Caught in the Web of Grace

On December 9, 1995, the day after the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and in the presence of family and a few close friends, I joined the Catholic Church, receiving four sacraments in little more than an hour. A day of grace abounding if ever I have known one and a day bathed in the undiluted happiness of coming home. For me, that day wove together the essential threads of the preceding fifty-three years of my life, as those who shared it with me had come to understand. Yet, to many outsiders, it seemed at best baffling, at worst, incomprehensible.

Why or how could a non-believing, woman intellectual—and a reputedly Marxist-feminist one at that—be joining that bastion of tradition and hierarchical authoritarianism, the Catholic Church? Those who, for years, had doubted my radical credentials and targeted me as a pernicious ideological opponent did not take long to decide that that is precisely what they would have expected if only the thought had crossed their minds. (It is an inadvertent testimony to the radical secularism of the academic world that the thought had not.) But even people who were friendlier toward me probably harbored similar thoughts, if for dissimilar reasons.

For such people, the friendly and the unfriendly alike, the notion of conversion, and indeed the very idea of religious faith, has become so foreign that the only plausible explanation for it must necessarily be political: In their view, my conversion merely marked the culmination of my progress toward political and cultural conservatism. These are people who, according to St. John, quoting Isaiah, “could not believe. For Isaiah again said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their hearts, and turn for me to heal them.'” Not long since, I should have counted myself among their number, for, like them, I had lived immersed in a moral and intellectual climate that inhales materialism with the air we breathe. In such a climate, the intrusion of religious faith seems faintly shocking: The people we know just do not do things like that. As it happened, I counted among my friends and acquaintances a significant number of believers, some of them devout. I had always respected their faith, but I did not entirely understand it. Thus, even my appreciation of the faith of others and my understanding that gifted intellectuals may indeed be believers was filtered through the lens of the intellect.

A Surprising Comment

Philosophical materialism constituted a master theme of my education, and variants of it still reign supreme in the academic milieu in which I have always worked. For years, I had complacently assumed that modern science and philosophy had permanently destroyed the intellectual validity of religious faith, displacing it from its position as the cornerstone of knowledge and ontology to the realm of idiosyncratic personal consolation. And I recall being somewhat startled when, during a conversation with a highly accomplished scholar, a friend and a Catholic, I confidently said something about the incompatibility of religion and science, and she, with an easy and tolerant amusement, responded along the lines of, “Good gracious, I thought we had moved well beyond those debates.” Her words stayed with me, unexpectedly surfacing at odd moments, and I found myself reading with unprecedented interest about the puzzles of black holes and the renewed possibility of a creative intelligence at the origin of the universe.

By the time of that conversation, I was already giving serious thought to joining a church, although I was uncertain about which one. Given my family background and personal connections, I had initially assumed that I would settle on the Presbyterians or the Episcopalians. Presbyterians figure prominently among the Christian friends and colleagues I most respect, and their unflinching Calvinism brought me back to the moral ethos in which I had been reared. The Episcopalians, for their part, featured the rituals and the language of the Book of Common Prayer that I had been taught to cherish. My preliminary investigations into the current state of both denominations, however, rapidly revealed that to join the Episcopalians I would not have to profess a belief in Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Talk about cushions under the knees of sinners! The very loophole the Episcopalians offered became, upon reflection, the decisive reason not to join their church.

Thinking about the Episcopalians reminded me of the stories my father used to tell me of his own childhood. His mother descended from the first minister of the Bay Colony and, during my childhood, my grandmother worshipped at Jonathan Edwards’s church in Northampton. For me, and countless others, she embodied the essence of religious devotion and probity, and I have no doubt that my father’s atheism at least partially represented an attempt to mitigate her compelling influence on his early life. His father, whose family had settled in Boston and Cohasset, Massachusetts during the eighteenth century, represented the more worldly and social tradition of the Episcopalians. And my father loved to tell of how, as a boy on visits to his father’s family, he was offered the choice between the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians and regularly chose the Episcopalians because they gave much better picnics.

Since better picnics were not what I was after, I turned again to the Presbyterians and, with my husband, occasionally attended their services. High standards distinguish the preaching at Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta, and the preachers do not spare their flock stern reminders of God’s commandments and expectations. I began to feel that I could join the Presbyterians, not least because they preserved the teachings, the music, and the moral rectitude that had characterized my beloved grandmother and, indeed, my atheist father. But an ineffable influence stayed me, and I kept postponing the decision. Even in retrospect, the precise reasons remain elusive, but I did know I was not an Evangelical, and I did harbor an as yet poorly defined sense of faith as, in some way, grounded in an acceptance of mystery and a reverence for the sacred. My failure to find those things in Presbyterianism may have more to do with the shortcomings of my understanding than with Presbyterian beliefs or observance, but I could not shake the sense that becoming a Presbyterian did not ask enough of me.

Campus Turmoil

Meanwhile, I was wrestling with seemingly overwhelming professional problems, including my politically-pressured resignation as director of Emory University’s Institute for Women’s Studies and a suit against the university that specifically named me for, among other things, having sexually harassed a former graduate student and member of the Institute’s staff. Significantly, my intolerable “sins” as director of Women’s Studies included having spoken for the Rochester, N.Y. chapter of Feminists for Life and having admitted (with the concurrence of my colleagues, who, at the time had no idea what they were doing) into the Women’s Studies graduate program a devout Catholic who soon became president of Emory Students for Life. In retrospect, it seems improbable that the suit would ever have gained even minimal credibility or persisted as long as it did had not so many of my former friends and colleagues in Women’s Studies decided that my views on important issues, in the measure that they understood them, could not be tolerated within the Women’s Studies “community.” Not surprisingly, the burdens of those years—four and a half of them by the time the case was settled—prompted me to considerable soul searching about personal responsibility, the meaning of suffering, and my own deepest beliefs. In time, this travail and those reflections strengthened my burgeoning faith and contributed to my conversion.

Like politics and intellectual inquiry, the sufferings of those years predisposed me to reflect seriously upon religion, but none of them “caused” my conversion: More accurately, they helped to prepare the soil in which the seed of conversion would be sown. All of them also converged in reinforcing what one might call my natural inclinations as shaped by important features of my education. For if formal religious observance had played only a marginal role in my upbringing, other aspects of religion had run like shining threads through it. Both of my non-believing parents embodied what, in retrospect, I recognize as exceptional character and breath-taking personal courage. As a child, I so took those qualities for granted as not even to recognize them as such: They were simply the framework and standard of my world. My father had absorbed the essence of his mother’s Calvinism, and his own atheism never abandoned or mitigated its basic teachings and power.

Jewish Background

My mother had grown up as a member of New York’s German Jewish bourgeoisie in a family that celebrated Christmas and Easter but attended neither synagogue nor church. Her allegiance to her Jewish heritage nonetheless ran deep and proud, and, growing up under the shadow of Hitler and the Holocaust, I was reared to share her pride in that ethnic and cultural legacy. But the Jewish identity to which I have always remained faithful was one of intellect and music and habits of being, not of religious faith. For years, I did not even fully understand that Judaism was a faith: I did not know the names of the religious holidays or when they occurred; I had never participated in a Seder; I had never celebrated Hanukkah or Passover; I had never set foot in a synagogue.

My childhood, which unfolded under the aegis of my father’s atheism and my mother’s more cautious agnosticism, nonetheless included a surprising depth of Christian education. My mother focused upon providing my brother and me with a basic knowledge of the Bible, which, on Sundays, she read to us and later enjoined us to read ourselves. We learned the titles of the books and selected passages, especially certain psalms, by heart. During the summers, we were regularly taken to Sunday evening hymn singings, and on no Sunday were we allowed to play cards. Until I was about ten, my parents dutifully took us to Sunday school every week, selecting the church less according to doctrine than according to the quality of instruction, especially in biblical history. These criteria, combined with my mother’s personal taste for sobriety of expression and minimal emphasis upon Jesus Christ, ensured that Unitarians and, especially, Quakers emerged as first choices, but over the years we had also been entrusted to Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

This religious education had indeed served its educational purposes well, notably by affording me a solid introduction to the Bible, especially the Old Testament. And our Christmas celebrations, which always included a crèche as well as presents, carols, and a tree, had firmly implanted St. Luke’s account of the nativity in my mind. What it had not done was to inculcate in me an understanding of faith itself. My grandmother, with whom I spent a month of each of my first ten years, did that, taking me with her to church, saying grace at meals, and teaching me to say my prayers before going to sleep at night. But her valuable lessons and example were never enough to counteract the intrinsic secularism of my world, especially after I left home for school and college.

The abiding spiritual lessons that my parents provided, they seem to have provided inadvertently, usually in the course of discussions of moral obligation and intellectual honesty. Both were unswerving in their own integrity and left no doubt that they expected the same of us. And as the years passed, my father and I increasingly discussed moral and religious topics. A great teacher, he retained a heartfelt admiration for the Old Testament prophets that he imperceptibly transmitted to me. Even today, his basic precepts remain etched in my mind. The greatest courage, he taught me young, is not physical but moral, and the challenges to moral courage are the same as the near occasions of sin: They weave through the fabric of everyday life, challenging us to rise above jealousy, greed, deception, and self-interest. In the same spirit, he repeatedly reminded me that no honor or knowledge or worthy behavior can flourish in the absence of intellectual honesty, which necessarily begins with the most exacting honesty about oneself to oneself.

Meeting the Medievals

In retrospect, it seems clear that his precepts left a deeper impression than even he knew, and I can only chuckle in recalling an occasion upon which my interpretation of them must have stunned him. He had come to visit my brother and me during a summer we were spending at schools in Switzerland and, at the end of the day, took me out for what seemed a very grown-up dinner. (I was fourteen at the time and beginning to test my wings.) Our conversation was weaving through a range of our customary serious topics, when, savoring a new stage in our companionship and moved to demonstrate both my trust in him and my mastery of his teachings about right and wrong, I interjected, “I can imagine committing adultery, but I know I would go to hell for it.” To this day, I do not know how he maintained a sober countenance in the face of his virginal daughter’s unsolicited moral pronouncement, but I suspect he was at least pleased that I had come to understand that sin evokes judgment and consequences.

As I moved through my teens and into my twenties, these discussions persisted and expanded to include the work I was doing in college. What, in retrospect, seems somewhat surprising, is how firmly he steered me in the direction of medieval history and philosophy and twentieth-century Catholic thought. Although he never intervened directly in my work, he frequently suggested courses I might take and even paper topics. As a result, I took medieval civilization with David Herlihy, a serious Catholic, and for Herlihy’s and other courses wrote papers on Peter Abelard’s ethics, Gothic art and scholasticism, and the relation between T. S. Eliot and the neo-Scholastics, notably Jacques Maritain. In addition, as a double major in History and French, I read widely in Paul Claudel, Charles Peguy, and Francois Mauriac. For Herlihy, I read St. Thomas, St. Anselm, St. Bernard, and the other great Scholastics and medieval mystics. Teresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola became my models of saintly mission and rigor, virtual equals, in my father’s pantheon, to John Calvin.

During my junior year in college, which I spent studying in Paris, he arranged for me to sit in on a course in adult Catholic education, offered by the Dominicans, that focused upon the assumption of the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile, he and I shared long discussions of Arnold Toynbee’s Reconsiderations, on which he was writing an article, and he frequently focused our attention upon Christ as the unique model of total self-consciousness and loving self-sacrifice. Then, as throughout my life, he urged me to understand the redemptive power of suffering and its necessary place in the life of any worthy human being.

By the time I reached graduate school, the fruits of these teachings had become the bedrock of my understanding of the world. Above all, I built upon the knowledge that truth exists only in the mind of God, which alone can encompass the entirety of time present, time past, and time future in the twinkling of an eye. In this spirit, I never doubted that a human life must have a purpose, that each of us must serve something larger than himself. Deep-seated doubts about the intrinsic value of the radical individualism that began to sweep through American culture in the 1960s did not enhance my standing in the left-wing circles in which I frequently moved. My husband, Eugene Genovese, had a long history on the left, and most of his former comrades and acquaintances hated me on sight. Nor did the leaders of the emerging women’s movement embrace me as a sister. In my mind, dedication to social justice and to the improvement of women’s position should not lead to a war to the death with tradition, authority, or the binding obligations of marriage and family. Events proved me naive, and the very commitments that had briefly marked me as a woman of the left were now marking me, in the eyes of my critics, as a woman of the right. Yet then as now, I was no more the one than the other. Throughout the years, my commitment to social justice and compassion for the dispossessed have remained remarkably steadfast, although events have modified my views about how best to express that commitment.

Beyond Individuality

The growing struggle in my heart and soul was not, however, a matter of left and right, but rather one of right and wrong and our ability to recognize them. Throughout the 1980s, I was increasingly writing and speaking about women’s issues, especially abortion, and it was the attempt to understand their full implications that gradually pulled me toward church membership and faith. I had never liked abortion, but had assumed, for many years, that, in a democracy, the political goal should be to limit it to the first trimester, to impose a waiting period and counseling, and to require minors to obtain an adult’s consent. Thus, my instinctive position closely resembled that of Mary Ann Glendon, whose work I had come to admire. The more I thought and wrote about the issues, however, the more troubled I became by the idea that any one of us could—much less had a right to—decide what constituted a valuable life. How could we know that bearing a child rather than finishing law school would “ruin” a young woman’s life? How could we know that bearing and rearing a handicapped child would not transform grief and inconvenience into a blessing we could never have envisioned?

The growing attention to euthanasia, assisted suicide, and partial-birth abortion steadily strengthened my conviction that individual human beings could not be entrusted with decisions about life and death and that a willingness to hold any life cheap or expendable corrupts those who claim the right to make those decisions. And the more I pondered, the more conscious I became of the hubris that pervades the secular academy and intelligentsia. Contemplating the pride of others made me only the more mindful of my own and of the danger lurking in our cavalier assumptions that our minds can encompass the consequences of our acts. Increasingly it seemed to me that the very material triumphs of modernity, including the dense inter-connections of the far flung parts of the globe—and increasingly, the universe—diminished our ability even to imagine the unforeseen consequences of our acts. Yet the escalating uncertainty and indeterminacy make the imperative of a moral and ontological center the more compelling. All around me, people seemed to be finding that center in the needs, wants, and feelings of the isolate self, but for me such individualism or identity politics exacerbated the problem rather than eased it.

Nothing in this personal history compelled my conversion to Catholicism, or even explains it. It would be aesthetically satisfying to be able to evoke a single moment of blinding light—a road to Damascus—but there is none. One ordinary day, when I was again musing over the question of joining a church, I knew I would join the Catholic Church. I had not previously been thinking of doing so, indeed the thought had never consciously crossed my mind. I am devoted to my husband’s devoutly Catholic family, but since he had left the Church in adolescence, their faith remained something to appreciate rather than to share. In a general way, my husband’s family and my Catholic friends have always known that we respect and, in some measure, understand their Church, but, notwithstanding private prayers, they never openly pressed for our conversion. If any single person influenced me in this regard, it was the Catholic graduate student whom, to the horror of my colleagues, I had admitted to Women’s Studies. Sheila O’Connor, during her years at Emory, had gradually become a close friend and virtual member of the family, and through her I had become friendly with a circle of other Catholic students, but even she, who prayed fervently for our souls, had never, I think, allowed herself to consider that I might join the Church. Nor had my husband, who knows me better than anyone, foreseen my decision.

There are kinds of knowing that transcend the play of words and ideas. Of such quiet certainty, but more deeply so, is the knowledge of faith, which steals into the soul. Daily exposure to Sheila’s living faith contributed to my own sense of faith as the fabric of a life, and I strongly suspect that our Lord, if he finds me an acceptable servant, counts me as a jewel in her crown in heaven. But even that palpable example could not substitute for the internal certainty. We live surrounded by examples of virtue and faith that we admire without ever attempting to make them our own. The miracle and mystery for me lay in the recognition that they might also be mine.

Accepting Sacrifice

Since my first year of college, Gerard Manley Hopkins had figured among my favorite poets, and I had almost without knowing it memorized some of the passages that most deeply touched me. At the time, I had no understanding of the place of Catholicism in his imagination, and did not even much attend to his having been a Catholic. Who knows how I managed to ignore the significance of the subtitle of my favorite of his poems, “The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord,” but I did. Consequently, I but rarely considered why I was so moved by my favorite of the poem’s lines:

No wonder of it: Sheer plod makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

What I did nonetheless fully understand was Hopkins’ insistence that the most compelling beauty and mastery must evoke our reverence; that, for those who seek, their signs abound in the world around us; and that, especially, flaming, soul-stirring beauty emerges from work, from the acceptance of boundaries, and from sacrifice.

While in France during my early twenties, I met and eventually became friends with one of the most extraordinary men I have ever known, Andre Amar, a one-time president of the Jewish World Congress, the director of a private bank, and a professor of philosophy. His lectures on the history of Western thought dazzled with a brilliance I have rarely encountered, but their true brilliance lay in the reverential seriousness with which he engaged the thinkers and topics he was discussing. On one occasion he especially engaged religion, sternly instructing the throng of largely materialist students that none of their secular theories provided an adequate explanation of religion. The sacred, he insisted, is irreducible: It is its own form of knowledge, has its own epistemology and its own rules. Always remember, he concluded, that the sacred is a realm unto itself and we only impoverish ourselves by attempting to contain it within secular categories. Although at the time I could not fully apprehend his meaning, I always have remembered both his words and the tone in which they were uttered.

Like Hopkins, Amar challenged me, albeit in different ways, to relinquish the pride of intellect that had been my mainstay since childhood. I was not accustomed to viewing my deep thirst for intellectual mastery as a matter of pride, although I fully appreciated its value as a defense against the inevitable disappointments of the world, not to mention against sloth and self-indulgence. Even as I became increasingly conscious and suspicious of the pride of intellectuals, including myself, who pretend to know what is best for themselves and others—who seek to order the world closer to their heart’s desire—I failed to grasp pride’s protean role as a deeply internalized defense against faith.

One of the aspects of Catholicism that most attracted me was its compelling intellectual tradition in which I had so long been immersed. But the vision of the sacred offered by Hopkins and Amar, while never repudiating the intrinsic value of intellectual work, clearly required something more than mere intellectual acquiescence: It required, as I gradually came to understand, that one “fold the wings of intellect” (to borrow from Sheila’s mother and my friend, Mary Alice O’Connor). In the words of Jesus, as reported by St. Matthew, it required that one become as a child: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Demon of Anguish

Conversion, in my experience, has been less an event than an unfolding. My years of reading Catholic theologians and writers had taught me that the struggle for faith is, precisely, a struggle. St. Teresa, St. Therese, Flannery O’Connor, and Georges Bernanos, among many, bring that truth vividly alive. Even as we believe, we yearn to deepen that belief; even as we practice the habits of faith, we strive to practice them more faithfully. Long before I consciously dreamt of conversion, Bernanos occupied a special place in my imagination, and his Dairy of a Country Priest ranked high on my list of favorite books. I had, as I thought at the time, discovered the book for myself, which is to say that no one had suggested it to me, and to my surprise, since it is in many ways theologically and intellectually demanding, had read it with the breathless excitement I normally reserved for lighter fiction. And for years thereafter, I cherished the reflection of that country priest, “Je crois au fond que l’angoisse c’est un demon impur.

Today, in my unfolding conversion and thanks to the direction of Father Richard Lopez, who gave me instruction and has remained my confessor, I am coming to understand that the anxieties that I once, like so many non-believers, took seriously, signify not ideals, but temptations. For in seeking to assuage our anxiety, we are driven to the goods and accolades of a world that will always leave us wanting. Faith, in contrast, helps us to glimpse a reality that transcends the flawed and deceptive materiality of the world. Conversion, like the faith of which it is a part, thus resembles the early Jewish and Christian understanding of metaphorical ontology as described by Jeffrey Burton Russell in A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence. Russell explains that for traditional religious writers, metaphors are ontology, and the metaphors that open the mind to truth continually grow. Thus, metaphor provides the best route to an understanding of heaven, which “is itself the metaphor of metaphors, for a metaphor opens to more and more meaning, and heaven is an unbordered meadow of meaning.”

Perhaps the reality and the essence of my conversion—and any conversion—may best be captured by analogy to the real presence in the Eucharist. For in the Eucharist we come to understand that the greatest of all mysteries is the ultimate reality, and that groping toward faith consists in the continuing struggle to grasp the most ineffable and elusive as the most real. This quest unites my conversion to those of countless others and, by minimizing its uniquely personal cast, acknowledges it as less the work of the creature than the grace of the Creator. “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.”


  • Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

    Elizabeth Fox-Genovese was the Eleonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities at Emory University and author of several books, including Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life. She passed away on January 2, 2007.

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