Award-Winning Atheist Poet Writes Memoir with a Twist: Her Conversion

Recently, I heard of a judge of literary prizes who, when asked how quickly she knew a book was going to be a ‘winner’, replied: ‘After eight.’ Eight chapters? No. Eight pages? No. Eight paragraphs? No. Eight lines… Just a few days ago, a book arrived in the mail. It was a copy of Night’s Bright Darkness – a Modern Conversion Story by Sally Read, recently published by Ignatius Press. On opening it, after just eight lines, I knew.

I had heard of the author. Somewhere I had read, of an award-winning poet converting to the Catholic faith but. I had forgotten her name. . .There are many converts to the Faith, more than we imagine. There are also those who convert and then fall away – a danger for all of us. Becoming Catholic is to respond to a call to take up position in the front line of a battle – it is not for the faint hearted, or the cowardly; perhaps most importantly of all, it is, not for those who choose to leave something of themselves with the enemy – a sin, perhaps, or a ‘moral position’ that they are unwilling to surrender. In this war, which we call ‘life’, compromise with the enemy is fatal.

Sally Read

Poet Sally Read

So, I am a little wary of stories of too public a conversion. I feel sorry for the person at the centre especially as, more often than not, the knives of former friends are drawn against the convert as the world they thought they shared with their friends is turned on its head. One of the best conversion stories I have read was that of a famous convert in the 1950s. His conversion was intellectual and sincere. When he died decades later, however, there were reports he was ‘disillusioned’, had stopped practicing… How often do we pray for the gift of perseverance? Not often enough it seems.

Sally Read is a poet. She has published two volumes, won prizes, been lauded amongst the literati. This literary background shows in her memoir. Her writing is intelligent, gripping, and, of course, poetic. Her use of symbol and metaphor are as sharp as they are memorable. It was just eight lines into Night’s Bright Darkness that I grasped this was not the usual ‘conversion story’ – not that any two conversions are the same. This one starts in a London psychiatric hospital with a dead body.

The power of the book lies not just in the writing though, nor in its structure, which is, to some extent at least, engrossing non-linear storytelling. To read the book is to sense the author there in front of you, talking to you as if to an old and dear friend. She was wise to employ this tone. No conversion is encompassed simply by a movement from A to B, from this event to that event, culminating in the finale of baptism. Night’s Bright Darkness is an intricate mosaic of the writer’s inner world. It is also one of the most moving accounts of the awakening of faith that I have come across in quite some time.

The beauty of that inner opening towards the light is all the more remarkable given the world in which it takes place. It is London during the 1990s, by day Sally Read worked as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital; by night she ‘partied’ with her friends. It was when she saw nothing wrong with the sexually permissive society in which she lived and of which quickly she became a part. It was a time when her views were those of the majority of secular modern Britain. Then Sally Read was a convinced atheist, descended from a long line of atheists. She had a hidden talent, though, or, more correctly, one that was emerging, and this talent, to some extent, set her apart. She wrote poetry to make sense of the madness she encountered daily in her work. Those who had lost their reason were her inspiration: she washed them, fed them, and helped prepare them for burial. Through her writing, she explored her place in this world and beyond. Her experiences only appeared to confirm her atheism, making her more an atheist not less. All was meaningless, pain was everywhere, a fact of life; she escaped into hedonism only to find that there was no relief there either, but that was of no consequence; fleeting pleasure, was all there was: that was life.

I know the London she describes. I know the streets of which she speaks – I know the church of St. Patrick’s that sits in the centre of a quarter dedicated to the worship of other, stranger gods. Perhaps in those years we passed each other on those same streets? Or, perhaps, when she entered that church while adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was taking place, I was one of those who had come to worship and at whom she looked with a mixture of pity and bewilderment, for she had not come to worship. Drawn by a curiosity, nothing more, she entered there on one occasion, but left as empty as she had arrived, returning to the neon lights and the noise and moral confusion of the streets around.

The book is curious in unexpected ways. Just as the narrative seems to be heading in one direction, it changes course. Before we know it, we are in Sardinia and Sally Read is married.  The abrupt change is forewarned at the start of the book. From the outset, the writer does say that this is not an autobiography – true, it is more than that. Whoever decided to edit out the whys and wherefores of what happens next made a wise decision. Slowly, the reader becomes aware that this is a memoir, yes, but also a thriller- in the sense that a mystery is being unfolded on each page that tells of a life-changing discovery that is devastating in its demolition of all that had once passed for ‘reality’. So it was for Sally Read. The story moves to Rome, but even then, it is unclear what will happen next; Sally Read is still far from the faith, but all is about to change.

It is not for me to retell her story. Sally Read has done that, skilfully with insight and passion. What she reveals to the reader is something we Catholics may have overlooked. In our religious practices, at times, we can see the practice and not the Person at its centre. Mysteriously, into the life of this convinced atheist, He came. Her description of this silent touch of grace and how that left her world are so compelling and tender as to pose the question of the reader – so many years, and yet so cold?

Needless to say, once the journey inward commenced, Sally Read was helped and led by the Spirit; she was also helped by a holy priest and a wise laywoman. The latter was an American, living in Rome with her husband and her growing family. Through their daily lives, and unwillingness to compromise on any aspect of their Catholic beliefs – doctrine or morality – these two witnesses gave Sally Read an example that would prove the catalyst for what was beginning to occur in her soul. A poet, inevitably she was drawn to the writing of the mystics, discovering St. John of the Cross was a further catalyst propelling her on. Without the practical and uncompromising lives of the Catholics around her, though, Sally Read could have drifted off into a world of the ‘spiritual’ rather than the ‘religious’ – a temptation for so many. Instead of drifting aimlessly on the sea of life, however, there came into view, in the still dark distance, a shape, it was the Barque of Peter.

Night’s Bright Darkness is a thrilling read, and as the pace quickens and the moment of truth comes, the pages appear to turn themselves. You need to be warned about this book, though. First of all, it is not for the easily offended. Sally Read describes vividly the moral mess of her life and that of the lives of those around her in London. The second thing is that when you start this book, you will not easily be able to put it down. It is a cliché to say such things.  Nevertheless, it is true that when I opened it, it was morning, and when I closed it – finished – it was night.  This is a story for our times, speaking especially to women who have been used, abused and then cast aside by those caught in a Sexual Revolution that continues in our midst.

Night's Bright Darkness by Sally ReadIn a few weeks’ time, Sally Read returns to London. In the crypt of the same church which she entered as a non-believer, she will speak of her conversion. Then, she had no faith; nevertheless, she was, briefly, in the presence of Our Lord exposed upon the altar, drawn there for reasons she did not fully understand – not then. Now, she will return as a witness, and tell of how He changed her life.

Editor’s note: Sally Read’s Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story is available from Ignatius Press, Amazon, and your local Catholic bookstore. 

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KV Turley writes from London

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