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Cover story

SALLY READ

Outfoxed by God

For almost all of her 40 years, a Suffolk-born psychiatric nurse-turned published poet and passionate atheist felt little but contempt for Catholicism. But then, in less than a year, after a springtime epiphany she was received into the Church. This is her journey

In the spring of 2010, I embarked on a project with a doctor, co-writing a book about the vagina. It was to be a funky self-help guide to a woman’s most misunderstood parts: The Vagina, an Owner’s Guide. Part of my remit was to garner as much anecdotal information as possible. I decided to interview prostitutes and Muslims, Catholics and lesbians.

The hookers and gay women were easy talkers. The religious women less so. But I live near Rome and run into nuns every day – what a scoop, to talk to a nun about her vagina! But the approach would be tricky. I knew of a priest through a friend, a youngish man who chatted easily at the grocer’s. Perhaps he could introduce me to an open-minded sister. One March morning, I emailed him: “Dear Father, I am writing a book about vaginas …”

And so the clash of the sacred and profane began. He wasn’t shocked by the vagina question. But we started talking and, after a lifetime of passionate atheism and a visceral loathing of the Catholic Church, I asked if he minded if I put some questions to him. Sparks flew. Our exchange came to disrupt my work, my sleep, my well-being. Not that the priest’s arguments convinced me. Not that I was desperate to convince him. But my mind seemed bent on listening to some painful, raw static I could not switch off from.

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.

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.

“Pray for me,” the priest said, when I told him I was not, after all, an atheist. I didn’t know how to pray; I had never prayed.

Nonetheless, each day I stopped off at a little Carmelite church by the sea to sit and listen. I was open to the presence of God, but I was still not Christian – and far from Catholic.

In that church, there was an icon of Christ and, prayerless, I would simply look at him. It was on one of these occasions that I spoke aloud to the face and asked for help. There was no visual or aural hallucination, or anything, as a poet, I can use as a metaphor to tell what happened. The nearest I can come to describing it is to say that it felt like I was an amnesiac in a fit of quiet panic, and suddenly someone walked into the room that I recognised.

Later, I would read Simone Weil’s account of a very similar experience: “Christ lui-même est descendu et m’a prise.” It was unlike anything I had ever experienced and was impossible to replicate internally. I had and have no doubt that it was the presence of Christ. That, earlier in the spring, my breaking apart had allowed God enough of a crack in my intellect and defences to let me know him. Now I was open enough to let Christ embed himself in me.

I was conquered. Whatever I decided to do about entering a church, my devotion to Christ

After almost 60 years as a practising Catholic, Olivia O’Leary decided she had had enough. In a recent essay on RTE radio, one of Ireland’s best-known broadcasters explained how she left the Church two years ago, primarily over its refusal to ordain women as priests, writes Christopher Lamb.

Although she said it was a wrench to leave the many aunts and uncles who were nuns and priests, the barring of women from ordination meant the Church had become“an ethical desert”. This discrimination, she provocatively suggested, was similar to the days of whites-only apartheid South Africa. At Christmas she went to the service of carols and readings at the Church of Ireland St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Ms O’Leary’s outspoken remarks put the spotlight on women departing the Catholic Church. But it would be wrong to assume that women are just abandoning Catholicism. Adults’ practise of their religion is becoming more fluid – they are constantly joining, leaving and returning.

The revolving door – women who join, leave and return to the Catholic Church

The journalist and RTE broadcaster Olivia O’Leary. Photo: RTE Stills Library

It is still the case that females make up the majority in congregations in many Catholic churches in Britain and Ireland and they also have important roles in parishes and dioceses as catechists, teachers and pastoral assistants.

Professor Tina Beattie, theologian and a convert, believes that a number of women are attracted to Catholicism because of the emptiness of contemporary society.

“In quite a nihilistic consumerist age, when secularism by no means affords a meaningful alternative, the Catholic Church becomes very attractive as a repository not only of meaning and hope but of art and culture. There is always a romance about Catholicism,” she said.

Despite institutional failings, Professor Beattie, director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Catholic Studies at Roehampton Univesity, says the Church still speaks to people “about cosmic meaning and redemption”.

This means that Catholicism is able to attract both those women disillusioned with feminism and liberalism “who would embrace quite a conservative type of Catholicism as a reaction against that” and also those “feminist in their sympathies … who say this [the

4 | THE TABLET | 7 January 2012 was settled. Nonetheless, the issue of denomination wouldn’t let me alone. I seemed to intuit that there were ways one could get close to Christ on a regular basis.

In the circles I used to keep in London, owning up to choosing to be Catholic is a little like admitting you’re racist or homophobic or sexually repressed. Like most British women these days, I had become sexually active at about the same time as I learned to drive a car, and with the same pragmatism: “The time is right: I need to get around if I’m not to be left behind.” Chesterton wrote that sex would be the final heresy. Indeed, for me the central stumbling blocks to entering the Church was doctrine relating to homosexuality, masturbation and contraception. I felt I could never belong to a church so didactic in its beliefs, so narrow in its view of sexuality.

At the same time, research for the vagina book was advancing slowly; my appetite for the project was waning, ominously. Memories resurfaced: I remembered one male friend who disliked, intensely, a mutual female friend, calling me one morning to tell me, by the by, he’d slept with her the night before. “But you can’t stand her!” “Oh well, Sal,” he mumbled, “sometimes men are like dogs, you know? You’ve just got to have it.”

I remembered, again, a boyfriend of mine who became incapable of sex because of his addiction to pornography and buggery. I admitted what I’d long known: that sex as recreation was something that depressed me. I had always known it had caused me pain, and I began to know, with splendid relief, that there was nothing abnormal in me.

As a poet, too, I had analysed sexual mores. There are those, Catholic and non-Catholic, who see the explicit nature of my writing about sex as at odds with my new beliefs. But those poems, which investigate violence and sexuality, are hardly a eulogy to the joys of casual sex. Physicality and sexuality have always haunted me; I began to understand that this was because of the inescapable unity of body and soul. My need for all the senses in experiencing something is apparent in what I write. I came to realise that the smell, the taste, the touch, the sound of God outfoxed the mind. I could rationalise, but all my rationalising couldn’t alter the profound rationality of my encounter with God. They write of intellectual, spiritual, and moral conversions. But it was through the heart – by which I mean the most instinctive, sensitive part, the ultimate reasoning – that God won me.

Yet I still hadn’t fully resolved the issue of denomination, and it obsessed me. On the way home from a visit to London that summer, I tried to find a church to stop in. St Patrick’s in Soho was closed for renovation. Churches around Liverpool Street were being used as art galleries or were only available for private hire. People were drinking out on the streets outside bars, in the early evening heat. I had never felt more hungry. I knew I couldn’t be a Quaker, sitting in a circle, untouched. I knew I couldn’t be a Protestant, pretending a wafer was the body of Christ.

I walked down street after street, feeling, for once, a foreigner in London. There were no churches open. The miracle of finding an open door with a lit candle at the tabernacle was suddenly nothing small. I was already attending Mass in Italy and praying through Communion, often in tears, sometimes simply awed. The most important part of all this, I realised, was being with Christ, was the liturgy itself. I walked for an hour without hope even of a Mass, just wanting to sit by the Blessed Sacrament (I hadn’t yet heard of adoration) but every church was closed, or given over to some other denomination or purpose. Eventually I let myself wind up at Liverpool Street station, in all the bright lights and confusion. I knew I was already Catholic.

On 14 December 2010, I was received into the Church in the Vatican.

Coming out as a Catholic hasn’t been easy. I understand best those that pick fights with me – how to explain such profound experiences, such a deep love? What surprises me more is envy, a wistfulness that faith has eluded many of my generation. They sense what I can confirm – faith means more love. Becoming Catholic is, of course, a reversion. My great-grandfather was an Orangeman in Northern Ireland. I come from generations of hard-line protestants-turned-atheists. These days, when I pray the Rosary, I find myself wondering which woman was the last in my line to do so, and how easily she gave it up.

It’s been said before: being 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. The vagina book, by the way, was shelved.

■ Sally Read is Poet in Residence at the Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs at Santa Marinella, Rome. Her third collection of poems, The Day Hospital, will be published by Bloodaxe Books in 2012.

(See Peter Stanford, page 10.)

Church] is better than any of the alternatives”.

The encounters that women have with the Church “on the ground” are also important.

Caroline Dollard, convenor of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults network in England and Wales, said: “In my experience it is not so much a desire for escapism but, more positively, that the Church offers a fresh perspective on life.”

Providing a space for people to explore the faith, such as enquiry groups, are extremely important. She gives the example of Cathy, a woman who joined her local parish’s bereavement group after the death of her son. There, “they listened, week after week”. Later she prayed in front of an image of the pietà – Mary holding her dying son – and “felt Christ, and the whole family of the Church understood her and shared in her suffering”. Soon afterwards she was received.

There are also those Catholic women who return to their faith. Sheila Keefe, who has designed the programme Keeping in Touch specifically for lapsed Catholics, explained that a number of women return after a personal visit from a parish priest, an invitation from the parish or simply a conversation. Other moments are perhaps the more obvious times such as when a child receives the sacraments or when someone is old or ill.

The liturgy can also be powerful: Mrs Dollard says that simply listening to Scripture, silence or lighting a candle can bring about a recognition of the need to return.

While many share Olivia O’Leary’s concern about the role of women, the clerical sexual abuse scandal has also created disillusionment. One woman, a journalist who wished to remain anonymous, explained that she stopped going to church for a time as a result. “I used to sing in the choir, but felt that I had nothing to sing about.” Professor Beattie puts it starkly: “It is the grind of exclusion and moral hypocrisy of a regime which will jump to attention if someone whispers about contraception, homosexuality or abortion and lets abuse go hidden for decades.”

Mrs Dollard explains that women find it hard to remain in the Church “if their gifts are consistently rejected”. “Within an institutional, all-male hierarchical model of leadership, it would be important to ensure that women’s voices are very much part of the conversations,” she said. At a recent study day she led for the Diocese of Middlesbrough’s Women’s Commission those who attended felt strongly that more dialogue was needed with them over a whole raft of issues. These include the disconnect between the institutional Church and spirituality, abuse, clericalism, divorce and remarriage and the quality of preaching and teaching.

For Julia Palmer, a former Anglican vicar who is now in charge of adult formation in the Diocese of Nottingham, women’s ordination delayed her decision to become a Catholic. But in the end she decided it was not enough for her to remain in the Church of England.

“It boiled down to a stark choice. Either I accept the Roman Catholic Church and its authority and give up my ordained role, or carry on as I was and feel that I had second best.”

7 January 2012 | THE TABLET | 5