ROME – In a new book, British atheist-turned-Catholic author Sally Read takes people back to the essentials of the faith, exploring the importance of staying open and having a personal relationship with God amid the pressures of a highly divided and often skeptical society.
Written for Read’s 13-year-old daughter, the book, titled Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World, reflects on five passages from the scene of the annunciation in the bible, when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and informs her that she will become the mother of God.
“There’s nothing political in the book at all, it’s very much about our relationship with God, which is really personal, about how God moves through every single moment of our lives,” Read said, speaking to Crux.
“I think we’ve kind of lost our literacy as a culture about prayer and about faith,” she said, explaining that her book, at times addressed directly to her daughter, attempts to spell out the basic movements of prayer, not as a mystical feeling or experience, but as a relationship and conversation.
“It’s about accepting God’s will in the present moment, knowing that God is there, and that God writes our stories,” she said. While humanity has free will, Read said her book explores the necessity of “accepting what we are and who we are in God and discerning what God wants us to do.”
Read is an author and poet who experienced a dramatic conversion from atheism to Catholicism in 2010. Her 2016 book Night’s Bright Darkness recounts her conversion experience.
Published in August 2019, Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World was presented in Rome Feb. 22, and is the inspiration not only of Read’s experience of sharing the faith with her daughter, but of a lifelong fascination with the Annunciation, even when she was an atheist.
Below are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Sally Read:
Crux: What was the inspiration for writing this new book?
Read: I’m a convert, and in 2010 I had a very dramatic conversion experience which I wrote about in Night’s Bright Darkness. It was such a beautiful conversion experience. God kind of steps in and shows himself without you doing anything and you’re shocked. I converted in the span of nine months from atheism to Catholicism, and the person who was closes to me through that time was really my daughter, because it was a big shock to my husband and a big shock to my mother and family in England that I was having such an abrupt change, they couldn’t understand what happened. My daughter Flo was three and then four when I was received. She and I shared an awful lot about the changes and about God. She was always very astute about the faith and very, very interested.
Then the night before her First Communion, which is a very big deal in Italy, she suddenly said, I don’t know if I can do it because I don’t know if I believe in God. It was such a shock…So we talked about it, and I said what I thought people would say that I should say, which is that you don’t have to do it, you can wait until you’re older, which is the obvious thing to say. But as I said it, I had this really sharp pain in my chest, and I could see in her face that she was disappointed that I would let it go so easily. So at that point I said, well, I think if you don’t do it, I think Jesus will be very sad. So we talked around it. I told her that receiving the Eucharist is not a question of having visions or seeing angels, it’s a question of opening a door, because a sacrament is a way for God to reach you more easily.
With all of this talk she consented to receive communion, and everything was okay. But nevertheless, as she got older it became a question of ‘I don’t want to go to Mass, it’s boring, I don’t want to go.’ Because after first communion the kids don’t go to church anymore, so her friends were no longer going to church and my husband is not a practicing Catholic, so it’s quite tricky.
She’s doing well now, it’s like this book was a prayer. But nevertheless, she’s one to question, ‘Why? How do we know God exists? I don’t feel anything in prayer. Why does God allow suffering?’ All these questions, and I thought to myself, I want to write something down that she can refer to her whole life, about why hanging onto God is so urgent. So, it was written for her in the sense that she’s so sensitive, she’s really deep, she’s got a huge heart. But when I wrote it, I realized that it was really for everyone. Because our hearts are made for God. But I wanted to write something down that she could go back to.
As someone who has not believed but has come to believe, what do you think is so challenging for people about the Church today? What makes it difficult to believe?
This is so separate from my daughter, because she hasn’t even gotten to the point of doctrine…she’s not old enough to wrestle with all those issues. But I think it’s those same issues (gay marriage etc.) that people struggle with, because it’s so counter-cultural now. The fact that we’re pro-life and believe in traditional marriage. Because in this day and age, it’s all about inventing yourself and inventing your own rules. We think we can construct our own rules, and I think the Catholic Church is so different than that because we have a hierarchy and we have received wisdom.
But of course, coming into it, I can see that we put the cart before the horse, because it’s not a question of reading the catechism and saying ‘Oh, I’ll sign up for that.’ It’s a question of falling in love with God so profoundly, and the Holy Spirit really opens something up in you and you are literally changed, you are transformed, and then it all begins to make sense. We’re not going to convince anybody by just arguing. That’s why the book isn’t an argument.
In your experience, how can people be led to that encounter? It’s so polemical and divided, how is there room to make space? How have you found this in your life and in trying to help your daughter?
I think it very much depends on where the person is at. If you take someone like my daughter, who fundamentally she believes and goes to Mass and says her prayers, what we do is before she goes to sleep, we always relate it go God. So if she’s worried about something, we’ll place it in God’s hands or we’ll say a specific prayer. It’s really interesting to see how God works through that…He works in really astonishing ways to resolve her problems and to help her. So I think it’s always being really practical and relating things to the faith.
For people who don’t believe at all, in the secular world, I always think of (a priest named) Father Alexander. He has a church in Soho in London, and Soho is a really licentious district. He has 24-hour adoration and a lot of times will leave the door open. And it’s just beautiful because you can see right into the church and see the Blessed Sacrament on the altar, and maybe he’ll have some music playing. And he says it’s just amazing because people are just drawn in by the beauty. You don’t have to say anything, but people just come back for the silence or for the sense that they feel. I think that’s very important.
A third thing, I don’t think it hurts to actually say to people, God really loves you. When I see people suffering or I see people struggling with their identity in the various ways that people can do these days, I think, often I wish people will say, or I will say myself, ‘You are very loved by God, did you know that?’ Because people don’t know that. It’s something that’s slipped out of our culture generally, that knowledge, and it makes a massive impact, if they’re at the point where they can hear that. And if they’re not at the point where they can hear it, they won’t forget it. It could come back to them in years, they’ll remember those words.
What are the points in this book you think can speak not just to your daughter, but to the modern atheist? People who struggle with the faith either because they don’t get it intellectually, they’re struggling with the internal fighting or the abuse crisis. What points do you think can speak to them?
I think we’ve kind of lost our literacy as a culture about prayer and about faith. In the book I talk about Adam and Eve, and the veil coming down between us and God. Because I think the veil is a very important concept in prayer, and if people don’t understand that, it can be very difficult. So the veil belongs to God, and God can use the veil as he wishes, so you can see through a veil or you can see behind a veil, but it’s not broken. Or it can be completely static, and you can see nothing. So I think when we understand that in prayer God chooses how to use the veil and how to reveal himself, but we know he’s there, he’s very, very close…Even if we don’t have an interior locution or sense something profound, we have to know that he’s closer to us than the air that we breathe. There’s nothing political in the book at all, it’s very much about our relationship with God, which is really personal, about how God moves through every single moment of our lives.
So it’s about being open?
It’s about accepting God’s will in the present moment, knowing that God is there, and that God writes our stories. Of course, we have free will, but it’s not like you can take your life and decide that if you’re a woman, you’re going to become a man. It’s about accepting what we are and who we are in God and discerning what God wants us to do.
There’s a lot about identity and a lot about vocation, and that’s so important for this generation because it’s all they talk about: Who am I? What am I going to do to be famous? It’s about teaching them that it’s not about the gains of social media that count, it’s about the gains of God that counts.
Do you think this book will also resonate with the younger generation?
Yes, teenagers. I hope so. The other question my daughter asks is, how do I know what my vocation is? How do I know what God wants me to do? So it’s about silence, it’s about discernment and how we can prepare our souls and prepare our minds so that we can hear the word of God. Obviously, God speaks whenever he wants, but we can prepare ourselves in certain ways so that we are fertile ground and can hear him, because God’s word can be a whisper.
If you have one message you want people to receive from this book, what is it?
That it’s urgent to have God in every moment of your life. It’s urgent to hold onto him, because without him we fragment and we become further from what we’re supposed to be and it only leads to unhappiness and anxiety, huge anxiety.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen
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