Conversion Stories: Adapting Woody Allen

A few days ago on TJP, my pal Joe Simmons asked: why pray? It’s a great question — and you should read what he has to say. But the question takes on a different dimension when asked by folks who are seekers, those looking for God but unsure of what they believe. Why pray when I’m not sure anyone is there to listen?

That was Sally Read’s question for a long time. In a recent story in The Tablet, Read tells of her turn from strident atheist (who thought Christianity “a symptom of bigotry and feeble-mindedness”) to Roman Catholic. What struck me is the role that prayer played in her conversion:

I didn’t know how to pray; I had never prayed. Nevertheless, 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.

How did God reach out to this wordsmith and author? “It was through the heart – by which I mean the most instinctive, sensitive part, the ultimate reasoning – that God won me.” Maybe we can adapt Woody Allen’s maxim slightly: Eighty percent of prayer is showing up.

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