Sally Read (Photo courtesy of Sally Read)
As I entered Soho Square the bell of St. Patrick’s Church started
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
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 storytellerwhat 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, fictionfor 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 islandspart East Anglia, part Ulster, all Protestant. This makes her
conversion to Rome from a mix of atheism and anti-Catholicism all the
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.