This text is excerpted, with permission, from the third part of a three—part article by Mrs. Luce published in McCall’s in February, March, and April 1947. The earlier parts describe with simple eloquence Clare’s spiritual and intellectual development from her childhood on, leading up to the moment in which she could write: “What strikes “a convert’ as newsworthy is not his limited share of God’s grace, but the whole world’s unlimited share. His conversion seems to have not a unique but a common significance: he feels that he has made not a personal discovery but a popular discovery.” As a narrative of personal and cultural history, the first two parts are superb, building to the climax reprinted here.
I see by the papers that there is some serious suggestion that we now begin to date time from the day of the splitting of the atom, which would make this the Year of the Atom 4, ending the Years of our Lord 1947. (R.I.P.) A few great scientists have publicly urged that man abandon “all previous modes of thought” and begin “atomic thinking.” They are even collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars for such educational purposes. Since all the previous thinking of man has resulted in thoughts of religion, “atomic thinking” is certain to develop “atomic religion.”
Let us pray! (In the First Church of Atomic Fission):
“I believe in the Atom, Power Almighty, Substance of Heaven and Earth, once and forever divisible, first split at Oak Ridge, as prophesied by St. Einstein, then dropped over Hiroshima in the form of a bomb, killing millions, still to be split over the whole world, whence it may bring the atomic Kingdom of Heaven on Earth or come to judge mankind obsolete. I believe in Uranium, Plutonium and the Cyclotron; the Communion of Scientists; the corruption of the body; the relativity of all mind and matter, world without end, Amen.”
Yes, it may come: the last modern ism, atomanimism.
If man is not to get his ideas of God from God, that is by revelation or grace, then he must get his ideas of God either from nature or the ideas other men have held about God. A novel combination of such ideas often results in a Protestant church.
Let it not be thought that I was so lost to protestant tradition that I did not seek at one point to found my own church.
Shortly after I had recovered from the physical anguish of my daughter’s death and while I was still resting in the country before plunging back into Washington politics, I happened on a book called A New Model of the Universe. (That was certainly what I was looking for. The model I had long been working by left much to be desired.) It was written in a Constantinople garret by a refugee from the wrath of the Bolsheviks. He was a Russian “mystic” called Ouspensky. Its oriental theories of soul-transmigration, above all, the modern Western “scientific proofs” he adduced for them impressed me and naturally consoled me enormously. Ouspensky, it seemed, had got a firm hold on one aspect of the Truth. I say one aspect, because I quickly began to add my own truths.
It was also a very democratic religion: Every body- soul encountered, both in time and space, Jesus, Buddha, Lao-tse and the World’s Finest Influences—and so that evil got the same chance, Attila, Nero, Hitler and the World’s Worst Influences. This explained, though I cannot remember how, the problem of pain and mortified innocence.
A silly notion? Utterly absurd. But I was born into a Protestant mold. I had a right to construct my own eschatology if my neighbors’ didn’t suit. And my church, of which I was, and pray always will be, the only member, for a few short months gave me the illusion of serenity, when I was quite alone with it. For the trouble with it was that I could never call upon it when in the thick of any emotional or intellectual difficulty, as I often was, being both a woman and a politician, not to say a human. Indeed, on one occasion, which I shall presently relate, when I most desperately needed to remember it, I could not even remember the most important thing about it—the part that God was supposed to play in it.
In any case, “Lucpenskyism” was my last new “ism,” ‘before I gave up all the old ones. All these isms that I once held true in whole or in part and now talk about having repudiated, I did not repudiate one by one, cleanly substituting another. I held them all, in varying degrees, until almost the end. For each contained some core of instinct and efficacy, some grain of God’s truth. And I kept these grains in my otherwise wholly materialistic mind much as slum dwellers keep geranium pots in their pitiful flats: a wistful reminder perhaps that somewhere there existed a real world of beauty, goodness and truth from which they had come.
A man, after a fire has broken out in the house, will sometimes report: “I always felt that house was a tinderbox, and I knew I had been smelling smoke. But I had lived in it without a fire so long, I just couldn’t believe it until I saw the flames.”
I had lived in the house of materialism too long to leave it until on one terrible night the smoke of my doubts burned into the flames of denial. And I fled.
I would not add greatly to this narrative by telling the precise details, most of them quite boring, and certainly commonplace, which led up to a black hour on a certain late night in the autumn of 1945, in a New York hotel room. A conversion is sometimes preceded by a convergence, a swift coming together in the mind of all that the convert has ever been or done or thought or felt. It is the culmination of confusion, the exhaustion of expediency, the zenith of doubt, the nadir of faith and the crisis of despair. It is the final addition of error, the summing up. It is the dread confession that is made to the self alone, without faith, hope or charity. How or why it happened to me on that night and not another isn’t important. That it did happen was tremendously important.
Sometime after midnight, alone in my room, all the doubts which I had ever felt concerning the dogmas and doctrines I had held in all the years before; all the futile and sterile relationships I had ever nursed or tolerated in pride or vanity; all the heartaches and headaches, all the deep disgusts and sharp betrayals and bitter disillusionments that I had ever endured or visited upon my friends and enemies; all the lacerations of the spirit suffered so helplessly, in contemplating my meaningless world, soaked in blood and violence, converged in a vast sour tide within me. Like the drowning man who reviews the events of his whole life in the twinkling of an eye, all that I had been a part of or witness to, seemed to pass before my mind. I struggled in the black riptide of a thousand old follies and fancies. And born on its black bosom amid the wreckage of my own years was the wreckage of battlefields and the lime pits of Nordhausen. And a girl’s graveyard. I saw the faces of many friends and relatives and some seemed sad and some seemed gay.
But all seemed strange. And the gentle face of my mother, smiling, for no doubt, even there, in the Lethean lagoon where I seemed to see her she had spotted a water lily. (“My religion,” I seemed to hear her say again, “is flowers.”) And near her, the gay pure face of my daughter, with glowing red brown hair, though what she was thinking I could not tell; her eyes were closed. The faces of all the beautiful and the clever and the bored and the damned I had known. The maimed baffled faces of the war’s innocents. The twisted proud faces of the tyrants.
I thought I had forgotten them, but I now vividly remembered my four clever friends who had committed suicide so long ago. Riddles were still smoldering in their eyes—riddles that seemed to beckon me. Then a tidal wave of despair seemed to overwhelm me. Dimly, I realized the hideous subjectivity of this experience. I pled with my objective self to rescue me, as a drowning person in the black waters might cry out to a lighthouse on the shore. The only reflection my objective self had to make was that in view of the fact that I was physically healthy, well endowed of the world’s goods, possessed many friends and was certainly doing my best to work hard and serve usefully in Congress, I might possibly be going crazy. My objective self suggested that if I were not, I had better prove it at once by “pulling myself together.” My subjective self, faced with this stale piece of advice, which meant once again, lift yourself up by your own bootstraps, went even more to pieces.
Then I despaired of myself and for myself, and of the world and for the world. And if my despair seemed in any second bearable in that hour, then the world’s did not. And if the world’s did, mine instantly became again unbearable.
I walked about the room, picking up things on my dresser and laying them down. I tried to remember with desperate concentration if at any time in all my life I had ever deeply believed in any power outside myself that could come to my rescue or anyone’s rescue. For I was not alone in this thing. We were all of us in it together: my mother, Ann, everyone I had ever cared for, alive or dead. Then I remembered Mr. Ouspensky, the prophet of the church which I had founded and had believed in for the space of a few months so happily. What had Mr. Ouspensky believed? What had I added to his belief? A strange thing happened: while I knew I could remember, if I chose, the essential beliefs of every other ism I had studied or tried to live by, I could not remember the most important thing about the religion I myself had invented: I could not remember whether the God of that faith was supposed to be personally interested in his creatures. I mean, would He help me, could He help me to “pull myself together” if I asked? I did not know. Then that meant He couldn’t!
I tasted at long last the real meaning of meaninglessness: it is to believe that one is crawling to extinction, unloved, unlovable and unloving in the same kind of world.
I found myself crying. And then I was praying. As the only prayer I ever knew by heart was “Our Father which art in Heaven,” that is no doubt how I began. I don’t know how long, or what I prayed for. Help from some quarter—any quarter, undoubtedly. But presently I finished and got up from my knees feeling a little more “pulled together.” I began aimlessly to wander about the room again. Then, on the desk I saw an unopened letter from a Jesuit priest called Father Edward Wiatrak, who lived in Cincinnati and taught in a parochial school for boys.
Some five years ago he wrote me a pleasant, though somewhat stilted and priestly letter about an article I had done on Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese “warphans,” or war orphans. It was called “What One Woman Can Do.” Father Wiatrak liked the article, but in his letter he suggested that there was no limit to what any woman could do, if she held sufficiently the love of God in her heart. And he said he would “remember me in his prayers.” As I always in Congress answered my mail “promptly and courteously,” I thanked Father Wiatrak for his letter and his prayers. From that day on, few weeks went by without a short letter from Father Wiatrak. His essential theme never varied: (to quote)—“Love perfects justice, justice in which God is loved above all things, with the whole mind, heart and soul; and everything else is loved in God. God and Love are the port of the soul; the soul must needs endure wretched torment (`cruciati miserable’) when it does not rest in love. . .” And he was praying . . .
Father Wiatrak never asked of me one single little favor of any kind! Not to change my political style or opinions; not to send money to charity; not to pass a bill or make a speech to any group; not to see him; and certainly not to become a Catholic convert. On the contrary, he seemed of the opinion, sometimes even violently, that Somebody was waiting patiently to do me a favor: God. And he was praying.
Later I learned that he had moved to a Jesuit Misision House in New York. I had grown tired of Father Wiatrak’s letters in the past months. They had been busy months, even frantic, for all of us in Washington. His tireless insistence, accompanied by many a Latin quote, that God ought to be considered as a factor in human affairs by politicians and writers and his frequent references to incidents in the lives of the saints seldom seemed to fit the immediacies and urgencies or, as one called them, the “realities” of international and domestic political life. Would his pious words fit any better this hour so fixed in private doubt and despair?
I doubted they would. Still, I opened the letter. It was very short. It asked me if I had ever read St. Augustine’s Confessions, and how one bright day in an Italian garden that brilliant, bold and famous man had suddenly burst into a torrent of despairful tears, sick and tormented with the world’s vileness and his own. And how he had heard a child’s voice in a nearby house say, “Take and read. Take and read.” And Father Wiatrak was praying.
That was all.
Very well. I would “take and read,” good Father Wiatrak! And what was there to take and read in my New York hotel bedroom? Well, certainly no Bible. By God’s Grace, I now think, I was impelled to take the telephone book. Then I looked up the number of the Jesuit Mission House where Father Wiatrak was staying. I did not expect him to answer, so late in the evening, or rather, so early in the morning. “Blind Fate” or whomever I had been praying to would decide that.
A sleepy voice answered the telephone and said, “I will call Father.” I heard shuffling steps receding on stone floor. I waited. I thought: What I am really doing is asking this Catholic priest if his God can help me. And in that interval a new wave of doubt flooded over me. Romanism, Popery, Mummery, Idolatry, Bigotry, Superstition, Hocus-Pocus! All the prejudices absorbed or acquired in my life and times among the secular isms bore in upon me. They were many and gaudy. I hung up the telephone. Then suddenly, curious to the end of my mind’s curiosity, I realized that this thing, Catholicism, was the one “ism” I had been too lazy, too proud or too intolerant to investigate. I do not know that what they say is true, I said to myself. And besides, I said fiercely, who says what “they say” about this Thing, anyway? Clearly, “they” were all the ones whose lies or imperfect or insufficient truths had helped to bring me to this hour. I picked up the telephone. The hotel operator had not broken the connection. I heard the beat of quick steps coming across stone floor.
“Father,” I said, “I am not in trouble. But my mind is in trouble.” He said, “We know. This is the call we have been praying for.”
Then, in the calm, practical voice of a doctor who recommends a patient suffering with unusual disorders to a specialist; or perhaps in the voice of the specialist who recommends the patient with familiar disorders to the home-town doctor, Father Wiatrak said, “We are not the priest for you. We are a very simple priest. You think you have intellectual difficulties. They are spiritual, of course, but you will not be persuaded of that until both have been properly dealt with. Father Fulton Sheen lives in Washington, where you live. No doubt you have heard him on the radio.” I hadn’t. “I will make an appointment for you tomorrow. You don’t have to keep it if you think better of it. No one is obliged to come home. So have a good sleep—and God bless you.”
It seemed, in that strange moment, that I felt God do so. And I knelt again, “helpless, like a child before the Father.” And I thanked Him. For He had heard. So much was certain now and forever, Amen.
It had been a long journey. But I had glimpsed through the blackest fog of my life, the roof tree of my Father’s House, at last. We would see, when a little closer, if it were true that He had a Son there Who had died for us . . . I slept well.
Almost half a year was to pass before I became a Catholic. There were months of reading, study and soul searching, more arduous and often painful than any I had ever spent in my life. There were many problems to be met and answered. The claims of Protestantism and of comparative religions. Of the history of a Church that had not always been marked by sanctity or unmarked by violence, prejudice and scandal. But for some months the essential problem remained what it had always been for me, a modern “Liberal”: Can the existence of God be proved?
There is a pragmatic but wholly negative way to know whether the name of “God” may mean something. That is to try to think and behave as though it meant nothing. This is what millions of people have been doing throughout human history, though never in such great numbers as now. When this way results in personal misery or ineptitude and in worldwide catastrophe, common sense suggests that “God” may mean something. What, then?
There are two positive ways to decide whether the name “God” stands for a Real Being. The first is to use the intellect to analyze the nature of man and the world, to discover what proof they offer of His existence. The second is to consult the testimony of human history and human experience (one’s own included) to discover if they offer real awareness of a Supreme Being and, if so, when, how and under what conditions. That is the scientific approach.
Catholic teaching develops both of these affirmative approaches with relentless logic. Catholic instructions are by no means emotionally or sentimentally delivered barrages or broadsides of mystic ukases. What gives Catholic instructions their high and noble emotional content is the passionate and loving conviction with which the instructor holds them. And the fact that the totality of Catholic Thought is that God is Love.
As every convert knows, Faith is a gift of Grace, received by an act of the free will.
How shall one describe the coming of Faith or tell the moment when it comes? The precise moment when the heart melts into love for God is the moment of its coming, so much is certain. But that moment is as difficult to detect as the precise moment when ice melts or dawn breaks.
As dawn lies in the womb of night, so Faith lies in the heart of the unconverted convert.
Instructions, or the exposition of Catholic Truth, are the preparation of the mind to make the act of free will that follows grace. The priest does not “convert” his pupil. He merely prepares him for conversion as a farmer prepares soil for seeds.
The climax of Catholic Instructions concerns the Doctrine of the Divinity of Jesus Christ. The historical and intellectual proofs of that Doctrine are many, and curiously compelling. They are so compelling indeed that for 1900 years even those who refused to believe them were at all times under the fiercest of inner compulsions to rationalize their disbeliefs. Never have so many men, and men often with superior minds, spent so much time and effort to disprove an “error.” That circumstance alone is suspicious. Errors have an extraordinarily simple way of disproving themselves. Today, freedom from worship prevails everywhere. There is no condign punishment and no social ostracism attached to atheism and often much prestige. And still one can seldom find a book by a well- known scientist, philosopher, sociologist, historian or psychoanalyst which does not devote pages to lengthy explanations of why the author cannot accept the Divinity of Jesus. Paradoxically enough, in most books by Western authors we are cautioned to hold on to Christian “virtues” and “principles,” but to do away with the belief in the Christ. This is much as though the authors should advocate that we keep our streets and houses well lighted, but do away with power plants.
The fact remains, never in all the history of the world has an error persisted so long, nor inspired so many hearts to noble thoughts and noble actions. Surely if the Man-God be error, then all the sacrifice, selflessness, tenderness, piety, sanctity, holiness and love, not to mention the great art, music and literature inspired by that error are error too? Can an effect exceed its cause? And would not the Father Himself be in error if the error of the Divinity of our Lord Jesus be proved on Him? Then surely what would also be proved is that God did not and does not love his most loving creatures very much. For 2000 years, the best, the purest and the noblest have lived and died—sometimes hideous deaths—in the name of that error.
A second strange fact bearing on the kinship of Father and Son remains for dispassionate consideration. No man ever brought up to believe in the Son has ever been able later to reject Him without a severe loss of faith in the Father, a loss which generally results in the rejection of God as a personal Deity.
“You know neither me, nor my Father: If you had known me, you should have known my Father also. If God were your Father, you would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself but He sent me. Before Abraham was I am. I and my Father are one.”
I have come to think that even in our own day, very few people would reject the Son completely if they knew about Him. And by that, I mean knowing of His own word. How many of our moderns have ever sat down and read the New Testament, with the 36,450 words spoken by our Savior, as carefully as they would read a 100,000-word report of a business enterprise in which their fortunes were mildly involved? How many atheists reading this paragraph can honestly say, “I have!” I couldn’t have said it, two years ago, that is certain. I see now that I rejected the Son, not as I knew Him, but as I thought I knew Him, through the distortions my mind accepted of the distortions of other minds.
My pre-Catholic concept derived by rumor and distortion of the Christian God was, possibly, revolting enough to drive anyone to atheism. The Father was an absolute tyrant, living in lush felicity while his children suffered unbearable agonies. And the Son was an effeminate, saccharine, mournful and naive character, with a martyr-complex. This was certainly the kind of God I could get along without—and did for 20 years. The kind of God I could not get along without was the kind I found in the New Testament when Father Sheen finally put me to reading it.
It was just about at this time that a number of friends wrote to me, inquiring the real reason why I was becoming a Catholic. I wrote to each a letter, in which I enclosed a slim compendium of those 36,450 words of our Blessed Lord, culled from the Four Gospels. I said, if they would read these words we would both be in better shape, when next we met, to discuss the matter.
For, I said, Jesus Christ Himself was the Real Reason!
And I added I was eager to discuss that Real Reason, providing we both knew thoroughly the test that must be the foundation of our discussion.
With one sole exception, not one of my friends answered my letter. And as I saw them each, from time to time, they confessed that they had not felt it necessary to take the hour and a half it required to read these words. They were quite aware (they said of what He had said; they remembered it all from their childhood. They had not read and did not remember. This struck me, at the time, as marvelously singular. For each of them was a friend who, at my far less earnest request, would have read or re-read a manuscript of 50,000 words, on any topic from China to china collecting if I had said it was important to me. I saw then, for the first time, that all men who are not drawn to the Son are in constant though unconscious flight from Him. And yet I remember meeting a Catholic convert once, some 10 years ago, who also urged me, with considerable sweetness and passion, to read the Gospels. I didn’t. So who am Ito marvel at them now?
A conversion involves plenty of practical consequences. You have to submit to ceremony and accept obligations. You have to develop new physical as well as mental habits of worship. (“My dear, I never could get up every Sunday morning!”) The convert’s lot is not always an easy one among his non-Catholic neighbors. It involves plenty of consequences, in a Protestant country. If he is a businessman, a writer, a politician, there are sure to be repercussions. His relations with his old friends, family and householders may become strained. One of my dearest and oldest friends carried on quite as though I was being inured in chains behind a high wall to starve. The starvation, to be sure, was going to be “intellectual”! This was, incidentally, one of the friends who most firmly refused to read the little compendium of Our Blessed Lord’s sayings. My own darling maid and my best friend, my secretary, went around for a time as though I were resolving to join a colony of outcasts. It requires a real act of the will to embrace Catholicism, even after you are utterly convinced intellectually of its truth.
And second (and always), there is the question of Faith. And Faith lies less in the mind than in the will. The glow of conviction can only be formed in the fire of Faith by the breath of God’s grace, as one opens one’s heart as well as mind to it. It is not that you abandon your reason at this point, but rather that having gone as far as your reason will carry you, God, at your prayerful request carries it into the realms of Faith. And Supernatural aid lifts and illumines earthly reason.
For those who are rendered uneasy by this talk of Faith, let me ask what human merit would there be in loving God and worshiping Him if He were as tangible and visible as earth, fire and water? All human merit consists precisely in loving invisible things: Justice, Friendship, Mercy, Courage, Loyalty. And we always reckon those souls the greatest who practice and strive toward these virtues when and where they seem least in evidence and most in disrepute. For Faith is “the substance of things hoped for, and unseen.” The man who hopes for a just society in times like ours is no less a man of faith than the man who hopes to be worthy of Heaven.
Few non-Catholics can have a much clearer idea of Catholic Doctrine than I did before I began my instructions. And mine was certainly foggy. It took Father Sheen several months to clear away that thick fog of prejudices and superstition acquired through a lifetime.
I am not one to criticize harshly those who, in ignorance, criticize Holy Mother Church. For I, too, once shared their attitude of disbelief. “Too late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so old and so new.”
It finally took two world wars, the overthrow of several dozen thrones and governments, the Russian revolution, the swift collapse, in our own time, of hundreds of thought-systems, a small number of which collapsed on me, the death of millions, as well as the death of my daughter, before I was willing to take a look at this extraordinary institution, the Catholic Church. So much and more—God’s Grace—was needed to hasten my mind on the fact that this One Church has survived towering o’er the wrecks. And to make me see that while it has been accused during these many million days of committing some crimes and sheltering some knaves and hypocrites and of having a somewhat overdeveloped taste for theological hairsplitting it has never been accused of cheating, watering, deserting, cancelling, or shilly-shallying about its basic beliefs, nor of any break in its historic continuity.
I too was once so bigoted that rather than admit that it has bred in its bosom a glorious and spectacular crew of poets and philosophers, saints and martyrs, I ignored them.
I too when I believed in “evolution” as an explanation, rather than a process of life, still scornfully disclaimed the right of the Church, for example, to evolve in its ritual. And a survival-of-the-fittest fan, I sometimes gave the very age of the Church as proof of its un-fitness to endure in the modern world. All other things which were old and had evolved and endured, I once said, were on the way up.
But the Church was ancient and had changed and lasted too long and therefore, I said, was on the way out.
And yet, 30 years after the Communist Revolution, Joseph Stalin is still keeping his engagements on Vatican time, not atomic time. It is the Year of our Lord 1947 in Moscow and Chungking and Tibet and Oak Ridge and everywhere in the world. And in this Year of our Lord 1947, Holy Mother Church is offering up hundreds of Masses every minute, all around the clock all around the globe. And all the Faithful who kneel at her altars, their eyes fixed on the Blessed Sacrament and their hearts on God, still believe with their Savior that love, not hate, will bring The Kingdom. (Lord, help thou our unbelief!)
To all who kneel at His altar, to all who have “loved the Beauty of Thy House and the place where Thy glory dwelleth,” comes some measure, so much as each can receive, of Faith and Hope and Charity. And the greatest of these is Charity. Charity, which is the Love of man in God, and of God in man. Nowhere else is it to be found in such purity and in such abundance. That is why you find so many of the Faithful at His altars, not just late of a Sunday morning, but every day of the week, and every hour of the day, all through their Catholic lifetimes.