In Night’s Bright Darkness, Sally Read chronicles how the Lord brought her from atheism to the fullness of the Catholic Church. Yet the conversion is just the beginning of a journey that affects countless around us, especially those who are closest to our hearts. In her new book Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World (Ignatius, 2019), Read brings us to the other side of her conversion as she struggles to pass the Faith on to her daughter.
Derya M. Little, for CWR: Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World is full of wisdom presented with captivating poetic prose. What prompted to write this little book?
CWR: When I was 39, I had a dramatic nine-month conversion from atheism to Catholicism (which I describe in my book Night’s Bright Darkness). At that time, my daughter Flo was going on 4. She was my constant companion through that period of change, and even my confidant. Her capacity for understanding the big mysteries and asking the big questions was, I realized later, fairly startling. Yet a few years on she began to dig her heels in about going to Mass. You see, my husband isn’t a practicing Catholic, and none of her friends at school are true believers; our old family and friends in England are mostly atheist. So she was being trotted off to church while her cousins and friends got to stay at home. At the same time, her dogged and astute questions about the faith never ceased. The night before her First Communion she had a crisis and wondered if she should receive the sacrament at all. She wanted the party more than the Eucharist, she said. She felt nothing in prayer.
She did receive Communion (in the book I talk a little more about how we got there), but in some ways her reluctance to go to Mass got worse. I began to think that when she got into her teens she would just refuse to come with me. However, her questions about suffering, prayer, how we know God exists, why God doesn’t help us out more plainly and more often, continued. Those questions would always come at 10 p.m. when I was aching to go to sleep. I realized I needed to give her concerns proper time. I decided to write everything down for her in a way that was tailor-made for her passionate, anxious, restless, yearning heart. It would have to be something thorough enough and loving enough to sustain her through her whole life. As I wrote I began to realize that the book was for my heart too—and in fact it’s for the human heart generally, addressed specifically to Flo.
CWR: You chose to structure the book around the Annunciation, one of the most mystical experiences of Blessed Virgin’s life. Why did you choose a mystery that seems distant to many of us?
Read: Rather mysteriously, the Annunciation has been close to me for most of my life. I’ve written many poems about it—some when I was still an atheist. In a strange way that event picked me, rather than me picking it. Mary fascinated me, long before I loved her, and I can’t ever let go of that “tipping point” encounter that changed everything. When I was thinking about writing this book for Flo, I had a sense in prayer of the shape of the Annunciation—in a very lucid and whole way—and how it echoes everything about our relationship with God. There’s the swooping realization of his presence: “And he came to her” (Luke 1:28); the fears and anxieties he asks us to put aside: “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:30); the realization of our identity in God: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38); the discerning of our vocation and letting ourselves be formed by God’s word and law: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38); and the dark times when we can’t feel God’s presence or make sense of prayer: “And the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:38).
As I wrote the book I realized that its fundamental message is that we are asked to give our fiat at every moment of our lives; every day has its own Annunciation. My daughter, the night before her First Communion, had realized that she was being asked to consent to something enormous.
CWR: I had never heard the phrase “rocking-horse Catholics.” Can you tell us a little more about what it means, and why it is important for not only converts but for Catholics who live in an increasingly secular culture?
Read: Caryll Houselander wrote a book called A Rocking-Horse Catholic (which I highly recommend) and it’s a phrase that she coined to describe someone who converts as a child because their parents have converted (it’s related to “cradle Catholic”). I found it a very apt description for my daughter because I could imagine her rocking back and forth, seeing both worlds—the secular and Catholic—very clearly. It can be a gift as well as a difficulty, this way of seeing. It makes us interrogate ourselves and our motives (as my daughter did the night before her First Communion). It should help us not to judge people on either side of the divide, because they are all our friends, our family, a part of our history and our future. I was once a pro-choice atheist—but that didn’t make me irredeemably bad. People do cross the divide—both ways. All of us are surrounded by secular culture but we should try and remember that we can’t see what is happening in people’s hearts or the working of grace within them. Most of all, being a “rocking-horse Catholic” should make us never take anything granted. In this mixed-up world, we are eternally giving our fiat and choosing where to put our love and attention.
CWR: You point to the Holy Eucharist often in your book; you write: “A mother gets to know her child through her incomparable knowledge of his flesh, his smell, his voice… In those first years, she will know best if he is in pain or distress and what he needs. So it is with God and man. And the best place to sit with him and get to know him is in Adoration.” Tell us more about Adoration and why it is—or should be—crucial in a Catholic’s life.
Read: We’re so incredibly blessed in having the Eucharist; it really is the most beautiful manifestation of mercy towards us. We can touch God, we can have him within ourselves in a physical sense. When I first went to Adoration I saw it as akin to a couple who go out to dinner and get to spend time just looking at each other without the usual routines and distractions. But, of course, it’s much more than that. It’s being in God’s presence in a most powerful and concrete way. It’s hard to generalize about these things, as everyone’s experience is unique, but it’s always seemed to me that prayer in Adoration becomes deeply profound very quickly—we are stripped of words, of anything rote or mechanical. It’s a chance to really sense and “hear” God. It facilitates an emptying of self—and he is there to fill us. The shock of him physically before us wipes out any whining, wants, and needs we might try and formulate. We know he knows. We know the best prayer is simply listening to his silence and being filled by him. It’s a unique way of contemplating and knowing God. It only asks for our time and our attention. But those are things that seem very hard for people to give these days. People are afraid of silence.
There are a lot of distorting voices in the world, and specifically within the Church. Along with Scripture and Mass, the best remedy has to be going directly to Him in Adoration, and simply loving Him. In the book I write about the overlap between “loving” and “knowing”—that’s the wonderful thing about God: if we truly love we truly come to know Truth. The further people move away from that very direct love that is the mark of Adoration, the more contrived and relativistic their thoughts can become.
CWR: What do you think is the most debilitating struggle young Catholics face today? How can we prepare them for the storms of life?
Read: Where can we begin?! I think it’s hard being a member of an organization that has had so many scandals attached to it. It’s hard to say you believe in something that the secular world sees as irrational. It can be isolating standing our ground on issues of chastity, gender, sex, and abortion.
Education is so important—but we can’t leave it to the schools. Kids should be told when they study the Big Bang theory that it was a Catholic priest who first promulgated that theory. They need to know that good science and good religion don’t contradict one another. They should always be reminded that we are the body of Christ, we are the Church, and we are not defined by the misdeeds of others.
With regard to the issue of chastity, etc., I think example is our best way forward, and absolute openness. We need to be able to say why certain acts are wrong and bad for people, even at the natural level. And also how sex can be wonderful in its right context. What kids aren’t being told much of, these days, is truth. And truth usually hits the mark even if it’s at an unconscious level.
CWR: The chapter of your book titled “Let it be to me according to your word” was the one that touched me the most, as you weaved between the ills of divorce and sexualized culture and the fruits of wrestling with God. Which chapter has a special place on your heart?
Read: It would be hard for me to choose, but the chapter people tend to want to talk about most is “Do not be afraid,” which I think is very telling.
I love the fact that God says those words to us so many times in Scripture and private revelation, and I loved meditating on what that can mean, bearing in mind that many of the people who heard it had plenty to be afraid of! That chapter looks hard at anxiety and suffering, and as a psychiatric nurse and anxious person (though I’m a lot less anxious now that I’m Catholic) it felt like very familiar and well-considered ground. It seems to me that a proportion of anxiety and depression is rooted in the feeling that our lives make no sense, that we have no intrinsic worth, and that we should have ultimate control over what happens in our lives. The answer to all of these preoccupations is God.
(In the last chapter I also talk about being incapacitated by clinical depression and praying in those circumstances. Mental illness has many causes and sanctity isn’t necessarily an inoculation against it, sadly—but prayer and faith still help, redeem, and sanctify.)
Through “Do not be afraid” I also found writing about stories of suffering (like Chiara Corbella’s), and making sense of them in faith, very enriching. It was a journey of prayer.
CWR: Where are you on the journey of passing on the Faith? What have you learned while you wrestled with God as a mother who is a convert?
Read: As I say at the end of the book, when I finished writing I turned around and there my daughter was: all grown up, newly confirmed, and sure in her faith. It felt as though writing the book had been a prayer that was answered. But I don’t get carried away with the idea that the journey and work are done. There are still bumps along the road—she still wrestles God, and me.
I’ve come to realize that home is often where our mission is. That can be exhausting and discouraging. I’m married to a person who I’m hoping to evangelize; there’s not much time out! In my early years as a Catholic, I constantly thought I should be hiking through jungles to convert distant tribes, or building churches in remote African villages (people who know me thought this was hysterical). I now realize that the jungles and remote villages are in the town where I live. That means that Flo is constantly being exposed to the secular way of thinking.
Regarding what I can do as a mother, I see parents as a link in a chain leading to God. We have to trust him, and it makes sense that a child’s trust in him would manifest itself first as trust in her parents. I have no doubt that my love of Christ gripped Flo (she teases me about it, asks me about it, observes me, and asks all over again). That love has been present in the house since my conversion—she can’t escape it! I’ve seen my job as instilling the City of God in her (see the chapter “Let it be to me according to your word”), so that the name of Christ in prayer springs easily to her lips, she’s familiar with Scripture, she leans on the sacraments.
But, ultimately, she will have her own unique dance with God, her own conversation. If children see us on our knees, all will follow in its own time.
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