I don’t want sentimental piety at Advent; I crave a seeker’s authenticity and a contemplative’s conviction.
I welcome Sally Read’s voice at any time of year, and Advent isn’t the occasion that produced Annunciation: A Call to Faith in A Broken World.
It’s just that Annunciation is the best book of its kind I encountered this year and having just finished this little wonder, I’ll be re-reading it with greater intention in Advent, the liturgical season inviting us to contemplate Christ’s coming into the world.
I first met Read’s powerful prose in her memoir, Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story.
There, the former psychiatric nurse and prize-winning poet recounts with riveting realism her soul’s journey from atheism to faith.
Sally Read is a writer for our times.
Raised an atheist, she was born into a world without faith. Read accepted her parents’ world view and continued to apply its outlook as she moved into adulthood as a psychiatric nurse in London. She then turned to writing poetry and received the Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2001.
A staunchly anti-Catholic secular feminist, Read was a married mother living in Rome and writing a book on female sexuality when she interviewed a Catholic priest as part of her research. The encounter set her on a quest quite unexpected, and within a year Read became convinced of the reality of Christ and was received into the Catholic Church.
That’s the story Night’s Bright Darkness tells. In Annunciation, we find Read at a new stage in her spiritual life, one in which the fruit of living liturgically, contemplatively and sacramentally for almost a decade is evident.
Read’s daughter Flo was only three when her mother became Catholic, and in this book we meet Flo as her mother saw her inquisitive girl in the various stages of her childhood. The intimate revelation of a devoted mother’s heart rings so true it hurts.
Flo is not her mother, and her questions are typical of a child raised with religion rather than without it.
But the child’s questions are our questions, too, no matter how absent, fledgling or firey our faith may be. The complaints of a child being raised in the faith are seriously challenging for the devoted soul who wishes to pass her unimaginable treasure to a child coming of age in a secular, social media-saturated world, and the truth is, we cannot solve all the questions of faith for anyone.
Neither atheism nor faith have the case-closed certainty of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics. Read lived her own questions as an atheist until they became faith; Flo will live her questions too, in her own way.
Annunciaton’s occasion is not Advent: it is a comment Flo made to her mother the night before she was to receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time:
I want the party more than the Communion.
The girl’s self-awareness on the eve of such a moment reminds one of the universality of St. Paul’s admission in the seventh chapter of Romans. The saint, whose blinding encounter with Christ was followed by twenty-five years as a fiercely faithful apostle confides, from his imprisonment, a secret within his saintly heart: “What want to do, I do not do, and that which I want to do, I do not do.”
For example, wanting a party more than Communion.
Flo once complained to her mother on the way to Holy Thursday Mass, “But I don’t love Jesus the way you do!”
What mother, knowing what she knows, wouldn’t at least lead her little girl to the truth informing her life, wouldn’t reveal the greatest love of her heart to the soul she loves most in this world?
The way we do that as parents, imperfectly as we all do, is to live the questions alongside our children, and for a Catholic, that means living the liturgy, one mystery after another, and through every sacramental encounter with Christ, bringing them all into the space, time and history of the moment at hand.
Because Flo has a remarkable mother, we’ve been given a remarkable response to the child’s concerns in the form of this book. Read is fully aware that in just a few years, Flo may well choose against her mother’s religion, so she chose to ponder the issues confronting Flo now, so that when she’s older, these thoughts will be available for her consideration.
This is not a children’s book; it’s a searching testimony of faith seeking understanding. “What emerged in this book,” writes Read, “is a meditation on the universal close and remote dance with God.”
Annunciation’s organizing structure is the moment when Mary, hailed by the archangel Gabriel as full of grace, receives God’s Son into her own body, her yes making possible God’s entrance into the world as the Incarnate God-with-us: Emmanuel.
And we, in a far lesser way, are also invited to receive Christ within us in Communion.
Annunciation is written as a letter from mother to daughter and its structure allows us to see how Christ’s mother Mary can inform our prayer as we live our questions about faith, about doubt, about life with I-phones, about suffering, about the times when we feel nothing in prayer and about times when we sense God’s silent call yet are strangely pulled in the opposite direction.
Writing to her daughter, Sally Read leads us, phrase by phrase, into meditation on Gabriel’s meeting with Mary.
By staying with select lines in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, splicing the Annunciation into moment-by-moment frames of enfleshment, we see that the point in time when God became man holds much more than a theological proposition about salvation, foundational as that understanding is for the Christian faith.
The Annunciation, held to the light as a many-faceted jewel, offers myriad points of entry for the seeking heart.
“I want to show you,” Read explains to Flo, “how [Mary] solves our sometime frustration in prayer now–when we may not feel his presence, when we are stumped by the mystery, when we do not feel that he comes to us at all.”
Under Read’s firm yet gentle guidance, each moment–And he came to her; Do not be afraid; Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; Let it be to me according to your word; And the angel departed from her –brings our own hope and our enduring sorrows to the surface, and there, with Mary as our model, we’re given fresh insight and renewed strength to face the challenges of our lives.
Read lives her questions with Mary, and Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World invites us to do the same. She reflects unflinchingly on human agony with stark vignettes like the one of “Crow,” the psychiatric patient so desperate to take his life that two nurses had to be at his side even when he brushed his teeth.
Mother Theresa’s decades of darkness are also placed before us. Read speaks as well of Chiara Corbella Petrillo’s visible joy even in the midst of the incomprehensible deaths of her children and the illness that led to her own death just after giving birth a third time, this time to a child who will live without her mother.
Flo deserves the respect her mother gives her in frankly acknowledging the suffering in this broken world. But the former atheist knows first-hand that presenting our suffering to the fresh wounds of Christ is a mercifiul reality and that we were not meant, even in the world tainted by original sin, to suffer without God.
Our pain doesn’t have to shrink and harden us, as it did the great aunt whose bitter story Read retells. The outcome of any suffering depends on our response.
Each of the Annunciation’s moments invites a mysterious fiat, “let it be done unto me,” and each is a potential refusal as well. Read reminds Flo:
These days, when you feel lost, I try to explain that every moment of your life is an Annunciation, though it may not be heralded by any visible angel, and you may be totally blind and deaf to its manifestation.
We are told, despite our feelings, to “be not afraid.” Each Annunciation is an invitation to respond to a fully trustworthy lover. But the path will continue without clarity. The angel left Mary alone to take the next step on her own, and we, too, will often walk in darkness. Scripture never suggests otherwise. It simply says God will be with us, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
The Annunciation, it turns out, is far deeper than a familiar proposition about the Incarnation or a Christmas card illustration. It is “an invitation to a deeper relationship with God for each and every one of us.”
That makes Annunciation a perfect choice for Advent and beyond. Because God is always calling and we are always invited to answer.
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You might also enjoy Advent’s First Week: It Is Better to Light One Candle.
A taste of Read’s poetry, from “Winter:”
Scarlet berries by the hundred break
quietly, violently, the green-black leaves—
like drops of Blood, our fathers used to say—
and late sun floods and reddens snow.
What are you reading this Advent? I’d love to hear from you.