At the beginning of 2010 I was a resolutely Church-hating atheist. In March of that year I began a conversation with a Catholic priest for some research I was doing. The encounter provoked an upheaval in my personal philosophy as a feminist poet, and therefore in my work and my life. It led, quickly, to one major breakthrough: I understood that God exists! But instead of bringing me lasting relief, this disclosure turned everything further on its head. I felt as though I were trapped in a labyrinth, trying to find the right door. If so much that I once believed had turned out to be false, how could I know now what was true? How could I know that God is good? How could I know if I should be Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist? I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t writing. An English woman living in Italy, I wondered whether I should just go home. I was desperately lonely.
I took to stopping in a small Carmelite church by the sea before picking up my daughter from day-care, just to think. Here is the breakthrough of my life as I wrote it in the book about my conversion, Night’s Bright Darkness:
“All my long-held beliefs, the creed of my childhood, the substance of my work, had been torn up and taken from me. Anything seemed possible; it was almost unbearable. I put my feet on the kneeler and my face in my hands and wept. I felt uprooted, entirely alone. At a certain point I looked up to the stained glass window above me—it was a simple icon of Christ’s face. I heard myself speak honestly and instinctively, with no belief or unbelief: “If you’re there, you have to help me.”
“Something came over me. I felt almost physically lifted up. My eyes stopped crying instantly, my face relaxed. It was like being in the grip of panicked amnesia, when suddenly someone familiar walked into the room and gave myself back to me—a self restored to me more fully than before. It was a presence entirely fixed on me as I was on it, and it both descended toward me and pulled me up. I knew it was him. This was the hinge of my life; this compassion and love and humility so great it buckled me as it came to meet me.”
Within seven months I was Catholic.
When we are looking for a breakthrough in our lives we should remember that prayer is not necessarily formal: my desperate searching for truth, my sleeplessness, all of that was the deep bedrock of my petition as I turned my face to his.
Nine years on from that day, people ask me whether I now perceive a great distance from God, having felt him so close. I tell them that memory is more than memory when we speak of our encounters with Christ. For when God lets us feel his nearness he is simply showing us, briefly, what is always there. From then on, even when we feel we are alone in darkness, we know he is with us—as electrically, as unforgettably as he was that day for me in the church by the sea. There is no breakthrough more significant than the arrival of Christ himself in our lives. Or, rather, every breakthrough is precisely this: the timely and unsurpassable sign of his closeness.
Help me to trust when I feel I am in darkness.
Help me to know that you are with me when I cannot see you.
Help me to understand that every question
is answered in the Sacred Heart of Jesus,
and that in times of desolation and times of breakthrough,
you are unchangingly with us.
We ask this in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sally Read, author of “Night’s Bright Darkness” and the forthcoming book, “Annunciation: a Call to Faith in a Broken World,” which will be published by Ignatius Press in the fall.