The liturgical year concludes with prompts to consider the four last things, so during November I took up a little book on deathbed conversions and found that couldn’t put it down. Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line is a thoroughly engaging, hopeful read offering behind-the-scenes glimpses into the hidden spiritual search of some of the world’s center-stage lives.
This is the fifth of blogger Karen Edmisten’s six books (her most recent, You Can Share the Faith: Reaching Out One Person at a Time is also a charming and insightful read about faith sharing and conversion).
Rather than a “cheat” or last minute “fire escape,” Edmisten maintains that “a deathbed conversion is almost always the culmination of years spent resisting God’s patient, persistent call.”
Edmisten understands the gradual nature of conversion: she was baptized at age 30 and was received into the Catholic Church at age 35 after a lifetime as an atheist. Deathbed Conversions’ introduction offers a glimpse into her own pilgrimage and highlights her gratitude for believing friends who simply loved her all along the way.
The rest of the book is a sparkling series of vignettes describing the outer and inner lives 13 diverse, accomplished people who found, as Edmisten puts it, “faith at the finish line.”
Each one, from England’s King Charles II to America’s beloved Gary Cooper held secrets within the heart that would reveal themselves late, after the turbulence of time and temptation had left them unfulfilled.
Silver screen celebrities (Cooper, John Wayne, Patricia Neal), literary giants (Oscar Wilde, Wallace Stegner), a gangster (Dutch Schultz), a Nobel laureate (Alexis Carrel), an Old West entertainer (Buffalo Bill) and a celebrated documentarist (Kenneth Clark) are among them.
Each story, like each of ours, is a mix of happiness and tragedy, of disappointment, sin and striving. Edmisten gives a concise and empathetic rendering of their struggles. Her title reveals how each tale will end, but the getting there is unique and unrepeatable, a miracle in its own right.
The task of distilling any life into a few pages is daunting, yet Edmisten succeeds in captivating the reader with each new tale. Deathbed Conversions “has all the power of supermarket tabloids–big celebrity names, sex, violence, everything but aliens,” one reviewer put it, “but with the grace, eloquence, and profundity of Augustine’s Confessions.” I couldn’t agree more. This is a fascinating little page turner.
Many of the protagonists highlighted here denied any belief in God until they neared the end. But there is a common denominator among their stories, as Edmisten points out in her introduction:
Each had someone who did not give up on him. Christianity is an incarnational faith. Jesus Christ came to us as a human being, and he continues to work with and through flesh and blood, one person, one soul at a time.
There was faithful friend and Catholic convert Robbie Ross, a light to both Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. There were Catholic spouses whose witness surely tugged at the hearts of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. There were faithful priests and hospital chaplains who witnessed at the bedsides of Dutch Schultz, Wallace Stevens, Kenneth Clark and John von Neumann, and there were the Benedictine nuns at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, where Patricia Neal would return when she sought silence and peace for her deeply wounded heart.
And there is, as well, the thread of Beauty, God’s silent speech. In Civilization, Kenneth Clark had written of the beauty of religious imagery and “tenderly addressed the iconography of the Mother of God.” When Patricia Neal visited the Abbey during a painful time, the beauty of a Christmas tree moved her heart. “It seemed to her something ethereal, a burning bush, a source of eternal love.”
The afterward, too, tells a story of the beauty of a funeral mass which moved the non-religious family of another deathbed convert.
“Conversions are as strange and individual as the people who experience them,” writes Edmisten:
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.
C.S. Lewis, who found his way from atheism to theism and finally to Christianity, reminds us that we mustn’t assume that the opponents to faith around us will remain that way forever. “The very man who has argued you down,” he writes in Reflections on the Psalms, “will sometimes be found, years later, to have been influenced by what you said.” What matters for Lewis is that we guard our souls in our every conversation, and that we are charitable always.
The fact that conversion can occur, even after a life spent avoiding God, is a hopeful thing indeed. Some of the finish-line coverts in Deathbed Conversions revealed, before the end, the pleasure their choice had given them.
Gary Cooper, for example, asked a friend to give a message to Ernest Hemingway (to whom he had earlier expressed doubts).
Bringing a crucifix to his cheek, the celebrated actor said, “Tell him it was the best thing I ever did.”
Reads and Other Seeds
Poetry lovers will savor Karen Edmisten’s blog and its Poetry Friday posts. A recent personal update in which she gave tribute to the late Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur made me cry. In a good way. See Richard Wilbur and The Time I Fell Off the Internet Because Atticus Got Cancer. Beautifully bittersweet.
Check out Edmisten’s other titles, including books with her contributions, here.
If podcasts are your cup of tea, try Fountains of Carrots: Sharing Our Faith With Authenticity with Karen Edmisten and You Can Share the Faith: Interview with Karen Edmisten at Catholic Exchange.
I know the gradual nature of conversion firsthand and wrote about it in Luther and the Little Way: A Gradual Gift of a Catholic Conversion.
After posting In the Night: a Song for Your Playlist of Hope, I began compiling a playlist of hopeful songs for realistic optimists like you. It’s almost ready! What music helps you get through the dark times? Please leave a comment here or post on Sparrowfare’s Facebook page. I’d love to hear from you.
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