A reader named Leo Wong sent in this link to his collection of quotes from a book about American converts to Catholicism. I read it because I almost always like reading conversion stories, and learning what inspired people to change their way through life. Leo’s quotes are just that, quotes; they aren’t complete stories. But there were two that really stood out to me, despite my not being a Catholic. I offer them to spark conversation.
Here’s the first, from a black Catholic drama critic and writer named Theophilus Lewis:
[Zola’s] leading characters [in the novel Lourdes] are Pierre, a young priest, and Marie, a crippled girl he is taking to the shrine for the cure. Here was a type of character I had never encountered before in fiction—people whose decisions were not pre-determined or colored by their desire for personal happiness. Pierre and Marie were the first Catholics I had ever met who made me at least partly understand what religious faith can mean in the lives of people, and for years they were the only Catholics I knew.…
People whose decisions were not pre-determined or colored by their desire for personal happiness. I have never thought of things that way — I mean, of the difference religious faith makes. Lewis is talking about real religious faith, though, not Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I think this is a good way of discerning what is true religion from its counterfeit: if it compels you to do things because they are good, even if they don’t make you immediately happy.
It is lovely to reflect on the fact that Zola (whose portrait is above), who was such an enemy of Catholicism and of religion, in that dreary 19th century materialist way, played a role in the conversion to Catholicism of Theophilus Lewis.
Here’s the second, a line from a letter that Sophia Ripley, an antebellum feminist turned nun, wrote to Father Isaac Hecker. Ripley was a New England Transcendentalist who studied Dante at Brook Farm, a utopian community she founded with her husband:
I am without a doubt the only convert you and Dante have made between you.
Boy, do I get that. Many, many people read Dante and never become Catholic. If you are Orthodox and read Dante, you will, if my experience is any guide, be even more illuminated in your Orthodoxy, and maybe even confirmed in it, considering how the imaginative and mystical elements in Dante are so much more palpable in Orthodoxy than in contemporary Catholicism. Besides, the Divine Comedy is by no means an apologetic work. I believe that all Christians, of all churches, who engage with the work will find themselves drawn much closer to God and into the mystery of Christ.
If you want a good student’s introduction to the Divine Comedy by a leading conservative Presbyterian, buy Peter Leithart’s Ascent to Love. And here is C.S. Lewis in 1930, a year before his conversion to Christianity, writing about how Dante’s Paradiso, the third and final book of the Divine Comedy, affected him:
Afterward, Lewis described this experience to his friend Arthur Greeves:
“[Paradise] has really opened a new world to me. I don’t know whether it is
really very different from the Inferno (B. says it is as different as
chalk from cheese — heaven from hell, would be more appropriate!) or
whether I was specially receptive, but it certainly seemed to me that I had
never seen at all what Dante was like before. Unfortunately, the impression
is one so unlike anything else that I can hardly describe it for your
benefit — a sort of mixture of intense, even crabbed, complexity of
language and thought with (what seems impossible) at the very same time a
feeling of spacious gliding movement, like a slow dance, or like flying. It
is like the stars — endless mathematical subtility of orb, cycle, epicycle
and ecliptic, unthinkable & unpicturable yet at the same time the freedom
and liquidity of empty space and the triumphant certainty of movement. I
should describe it as feeling more important than any poetry I have ever
Lewis suggested that Greeves might try it in English translation, but
warned him “If you do, I think the great point is to give up any idea of
reading it in long stretches… instead, read a small daily portion, in
rather a liturgical manner, letting the images and the purely intellectual
conceptions sink well into the mind…. It is not really like any of the
things we know.”
Six months later, Lewis told Greeves he had visited Barfield again and they
had finished Paradise. “I think it reaches heights of poetry which you get
nowhere else; an ether almost too fine to breathe. It is a pity I can give
you no notion what it is like. Can you imagine Shelley at his most ecstatic
combined with Milton at his most solemn & rigid? It sounds impossible I
know, but that is what Dante has done.”
So, it is established that it is possible to read and to love and to understand the Divine Comedy and not to become a Catholic (or an Orthodox). Having said that, it is hard for me, personally, to imagine how reading Dante outside of Catholicism or Orthodoxy, you could remain so. I can’t say this clearly enough: the Divine Comedy is not an argument for the Catholic Church. It is not an “argument” for anything; it is a revelation. When I saw the Chartres cathedral for the first time, I experienced an overwhelming desire to become a part of the religious mind out of which something this staggeringly beautiful could arise. I thought, somehow, that it must be true, to be capable of producing such beauty. It was as if I had been hurtling through space, minding my own business, and stumbled too close to a black hole, and had been caught in its inescapable gravity.
I feel very much the same way about the Divine Comedy. It probably speaks more to my own limits than to anything real, but I don’t see how you walk away from the Commedia without an insatiable hunger to become a part of the kind of Christianity capable of producing such art. Obviously people do — Lewis did, Leithart did, Eliot did, and others — but I would not be capable of it.
Did art or literature convert you to a particular religion or religious tradition? Tell that story, please.