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