Converting at the end of your life takes humility and courage

I have been reading a book on a subject of general interest: “Deathbed Conversions; finding Faith at the Finish Line” by Karen Edmisten, published by Our Sunday Visitor last year. I say “of general interest” because we all come to die at some stage; to read of how this immediate prospect has affected some famous people should intrigue or give pause for reflection to any serious-minded person. The book refers to some people whose conversions I did know about – Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Kenneth Clark and King Charles II – and others that I didn’t, such as John Wayne, Buffalo Bill and Gary Cooper.

As Edmisten emphasises, a dramatic turning towards faith at the end is not a cop-out; as she says, the dying person has to recognise “the tragedy of a wasted lifetime” in the light of what he now knows. So such a conversion, though full of joy, will be accompanied by remorse for neglected opportunities in the past. She also writes that all such conversions are the result of another person’s prayers: “Each had someone in his life who was a beacon of Christ’s life…Their example encourages us to never give up on the people we love.”

Parents especially, who see their children lapse from the Faith, can draw comfort from this. St Monica springs to mind. St Ambrose told her that her prayers and tears for her son, the wayward Augustine, would not be wasted. Fortunately for the Church, his was not a deathbed conversion.

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The art historian Kenneth Clark is an interesting modern study. The author writes that he “had intuited… that truth and beauty are inextricably linked, and that one may lead us the other. In the end he realised that our yearning for beauty is our yearning for God.”

Mind you, such an intuition requires grace – the intervention of divine help. The link between beauty and truth is not a leap that humans make by themselves; otherwise many more atheist-leaning aesthetes would not find faith such an enormous hurdle.

Reading the obituary of Cardinal Avery Dulles in 2008, I was struck by his own moment of discovery of the link between beauty and truth: as a young, agnostic Harvard student he was overwhelmed by the miracle of watching a tree beginning to flower and believed in “an all-good and omnipotent God” from that moment. For Clark the struggle took a lifetime. Debonair, self-assured and entirely confidence in his own judgment as the arbiter of good taste, as those who watched his celebrated TV series “Civilisation” will recall, he also had a problematic private life, lived out in the crumbling splendour of Saltwood Castle in Kent. His son, Alan, former MP and celebrated diarist, who had an even more complicated private life, also became a Catholic before he died.

A recent, late in life (rather than actual deathbed) conversion is that of Lord McAlpine, late treasurer of the Conservative Party and a close friend of Margaret Thatcher. As the Tablet Notebook for 25 January 2014 (McAlpine had died on 17 January) put it, a second triple heart bypass “changed his life. After emerging from a deliberately induced coma following the second operation, McAlpine decided to become a Catholic. He became a regular Mass goer on Saturday evenings at St Marks’s Cathedral in Venice, just round the corner from his palazzo there.” The Telegraph obituary adds about the thrice-married McAlpine, “To his credit though, he never tried to square his behaviour with his new-found faith.”

Those outside the Church who think cases like the Clarks and Lord McAlpine smell of hypocrisy and hedging one’s bets to get the best of both worlds in a “Lord, save me – but not yet” kind of way, do not know either the torments of conscience and remorse that an individual soul may undergo, or the “twitch upon the thread”- the working of divine mercy.

My late father-in-law, an atheist, thought that to “get religion” on your deathbed was a sign of weakness and never changed his mind, to my knowledge. It’s actually the opposite – a sign of courage and humility. Still, not everyone is given the opportunity to make amends for the lost years. The underlying moral of Karen Edmisten’s book is, seize the time; don’t tempt Providence.

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