Conversions are as strange and individual as the people who experience them. Some transformations, weighted with drama, are Damascus road affairs that defy reason, but others come quietly after puzzles and questions, self-conscious searching, years of private pondering. If it’s true, as Oscar Wilde said, that our real lives are often the lives we don’t lead, then decoding the contents of any human heart is nearly impossible. Sometimes we can’t decipher our own motives and intentions, surely we can’t figure out everyone else’s. The good news is we don’t have to. Happily, God handles the who, what, when, where, and why of salvation. What a relief.
When my friend Karen offered me a review copy of her new book, Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line I jumped at it. I very seldom say no to free books, especially free books from friends whose writing I admire. But at the same time a little voice in the back of my head worried a bit. In the past year I’ve done much less reading and writing about books than I like. What if I never get around to reading the book or writing about it? I’d feel like I was letting her down. I’m a big fan of conversion stories, but I’ll be honest the deathbed conversion of famous people hook didn’t grab me as much. Perhaps because I’m just not that interested in the idea of celebrity or that some people’s conversions are more important just because they were famous.
Silly me. This thin little book had hidden depths. Each story was very short, but to judge the book or the stories by their length would be to use the wrong measure altogether. Each is a highly polished jewel and each packs quite a punch. Quite simply, Karen has a knack for telling each story as if it were the only story, of helping you see the person beneath the famous persona. Karen as narrator deftly guides us through the highlights of each life, apologizing for the brevity and for all that she leaves out. It was clear as I read that she had a great fondness for all of her subject. Each of these characters is nothing less than a brother or sister in Christ and it is in that regard that I was happy to get to know them a little better.
It’s funny, too, how once you bump into someone one place, they can pop up again and again. Wallace Stevens is one of the converts highlighted in this book, but also came up in a recent discussion about poetry. My friend who was praising him as a poet was quite surprised to find he was also a Catholic convert. And actress Patricia Neal came up in a different context altogether as Dom was fielding an inquiry from a company founded by her daughter.
Karen’s frame, the first chapter which acts as an introduction with her own conversion story and the afterward which recounts a few more conversions of a few “nobodies.” Here is the real meat, the part that gets you personally involved. For here Karen issues her invitation, reminding us that these conversions happened in part because of the faithful Catholics who were already in the lives of each of these converts. Faithful Catholics who weren’t afraid to let their lives witness to their faith and, when the moment was right, to extend an invitation.
“Deathbed conversions sound suspiciously like loopholes, like unfair, unaccounted for, last-minute ducks inside the pearly gates,” the book begins. And I love how Karen addresses this objection by pointing out that,
Living one’s entire life without God, though, is hardly a free ticket. A true deathbed convert doesn’t rub his hands together at the final hour, snickering, “Hey, I pulled a fast one on the Big Guy!” Rather, he sees the tragedy of a wasted lifetime, the pain of his prolonged denial, and the foolishness of his stubborn Non Serviam. The only glee is the relief and gratitude that God’s mercy is offered and poured out on us until the final and bitter end.
Karen’s stories highlight the tragedies of wasted lifetimes, of wrong choices and wounded souls, but she always allows her subjects dignity and treats them with compassion, never using them as a kind of object lesson. A convert herself, she’s sensitive to the individuals whose stories she tells, avoiding a gossipy and lurid interest in the seamier side of the stories while still acknowledging that darkness.
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To round it off I came across a beautiful story of a deathbed conversion from Father Longenecker this weeek, that seemed too perfect not to to share: Church? I Haven’t Been to Church in Fifty Years.
He nods. I pray. He goes to sleep, and a few days later at his funeral his people are surprised to see a Catholic priest show up. Nobody knew Ralph was a Catholic. When I tell them how Ralph died there was total silence and reverence, and in some strange way Ralph, who was a pretty lousy Catholic in life, bore a radiant witness to Christ the King in his death.
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