and mother, in her local parish just one more member of the congregation. I sensed she was relieved at that.
For all her years in Italy, Read’s demeanour and manner remain British. Her family background is rooted in these islands—part East Anglia, part Ulster, all Protestant. This makes her conversion to Rome from a mix of atheism and anti-Catholicism all the more remarkable.
One of the questions I wanted to ask was about the reactions of others to her conversion. She told me that the response of her family was mixed but is now no longer hostile and, if anything, merely indifferent. New Catholic friends have appeared as many of her old friends disappeared. There have also been some welcome surprises. A close friend from her former life in London has also now found her way into the Church. Chatting with Sally Read, in a crowded cafe, I was struck by the mystery of the faith. It is full of the unexpected and unlooked for, and all the more wondrous for that.
Read has a small, close spiritual support network. Fr. Gregory Hrynkiw, the priest who played such a pivotal part in her conversion, and who is central to the book, is still her spiritual guide. Beyond and more important than anything else, however, of course, is the Eucharist. She is clear that when any Catholic receives Holy Communion, this is a mystical experience. Night’s Bright Darkness records how the mystics, such as St. John of the Cross, helped draw her closer to the Truth. She continues to read the mystics, some of these from closer to home: English mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. She feels that a mystical awareness is at the heart of her new found faith.
We walked back to the church through streets that are as far from God as any in this Metropolis. Minutes later, we said goodbye outside the large red brick neo-Gothic structure of St. Patrick’s. As she entered the darkness within, I glimpsed in the distance, still exposed upon the altar, the Blessed Sacrament
Soho Square is marked to the East by St. Patrick’s church. To the North side of the square there is a plaque to a now famous resident who lived there in the nineteenth century. Mary Seacole was a black nurse who cared for soldiers in the Crimea War. She was also a convert to Catholicism and lies buried in London’s main Catholic cemetery. More curious still, facing the church on the far side to the West, lived, and eventually died, another nurse, who served in that same conflict. Her name was Frances Margaret Taylor. Upon her return from Crimea, she also converted to the Catholic faith. Many decades later, she was declared Venerable.
And now, in 2016, for a new generation, a former nurse speaks of her conversion to the Catholic faith. Sally Read is indeed home.
Night had fallen, but walking out of the square, I was conscious more than ever that within it, and indeed throughout this city, a ‘bell’ tolls yet, telling of a Merciful Heart that waits for all.