The Agony and Ecstasy of Famous Converts

Immersion in Catholicism may sound like an unusual path for pursuing the finer points of life on earth, but consider the good feelings that some of history's more famous converts have reported back. From the lively Saint Teresa of Avila to the passionately pensive novelist Graham Greene, walking a formalized religious path has set some of those enraptured on ecstatic personal journeys, and others to be driven by pre-conversion sins that induce the best repenting later. And life after conversion? According to those in the know, it’s one lived in a grander place, guided by humility and steeped in a very human happiness. In light of becoming a Catholic, sometimes earthly life becomes more colorful.

In the spirit of fun, here we look at some of those converted lives. A love of storytelling and language seems to come with the territory. So do stealing, lusting, jealousy, fury and absolute nonbelief -- entanglements that fortunately can lead to god and joyfulness. These are not pious lives. Abstaining and withdrawal be damned: If knowing god requires embracing all things, then experiencing god through all things is necessary, and the fruits of these writers’ struggles are the reader’s gain. The articulation of their yearning for god goes beyond self-expression in service to something greater. Graham Greene’s tale of hate and sexual longing; Saint Teresa of Avila’s physical and feminine giving of herself to her lord; Simone Weil’s elated, soulful union with her god via detached intellectualism; Saint Augustine’s mischievous retelling of his wild times as a young man in fifth-century Algeria -- all bear witness to the richness to be found in Catholicism’s centuries-old tension between body and spirit. Seen anew through clear and humble eyes, the lives that lead to conversion are wildly adventurous before -- and filled with blissful tales of love and desire after.

"Confessions" by Saint Augustine

Before Augustine converted to the new religion of Christianity, he spent his time in fifth-century, Roman-occupied Algeria first as a carefree guy, frolicking in the “shadowy jungle of erotic adventures” and “hellish pleasures” (which included stealing pears), then studying philosophy. Upon conversion, he left behind his “past foulness and carnal corruption” and devoted himself to god, celebrating his new love by writing worshipful prose that included candid reports from his previous life. His “Confessions” is not only a studied measure of early Christian precepts, it’s also the most well known -- and earliest -- autobiography written in the western world.

"The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila By Herself" by Teresa of Avila

At the age of forty, Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada converted to Catholicism, diving into its most mystical parts and becoming a Carmelite sister -- a member of an eight-hundred-year old religious order whose members claim the highest number of divine visions. Her cheerful rendering of the beauty, vanity, and flirtatiousness of her girlish days sidles up sweetly to her sensual version of love for her god. Passionate to the point of hysteria before conversion, in her days after, Teresa reached a sense of peace that left her exuberance untouched and free to express itself in the service of her new devotion -- luckily for us, that means witty and breathless accounts of her life before spiritual love and of her daily desire for god after.

"The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene

Novelist Graham Greene’s fiction was very unsubtly based on his own life, and "The End of the Affair" is said to be his most personally inspired work. Based on his real-life conversion via a tormented love affair, this autobiographical novel begins innocently -- and angrily -- enough as a jilted lover’s story, then takes a series of unexpected turns into a spiral of conflicting human passions that leads the narrator kicking and screaming to the god of his lover. Greene’s graphic sex scenes, consuming jealousy, and clinging to non-believer rationality are as engrossing and masterfully written as his literary version’s final surrender and conversion. This work is steeped in the unflinchingly honest and human Catholicism which Greene is celebrated for.

"Waiting for God" by Simone Weil

Simone Weil was destined for a short life: She died at the age of thirty-four, weakened by a lifetime of fasting sprees. But in that short time, she probed life deeply through writing, her passion for language abruptly changing course when she turned twenty-three and unexpectedly became a Catholic. Weil was a solemn intellectual up to the day of her conversion, and her spiritual autobiographical writings -- which Adrienne Rich called “one of the most neglected resources of our century” --  are delivered in the form of written correspondence with the Reverend Perri, with whom she explores her new faith. Accounts of her daily visions form a collection of exalted soulful moments, all illustrated by the unadorned writing of her academic days made immense by a sense of divine wonder. Weil’s accounts of her god are driven by the idea of truth that had guided her through academic days, for a memoir that’s joyful and unsentimental.