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The dramatic conversion of one atheist poet

To Sally Read, ‘being a Catholic is like being in love’

By on Monday, 15 October 2012

Sally Read, pictured in Rome

Sally Read, pictured in Rome

I have just been reading Fr Uwe Michael Lang’s new book on the liturgy, The Voice of the Church at Prayer, published by Ignatius and distributed in the UK by Gracewing. It is very thought-provoking: it is not an SSPX-type lament at the “destruction” of the Tridentine rite of Mass, but a careful and scholarly examination of what a sacred language means and why we need to express our public worship in this way.

Fr Lang is a keen supporter of Pope Benedict’s “reform of the reform” and his ruling that there is only one rite of Mass, divided into two forms, Ordinary and Extraordinary. He approves of the ICEL translation of 2010 and says, “Unlike its predecessor [the translation of 1973], the 2010 ICEL version makes the treasury of the Latin liturgical tradition available to the Church in the English-speaking world.” He adds that “it contributes greatly to the formation of a “sacred vernacular”…an idiom of worship that is distinguished from everyday speech and is experienced as the voice of the Church at prayer.”

All this makes it easier to understand why the earlier translation sounded wrong and needed revision: it was banal, uninspiring, prosaic and inaccurate – when we require a language reflecting, as Fr Lang writes, “our aspirations for goodness, for truth, for beauty and for love.” I recall my brother telling me that when he fell in love with his wife he was inspired to write poetry to her (and he would not describe himself by any means as a poet); the heightened emotion he felt simply could not be articulated in the ordinary way. Well – if that is how we respond to a human being we love, how much more should our encounter with God in the liturgy elevate our form of expression?

With these reflections going on in my head, a friend has just passed on to me an interview earlier this year with the poet Sally Read on CNA. Read, born in 1971 in Suffolk, underwent a dramatic conversion from atheism to the Catholic Church in 2010. She was living in Italy in the seaside town of Santa Marinella and got into conversation with a Canadian priest who was based there. She relates, “While I was talking to this priest about, well, is there a God and all of that kind of stuff, I kind of had this feeling as a poet that God was the ultimate poet and the ultimate creator and I was simply being used as an instrument.”

Her doubts finally ended one afternoon when she stepped into a local Catholic church: “I was in tears and said to this icon of Christ, ‘If you’re there, then you have to help me’. And this thing happened which is very hard to explain, but I felt as if I was being physically lifted up and my tears stopped and I felt this presence.” In an earlier article in the Tablet of January 7 2012, the poet elaborated more on her spiritual journey: “I was brought up an atheist. The creed of non-creed was in my blood. Christianity was a symptom of bigotry or feeblemindedness.” (We have all heard that.) Later, in London and walking the streets searching desperately for a church in which she could pray, she realised that “The most important part of all this was being with Christ, was the liturgy itself.”

Read intuited that to be wholly with Christ was to be with Him in the celebration of Mass. She saw that “being a Catholic is like being in love. As a poet from a most secular culture, I have come to know the Church as the ultimate poem. An intricate composition of allegory and reality, that tries to give image to God’s presence on earth.” This private revelation as it were, is not so different from the patient, scholarly work of Fr Lang, explaining why the liturgy, whether in Latin or the vernacular, should be the most beautiful and most poetic form of language we can muster – for Love lends wings to language.

  • JFJ

    What a great article and on Monday!  Thank you.

  • Nat_ons

    This poetic spirit of Love also explains all the prosaic hatreds of those who decide they have fallen out of love with Love and who leap and bound into .. well .. the devouring jaws of the Accuser – unless rescued.

  • teigitur

    Lovely story. Fr Lang is a very talented liturgist. As rare as hen’s teeth in todays Church. Of course The London Oratory is a great beacon of hope in the Church today.

  • Nesbyth

    Sally Read, soon after her conversion, was asked by The Tablet to write meditations for each week
    last Lent (2012).
    They were some of the best things I’ve read for ages (and certainly in The Tablet). Really exceptional
    and I’d like to see them in print in a booklet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/red.murray.56 Red Murray

    She must have slurped a bit too much of the Italian wine, hallucinating like that. There is no god and statues and icons don’t bring the magic. Reality is no less ‘poetic’, it is actually much more so. Peace through logic and reason! Reject ancient musings and discover reality!

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    You’re mistaken. There is indeed god and statues. (It’s what makes Catholicism such fun.)

  • Lampyris

     I think what Red meant to say was that “statues and icons don’t bring the magic”, which is indeed a fair comment. Well done Red!

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Well, blow me down. I’d never have guessed….

  • Mikethelionheart

    Red Murray, a word of advice, if you want to criticise something then try finding out about it first so that you don’t come across as an ignorant moron.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/CRH4TY6WXAV3RSRDQORWE34CQ4 steven

    Poetry can have great power in conveying truths which require more than reason alone to accept. Which seems as good a reason as any to share my offering on the theme

    Dips little toe into cool water of haiku poetry. Unsure of result

    Passion Haiku

    Spring life suspended
    in air. Barbed crown piercing
    Deathly pain arises.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish Cuttlefish

    Like gems, the beauty in examples like these is amplified by their rarity.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/red.murray.56 Red Murray

    Oh, I know well of Catholicism, my son. As an altar boy I would tinkle the magic bells during the trans-millennial cannibalism ritual. Perhaps, Mike, you speak more politely to the dead than you do to the living, at least one would hope so. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/red.murray.56 Red Murray

    Really, Lazarus? I thought that most of the fun was in demeaning children by making them kneel, admit they are sinners, and forcing them to repeat mantras about the hour of their death. That’s where the real joy of Roman Catholicism lies, in knowing that brainwashing via repetition can reside in the brain’s fear regions for a lifetime. There’s the fun, lad. 

  • TreenonPoet

    The beautiful poem Abou ben Adhem (by James Henry Leigh Hunt) comes to mind.

  • 12Maria34

    Nice read for Monday …

  • aearon43

    Wouldn’t have expected it from you, DruidnonPoet… say, have you heard Krzysztof Penderecki’s The Dream of Jacob?

  • Oconnord

    Firstly, if Ms Read was an atheist, she was a rather reluctant one. I get the impression she was looking for a reason to believe and a belief she could suit to her reasoning. The full quote is…..

    “I was brought up an atheist. The creed of non-creed was in my blood: Christianity was a symptom of bigotry or feeble-mindedness.  I will admit now that as a young woman I had tried to believe in God. I had been to church and Quaker meetings a few times. But by this point in my life I was adamant: there was no God. I remember the dull sadness that came with this realisation, something of the colour grey.”

    Secondly, the manner in which she came to believe is open to questioning, as she goes on to say…

    “Then, in that insomniac spring, the first epiphany came. It was almost an intellectual leap: the possibility of God. I was in the process of writing, too, a collection of monologues in the voices of psychiatric patients, and in the usual tussle and pain of writerly creation I suddenly understood that my act of creating the voices of these damaged people was linked to an overarching creation. That there could be an ultimate author. The sky seemed to peel off a layer. I was full of a latent happiness I hardly dared interrogate.”

    Anyone who suffers from real insomnia, and I do, can tell you that after two or three days the brain just doesn’t function correctly. It is comparable to fasting, sensory deprivation or drugs. You are easily suggestible, your “barriers” are weak and prone strange perceptive experiences, which is why it’s useful in interrogations.  So while in this condition, and “in the process of writing, too, a collection of monologues in the voices of psychiatric patients”, she had an epiphany? Which she didn’t dare question has it made her happy?

    Hardly a convincing testimony. 

  • Oconnord

    Correction to above…Which she didn’t dare question, as it made her happy?

  • Kevin

    I felt as if I was being physically lifted up and my tears stopped and I felt this presence

    This is obviously happy news. I cannot help feeling, however, that I would prefer to read of more atheists who have converted to Catholicism because, among other things, they recognise that the cosmological argument is simply stronger. Because it is, and it should bolster any “private revelations” (together with an appreciation of the quality of the Gospels as historical testimony).

    Edward Feser writes of this sort of conversion (his own). From what I have read so far he seems to be doing a power of work on this subject that deserves access to a wider readership.

    Also, on the destruction of the Tridentine rite I found Michael Davies’ Pope Paul’s New Mass very informative.

  • Nesbyth

    And who are you to question how conversion comes? It must be different for each person.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    I completely agree about Ed Feser: he’s doing sterling work in popularizing a revival in scholasticism.

    His blogpost on his conversion is here: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/road-from-atheism.html

  • Nesbyth

    “And I found Hugh Ross Williamson’s two booklets also very helpful:
    The Great Betrayal” and “The Modern Mass – A Reversion to the Reforms of Cranmer”
    published 1969
     (now out of print, sadly)

  • TreenonPoet

     Thank you for the link. I had not heard the piece. Frustratingly, I have still only heard the first 45 seconds (which sounded good) as I am having difficulty getting any video or soundtrack to play on my computer this morning. I will try again later.

  • http://twitter.com/netofunk Manny Neto


  • theroadmaster

    The liturgy should be more than a vehicle for an equivalent translation of the ancient Latin text in the vernacular, but should transcend the the words to convey the Beauty, Truth and Beauty of the God that we worship.  We have been ill-served by banal and watered down renderings of the sacred liturgy over the last 40 years, and this in turn has failed to connect the worshipers in the pews with any sense of Heaven on Earth.  I am sure that is possible for priests to celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass with respect and solemnity, but essentially the words, gestures and music must reveal something of the awesome majesty of our Creator and inspire us both emotionally and intellectually.  The Church in Her wisdom, through the ages, used the artistic endeavors of stone-masons,sculptors architects, composers and painters  to create masterpieces of human ingenuity in stone,musical notation and canvas to capture these very ideals.   The ancient Latin Mass is part of this wonderful legacy and should be promoted as an invaluable resource which should even influence priests who want to celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass in a respectful and faithful manner.

  • Oconnord

    My last two sentences were very badly written. It seemed like a personal attack, which was not my intention. I should have written that it was not convincing evidence. (For other atheists, catholics don’t need convincing).

    I do not doubt that her conversion is genuine and heartfelt. But given her history, location and circumstances it was not “dramatic”, it was almost inevitable.

    I really do wish Sally Read the best. Having read the full article in “The Tablet”, which describes the subject she was researching at the time, she sounds like a very interesting person.

  • Lewispbuckingham

     “hardly convincing’
     No not intellectually, but then we are more than intellect.
    The conversion contained the essential element, meeting someone who actually lived and believed in God who you think is rational.

  • Nesbyth

    Good reply Oconnord. I appreciated it and am sure Sally Read would too should she read it.

  • TreenonPoet

     At last, it played. A very good expression of torment! Quite a contrast in mood from the calmness of the poem I linked to!

    There is quite a contrast too between the notion of a feared all-powerful god that must be worshipped and the notion of a benign zeitgeist based on doing the best one can for each other.

  • Oconnord

    If she read it, I’d hope she’d know the difference between being sorry and offering an apology. That last sentence was one which I was sorry to have posted!

    I, in context of the article, questioned her experience, but in no way meant to question her character or honesty. 

  • Oconnord

    I already said sorry for the” Hardly a convincing testimony. ” I hope you accept that it was an unintended mistake. 

    But you hit the crux of the article. Catholics who believe will will find her conversion reassuring, but the headline implies more. Her conversion was predictable, (If I can ask you to read my earlier replies), you’ll save me repeating myself. Her conversion will not lead to other conversions.

    The fact that conversions are not intellectually driven, in many circumstances, is true. There are many, many “Why I became an atheist ” stories on the internet. FTB blogs, (I leave out links purposefully), tend to have two or three personal testimonies each week from people who’ve left religion.  Some are emotional, some familial, some …………  The reasons are various. 

    Conversions are unusual, the tide is just against religious belief. People stop believing far more often than formulating or adopting new beliefs.  

  • Lewispbuckingham

     No I had read your other comments, I never read your thoughts as a personal attack, just as someone who has personal insight into themselves and his own feelings and wondered if she realised the process.
     My own thought is that God may work through any mental state.He is the still small voice.
     But to do so you have to meet someone that believes and have a conversation.
     I find there is great belief in many things religious in my society, it just is that it is Gaia ,or mother earth, spiritualism, angels, the great spirit, brotherhood and so forth, none of which are part of any organised religion.
     In some countries, such as Vietnam, religion flourishes.
     People without formal religion substitute something else.

  • Parasum

    “All this makes it easier to understand why the earlier translation
    sounded wrong and needed revision: it was banal, uninspiring, prosaic
    and inaccurate – when we require a language reflecting, as Fr Lang
    writes, “our aspirations for goodness, for truth, for beauty and for

    ## It’s no surprise at all that the 1970 translation is being slammed; the new one has to be justified, so none of the virtues of the 1970 translation get a mention. And when the Benedictine Translation in its turn is found wanting, it too will be slammed. But for now, that is an Unthought. So people who have careers to wreck by criticising Rome for fouling up the Missal in the first place are not going to say anything to wreck their careers. The only people able to speak safely are retired bishops – Rome and its heavies can do very little to them. 

    Those who could see perfectly well in 1970 what Fr. Lang sees now were not heeded then. All this criticism of the 1970 missal rings hollow. It’s political through and through. The faults of the 1970 translation derive in large part from the cack-handed revision that is the Pauline Missal. Not everything can be blamed on the translation. But it would be suicidal to point out, that if the 1970 ET is open to criticism, that is in large part because the underlying text is unsatisfactory.

  • teigitur

    Hardly a turning tide in your own country, with 84% still self-identifying as Roman Catholic.

  • teigitur

    You read “The Tablet”!!???????

  • karlf

    Sally Read should read up on Stendhal syndrome:
    Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal’s syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place. The term can also be used to describe a similar reaction to a surfeit of choice in other circumstances, e.g. when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world.

  • Oconnord

    If it contains information I want, I run to it! 
    Jokes aside, I think it’s very important that I do. If I merely looked at sites that confirmed what I already believed, or knew, or believed I knew, how would I ever learn anything new? That’s one of the reasons I like the CH, it makes me do a bit of research, then let’s me show my lack of knowledge!

    I have the confidence to admit I get things wrong in my comments. I’m open to learn and have no problem when I’m shown to be incorrect.

    I think only the truly stupid or delusional think they are right all the time. Well perhaps the egomaniacs do too.   

  • Oconnord

    Now, more than most people, you know that is a strange figure. In the last census the only member of my immediate family, (of six), who identified as catholic was my mother. The only member of my family would express “anti church/clerical feeling” would be my mother. It’s a cultural habit for Irish people to say they are catholic. Remember in some ways I do it myself.

    I do not want to raise this as a subject for debate, but for me, the abuse scandal is like a canard used against the church. I have moved on to more current problems. For my mother, she will never trust the church again, it betrayed her so badly. 

  • Oconnord

    I like the Gaia thing. Though I don’t think of it as a spiritual thing. I think we are very egotistical when we talk about destroying or saving the planet. The planet did okay before us….. it’ll be grand after us.

    With respect though, I have no way to know who is correct when they hear a higher power.  All the stories are equally “real” no matter how they all conflict. In fact if you compare them to alien abduction stories, they are just as true.

    The only sensible approach is to dismiss them all until they bring more evidence than personal testimony. 

  • aearon43

    That is something that you’ll have to work out in fear and trembling. I think the point of the piece is that God exists whether we like it or not.

  • teigitur

    You will be aware I am correct all the time…..lol.
     I don t recommend “the tablet”, known in most circles as “the suppository”, for any sort of information. In my younger, more liberal days I used to take it, but have learned the error of my ways.
     Well you are very ” Catholic” in your outlook. I have to admit rarely looking at “atheist” sites!

  • teigitur

    Well indeed, but we were discussing “religious belief”, not the Church. If you describe yourself as “Catholic” I am presuming even the Irish would accord some belief to this.I know many people in your Mother s position, but, whilst their “belief” in the Church has been shaken( was’nt everyone’s!) their belief in Supreme Being remains intact.

  • Ben, in Cali

    Nature along reminds me why I don’t believe in atheism. God is a grand poet and master architect. Welcome home, Ms. Reid.

  • Oconnord

    Very true, but the “some belief”(s), are rather important. Very, very few people share all the beliefs of the church. I use the word dissonance too often in my comments, but it really is the most apt term to describe the way most Irish Catholics think.

    Most catholics I know just don’t believe, or robustly reject, some of the most fundamental teachings of the church, but they still identify as catholic.  

  • teigitur

    Indeed Damo, people even walked away from Christ himself, finding what he taught too hard for them. Twas ever thus, and I suspect ever will be.

  • TreenonPoet

     Calmness and carelessness. Our parents do at least express their thoughts. If we are under the control of a god, we are presumably doing what it wants. If we are not completely under its control, then we can only do whatever our history and current inputs compel us to do. If this hypothetical god can’t communicate what it wants, then we should waste no time caring about what it might want (and care about other people instead).

  • Oconnord

    Teig, I don’t mean to belittle, but, “people even walked away from Christ himself”, ….. Jupiter, Zeus, Mithras…  the list goes on and on. People walked away from them. 

    The jews, who were the most educated authority of the time, rejected Jesus. It means nothing.

    There are lots of god ideas, and until one can offer evidence, the only sensible viewpoint is that they are all fallacious. 

  • teigitur

    It depends on what, or in this case whom, you believe to be truth itself.

  • aearon43

    God underlies all existence. Yet he does not compel belief. This is why Jacob was able to say, “I knew it not.” Sin is evidence that God does not actually control us. We are free to deny God.

    As it would be difficult to explain the fundamental theorem of calculus to a young child, so God has to lead us incrementally toward the truth.

    What is the origin of your mind, which can interpret these words?

  • TreenonPoet

     Your calculus analogy fails because the teacher communicates with the child. If the child gets something wrong, the teacher can put the child right. By contrast, there is no feedback process with a hypothetical god. Even if the child is learning calculus from a book, the child can test his/her understanding (and a child on the other side of the globe can independently do the same thing and come to the same conclusion).

    With a god, you don’t even vaguely know what it wants you to know. How do you know when you are being led and when you are being misled? You don’t. You just make stuff up, just as Sally Read makes up an explanation for her experience.

    There is a process that tends to lead toward the truth – scientific thinking (science, maths, rational thought, etc.). If a god has provided a tool for getting closer to the truth, then that might be it, yet it is often shunned by the religious in the same way that the fictional drowning man refuses help from a lifeboat because he ‘knows’ that God will rescue him.

    Regarding the question at the end of your comment: As I understand it, the human mind is the result of a network of neurons, some of which are connected to sensory inputs. That network develops according to what is coded in DNA and according to environmental influences. Even in an amoeba, I suppose one might describe its aversion to a particular chemical (say) as it being minded to avoid that chemical. What about an electron’s aversion to other electrons? In a sense,  I would not say that there was a time in the evolution of our DNA at which the mind suddenly became possible. The first human mind must have been present in the first human – that is, in the first being whose DNA corresponded to what we define as ‘human’. I would argue that word recognition (though not necessarily the written word) preceded that because it is known that the sounds that animals make can carry meaning. In a loose sense, recognition of the written word also preceded humans if one classes such things as scent marking as writing. Symbollic writing may have developed over 8000 years ago, but that is not to say that the mind would not have been capable of developing it much earlier had the need arisen. Likewise, the words of your comment may have only been all understood in the past few hundred years, but the sophistication required to understand such words must have existed since the end of pre-history at the latest. That is the way I see it. Why do you ask?