The dramatic conversion of one atheist poet

Sally Read, pictured in Rome

I have just been reading Fr Uwe Michael Lang’s new book on the liturgy, The Voice of the Church at Prayer, published by Ignatius and distributed in the UK by Gracewing. It is very thought-provoking: it is not an SSPX-type lament at the “destruction” of the Tridentine rite of Mass, but a careful and scholarly examination of what a sacred language means and why we need to express our public worship in this way.

Fr Lang is a keen supporter of Pope Benedict’s “reform of the reform” and his ruling that there is only one rite of Mass, divided into two forms, Ordinary and Extraordinary. He approves of the ICEL translation of 2010 and says, “Unlike its predecessor [the translation of 1973], the 2010 ICEL version makes the treasury of the Latin liturgical tradition available to the Church in the English-speaking world.” He adds that “it contributes greatly to the formation of a “sacred vernacular”…an idiom of worship that is distinguished from everyday speech and is experienced as the voice of the Church at prayer.”

All this makes it easier to understand why the earlier translation sounded wrong and needed revision: it was banal, uninspiring, prosaic and inaccurate – when we require a language reflecting, as Fr Lang writes, “our aspirations for goodness, for truth, for beauty and for love.” I recall my brother telling me that when he fell in love with his wife he was inspired to write poetry to her (and he would not describe himself by any means as a poet); the heightened emotion he felt simply could not be articulated in the ordinary way. Well – if that is how we respond to a human being we love, how much more should our encounter with God in the liturgy elevate our form of expression?

With these reflections going on in my head, a friend has just passed on to me an interview earlier this year with the poet Sally Read on CNA. Read, born in 1971 in Suffolk, underwent a dramatic conversion from atheism to the Catholic Church in 2010. She was living in Italy in the seaside town of Santa Marinella and got into conversation with a Canadian priest who was based there. She relates, “While I was talking to this priest about, well, is there a God and all of that kind of stuff, I kind of had this feeling as a poet that God was the ultimate poet and the ultimate creator and I was simply being used as an instrument.”

Her doubts finally ended one afternoon when she stepped into a local Catholic church: “I was in tears and said to this icon of Christ, ‘If you’re there, then you have to help me’. And this thing happened which is very hard to explain, but I felt as if I was being physically lifted up and my tears stopped and I felt this presence.” In an earlier article in the Tablet of January 7 2012, the poet elaborated more on her spiritual journey: “I was brought up an atheist. The creed of non-creed was in my blood. Christianity was a symptom of bigotry or feeblemindedness.” (We have all heard that.) Later, in London and walking the streets searching desperately for a church in which she could pray, she realised that “The most important part of all this was being with Christ, was the liturgy itself.”

Read intuited that to be wholly with Christ was to be with Him in the celebration of Mass. She saw that “being a 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.” This private revelation as it were, is not so different from the patient, scholarly work of Fr Lang, explaining why the liturgy, whether in Latin or the vernacular, should be the most beautiful and most poetic form of language we can muster – for Love lends wings to language.