We have recently celebrated Pentecost. It is all too easy to think of it as a just another great feast, forgetting that the Holy Spirit is silently at work in the world all the time – most especially in the souls of individual people. You can’t fail to be aware of His action if you read “From the Kippah to the Cross” by Jean-Marie Elie Setbon, published by Ignatius Press. The author, who sub-titles his book “A Jew’s Conversion to Catholicism”, has a charmingly spontaneous way of writing, without guile and always ready to poke fun at himself, his impulsive decisions and the strange trajectory of his life.
Born in 1964 in Paris into an “assimilated” i.e. secular French Jewish family Jean-Marc, as he was then called, felt an indescribable attraction for the symbol of the cross at an early age. As a young child he would look out of the bedroom window of his parents’ flat and gaze across at the dome of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Discovering a cross on the wall of the holiday house they rented one summer, he relates that it “drew me to it like a magnet.” He started to practise making the sign of the cross in bed at night and had a “strong impression of being in contact with a person.”
All this, including furtive visits to Sacre Coeur, had to be kept secret from his family. Although not practising as Jews, they had a cultural aversion to Christianity – especially as his mother had spent her childhood in hiding after the Nazis invaded Paris. Yet they were also uneasy when their eccentric son began to take an interest in his own faith after his bar mitzvah. As Setbon describes it, at this stage and for some years, his head was drawn to Jewish scholarship for which he discovered (naturally, one might say) that he had a great aptitude, while his heart was drawn to Christ.
To make his story more extraordinary, he even went to live in Israel and joined an ultra-Orthodox community. Living in Jaffa he would gaze at the cross on a Christian church nearby, much as he used to gaze at the cross on Sacre Coeur as a child. Wearing the traditional outfit of felt hat, dark suit, a white shirt and with a beard, he was torn by the conflict between head and heart: “I was supposed to despise Christ who was an object of scandal for my people, but I could not keep myself from loving Him”.
Later, back in Paris, married and with seven young children, Setbon had mystical experiences: a vision of the late Cardinal Lustiger (a convert from Judaism) on the day he died; and in a convent in Nemours he saw a reproduction of the Holy Shroud: “I was illuminated. At last! In one instant I had become ready to throw away the Jewish Law.” Setbon was finally baptised, aged 43, on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, an appropriate occasion given his early attraction towards this most Christian symbol of the cost of the Redemption.
Why read this book? To remind one of the ceaseless activity of the Holy Spirit, as I stated above; to meet a real “character” – which Setbon undoubtedly is; and to remember to pray for Jews, who face large emotional and psychological obstacles when they find they are drawn to the person of Christ. Indeed, the book ends with the author’s own reflections on the essential difference between Judaism and Christianity: relating to God as a people who keep His laws – or as an individual called into a personal relationship of love.