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June 2019

Sally Read: Night's Bright Darkness

I've often wondered, when listening to or reading someone who seems to be a really hardened anti-Christian, what it would take to crack that shell. I say "seems" because of course one can never tell from the outside what's going on inside a person. And I say "anti-Christian" rather than "anti-religious" or "anti-theist" because for cultural reasons hostility to theistic religion is in the Western world most often, most explicitly, and most vigorously hostility to Christianity. 

This is not the simple skepticism which has been ascendant in Western culture for a couple of centuries. It's hostility, an engagement of the emotions as much as or more than the intellect, because Christianity is a significant obstacle to what is generally viewed as progress toward liberation, especially sexual liberation.

If I had met Sally Read fifteen or so years ago I might have thought she was just such a person, and wondered about her in just this way. And yet here is this excellent little book (147 pages) which tells just such a story of the breaking of a shell of resistance. Her father was a fairly militant atheist, and from early in life she followed in his intellectual footsteps. In the book she doesn't explicitly go into the question of feminism as such (as far as I recall), but it seems implied in her general outlook, though perhaps not in a fervently ideological way. And feminism is generally hostile, often extremely hostile, to Christianity. (Yes, I know there is such a thing as Christian feminism. I think it's a pretty uneasy and unstable mix, though, in the long run turning into the one thing or the other. Feminism as a complete theory of humanity is simply not compatible with Christianity.) 

Fundamental to her view of the world was something pretty close to contempt for all religion, especially for Christianity, and most especially for the Catholic Church, which she saw as more or less insane. But you can see that the seeds of faith were there. To start with, there is her father's commitment to atheism as truth. However mistaken in its immediate object, commitment to truth is always commitment to God. 

And there are those deep movements of the soul which are often obscure even to ourselves. When she finds herself "sitting on the floor of [her] flat in Belsize Park and saying lucidly, "This is hell. I'm in hell," she resists the impulse to reach toward God: "I thought I could never lower myself to that degree of self-delusion." But having the impulse to reach is itself an implicit reaching. 

Later on, in a conversation with a friend who confesses to believing in God, she makes nonconfession, and it was a courageous bleakness I felt. I knew there was no God above. It was as if I had looked into an empty dish and simply declared it to be empty. 

But she doesn't want this to be true, and that not-wanting is also a way of reaching.

And there is the cunning of providence. She plans to write a book called The Vagina: An Owner's Handbook. And in this book she wants to write about the experiences of absolutely every kind of woman, including nuns--she is living in Italy--but she is unsure of how to approach one, and doesn't want to "spook" those who run the preschool her daughter attends. 

The only other link I had with the Catholic Church was tenuous--a friend of friends, a Canadian Byzantine-rite priest. He was about my age, with black, merry eyes, and seemed approachable. Perhaps he could introduce me to a nun. One day, ticking off chores on my work list, I fired off an email:

    Dear Father, I'm writing a book about the vagina.

So begins a crucial relationship in which, by email and over coffee, she beats Fr. Gregory with every rhetorical club she can lay her hands on. And apparently he sometimes hit back. She describes the weeks that followed as a fight, and it clearly was, and not only with Fr. Gregory.

And then there are the experiences, the direct contacts with the divine. This is where things get really puzzling, where I wonder why her? Why, of all the scornful non-believers in the world, does God come to her, and not to so many others who seem very much like her? Sure, her inner movement and her circumstances prepared her, but that doesn't answer the question, only moves it back a few steps. 

Conversion stories are all similar in many ways, and yet they remain interesting, because that complex interweaving of the personal and the circumstantial and the divine is different in each one. Demographic and sociological categories are irrelevant to God's relationship with any individual. I read this book shortly after reading Dawn Eden Goldstein's (see this post and this one). In one broad respect at least they are quite similar, in that both women are in many ways fairly typical of the sort of person who does not convert, who does not come anywhere near it. And yet here they are. For that matter, here I am, part of a tiny, tiny minority among those who would have seemed, ca. 1970, very much like me. Why me?

That skeptical and often hostile modern mind that I mentioned earlier has for some time been expecting and predicting the death of  Christianity and especially of the Catholic Church. I've heard more than one person in recent years assert with confidence that "the Catholic Church is dying." Setting aside the divine promises which non-Christians naturally do not believe exist, speaking only in human terms, that death is unlikely in the extreme. There will always be people for whom a life of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, whether or not successful in those efforts, will not be enough. It's the way the human person is made. Why is that, I wonder?

I haven't told anything like the whole story here, so don't get the impression that you know the book from reading this notice. It's really very good. I was flipping through it a little while ago and thinking I'd have liked for it to be somewhat longer. I don't think that about many books. 


Dawn Eden Goldstein On the Idea of a Priestless Church

I can't imagine why The Atlantic thought it was a good idea not only to publish a piece written by an ex-Catholic-priest (and apparently more or less ex-Catholic) called "Abolish the Priesthood," but to put it on the cover. I suppose it might appeal to the average reader of The Atlantic as a step toward abolishing the Church altogether. But do the editors not realize how tired this alienated progressive Catholicism is, how often arguments of this sort have been made? I may be doing the author an injustice, but I barely skimmed the article, figuring I'd heard it all before.

However, it did produce this excellent response from Dawn Eden Goldstein, which was, surprisingly, published in America. I love that phrase "the poetry of not being sick."