Correspondent’s Course: Conversion Books

Christopher R Beha

Christopher Beha’s debut novel, What Happened To Sophie Wilder, is in bookstores now, and already receiving rave reviews (such as this one). Sophie should already have secured a spot on your summer reading list, but Christopher’s here with a couple more volumes worth your time.

The title character of my novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, is a young writer who converts to Catholicism. This may seem to some readers like an odd thing for a young writer to do. It certainly seems that way to the book’s narrator, Charlie, who knew and loved Sophie before her conversion. But throughout the modern era the literary convert to Catholicism has been a common enough figure to represent a recognizable type, and a substantial literature has built up around this type.

Of course, the archetypal religious conversion in the Western tradition occurred in the open air, without a book in sight. Saul of Tarsus, one of the most energetic persecutors of the early Christians, set out for the synagogues of Damascus with the hope of rooting out heretical Jews who “belonged to the Way,” so that he could bring them back as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared the city, he saw a bright light flash from heaven and heard the words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The experience left Saul briefly blind, but after the scales fell from his eyes he became Paul the Apostle, the greatest proselytizer in the Church’s history.

Once he had converted, Paul’s primary mechanism for spreading the faith was literary—specifically, the letters to various far-flung communities of believers that remain among the central documents of Christianity. And we wouldn’t even know about the original “road to Damascus” moment had it not been preserved in another document of the early Church, the Acts of the Apostles. The process of conversion has been a common topic for literary treatment ever since. What follows are some literary depictions of conversion, some of which are mentioned explicitly in my novel, others not, but books that a “literary convert” such as Sophie would likely have read along the way.

Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

After St. Paul, Augustine may be the most significant convert in the Church’s history. In many ways his Confessions created a template that conversion narratives have been following ever since. It’s all there: a wild youth, a worried mother, years of intellectual and spiritual searching. Within the heart of the archetypal convert the desire for sensual pleasure is at war with the knowledge that such pleasure won’t finally satisfy, and this war was best summarized by Augustine’s famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” When Augustine did finally give up the worldly life, it was through books: in a moment of particular torment he heard a child’s voice telling him, “Take up and read” (“Tolle, lege”) and he opened the Gospels. Finally, it’s what he did after he took up and read that makes him the exemplary literary convert: he wrote this book, the first autobiography in modern history.

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua

Newman does not quite fit the pattern set out above. Far from being an unruly youth before his conversion, he was already a major religious figure, a leader of the Anglican Church’s Oxford Movement. But he turned to Rome when he found the Oxford Movements “third way” between Catholicism and Protestantism insupportable. In response to the outrage this decision caused among his circle, he wrote this narrative of his conversion, in which he explicitly placed himself in the tradition of Augustine. Reading certain word of Augustine, he wrote, “struck me with a power which I never had felt from any words before ….. they were like the ‘Tolle, lege, — Tolle, lege,’ of the child, which converted St Augustine himself.”

Before Newman, there was a strong strain of anti-Catholicism in Anglo-American intellectual circles. Papism, with its unthinking loyalty to Rome, was something for swarthy Mediterraneans or — even worse — Irishmen. Newman’s book helped make Catholicism intellectually respectable in such circles, creating a context for a wave of 20th-century literary converts.

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited may be the most famous product of that wave. In fact, it owes much of that fame to its movie and miniseries adaptations, and it’s far from Waugh’s best work. It lacks both the wicked sharpness of his early satires, Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and A Handful of Dust, and the elaborate richness of his World War II trilogy, Sword of Honor, which I consider the best thing he wrote. But even lesser Waugh is great, and Brideshead is the novel of his most explicitly concerned with conversion.

Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

The End of the Affair is the last and best of Greene’s explicitly Catholic novels, and it significantly influenced What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Greene specialized in writing about characters incompletely transformed by their conversion—often, like Greene himself, they convert initially out of love and only afterward take on the full implications of the decision. The result are characters whose natures are out of step with the demands of their beliefs, how are faced with a choice between doing the right thing and being happy. Ultimately, Greene advocates perhaps the greatest heresy of the therapeutic age: personal happiness is not the most important thing.

Muriel Spark, The Comforters

At the time of own conversion, Spark received support from both Waugh and Greene, but her writing itself is entirely original. As Waugh is known for Brideshead, she is known for the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is likewise famous by way of its various adaptations. The Comforters was Spark’s first novel, and its protagonist is a novelist named Caroline Rose, a recent convert, who becomes conscious of herself as a character in a novel. This metafictional trick is old hat now, but it wasn’t when Spark wrote The Comforters. Spark points up the fictional elements of her books not to undermine the realist tradition in the way of the postmodernists, but to point out the parallels between the ordered world of a novel and the God-ordered world experience by the religious believer. Like Waugh, Spark also happens to be incredibly funny in an almost malicious way.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

As novelists, Waugh, Greene, and Spark could make use of their conversions while also treating the experience with a certain amount of detachment. As such, theirs aren’t really conversion narratives in the way of Augustine’s or Newman’s. The great modern example of the genre is Merton’s book. Born to bohemian parents in France, raised mostly by his grandparents in Queens, Merton left Cambridge after getting a local girl pregnant in his first year. He transferred to Columbia, where he spent most of time drinking in jazz clubs. After graduation, he was inched toward Catholicism by reading books—including Augustine’s Confessions. Merton’s memoir, which is often self-lacerating in the way of Augustine’s Confessions, recounts all of this from the vantage point of the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, which he entered at the age of 26, and where he would remain for the rest of his life. This is a rather different level of commitment than that shown by Waugh or Greene. A common theme of the Catholic novelist is the difficulty of reconciling faith with the demands of the modern world, but few go so far as to remove themselves from that world entirely. One question that animates my own novel is why a well-educated intellectual, busy leading a very modern life, might choose such a path. For this reason, Merton’s book is the one sets Sophie along the path to her conversion.

Christopher R. Beha is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine and the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet. He contributes frequently to the New York Times Book Review. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is his first novel.