INTO THE DEEP
An Unlikely Catholic Conversion
By Abigail Rine Favale
Cascade/Wipf & Stock, 2018
190 pages, $25 (list price)
To order: amazon.com
In The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926), published four years after his entrance into the Catholic Church, G.K. Chesterton famously described three stages, or states of mind, that “the convert commonly passes through” on his way to becoming Catholic. The first is a sense of detachment, during which the convert seeks to be fair to the Catholic Church; the second is a time of excited progress, as falsehoods are overturned and truths discovered; the third stage is “perhaps the truest and the most terrible,” when the convert begins to find a way out of converting.
Chesterton then makes an observation that has always stuck with me (especially now, 22 years after my own entrance into the Church), stating that the process of “discovering” the Church is often rather pleasant and simple, much “easier than joining the Catholic Church and much easier than trying to live the Catholic life.” And then he writes,
“I might remark that much of it consists of the act of translation; of discovering the real meaning of words, which the Church uses rightly and the world uses wrongly.”
Those two essential acts — actually living a Catholic life and discovering the real meaning of words — are at the heart of Abigail Favale’s powerful and engrossing account of becoming Catholic and being Catholic.
Favale, still just in her 30s, is an accomplished academic, having earned a doctorate in English from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and currently heading the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. She has won awards for her fiction, published pieces in academic journals, and wrote a book that won the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association Book Prize in 2014, the year she entered the Church.
Happily, while Favale’s conversion story is filled with plenty of theological heft and spiritual depth, it often reads more like a novel, avoiding any sort of academic jargon or esoteric meandering. Her pithy prose has echoes of Hemingway or Flannery O’Connor, as when describing her baptism as a young evangelical living in southern Utah (“Mormonland,” as she calls it):
“Because of the rain, the creek was running high and fast, and the water was the color of chocolate milk, thick with sediment. I was not clothed in a white robe, but multicolored florescent shorts and a t-shirt, my hair in two braids. I waded out into the creek, guided by my pastor. With his hand bracing the base of my neck, he ducked me backwards into the water, holding me under for a few seconds, long enough to invoke the Trinity: I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I came out of the creek looking much filthier than when I went in, as if I’d been marinating in the mud. But within me, there was a warmth that glowed white and flowed down into my frigid limbs, a joy I couldn’t yet name.”
Engrossed with stories of women in the Old Testament, Favale began grappling at a young age with questions about both femininity and spirituality, falling into a chaotic pattern of evangelical fervor and secular emersion. She writes of her “flailing attempt to secure my fickle love” for God, a fickleness that floundered often in the temporary excitements of romances, going from “love to crush to meaningless hook-up.” She summarizes those teen years with bluntness: “I misused people and allowed them to misuse me.”
Readers looking for vague pieties will be disappointed, or perhaps even startled, by the occasional earthy expletive. Yet this is at the service of an honesty that is as insightful as it is severe. When discussing the book recently at a men’s reading group, it was unanimously agreed that the erudite rawness of Favale’s account is a strength, as it eschews clichés and platitudes in favor of stating matters as they really were, and are, and should be.
Put another way, words matter deeply to Favale — even when she embraced and espoused radical feminism throughout her 20s. This was especially true of her reading of Scripture; the Bible, understood via her “evangelical feminist hermeneutics,” was a patriarchal text, and thus problematic. Her outlook was postmodern, explaining “truth” by way of metanarratives, having little or no confidence that anything can be really grasped or known.
And yet she couldn’t escape that “the question of hermeneutics is essential.” Like so many other converts, she kept running into the difficult but essential matter of a final, interpreting authority: “It’s not enough to simply read what the Bible says; one must understand what it means. But whose interpretation is true?”
During that time, she held on to Christianity as a “beautiful story” and “a profound metaphor,” while being part of an Episcopal group that prayed the “Our Mother” and rejected all masculine references to God. Try as she might to expunge the patriarchy out of her life, she kept running into problems. “Yet it was precisely at this moment of feminist ascendency,” she reflects, “that I felt God disappearing behind that impenetrable wall. It was when I tried to pray to God as Mother that I lost the desire to pray at all.”
After a number of failed relationships, Favale met Michael and they got married while she finished her studies. Clinging stubbornly to a form of feminist Christianity, she saw herself as “an iconoclast” battling against the dread “fundamentalists.” One truth, however, crippled her: “No one can love a probable God. A God created in our own images and according to our desires cannot be worshipped.”
Barely a quarter of the way into the book comes, well, a breaking point: “Motherhood broke me open.” Some of the most poignant and spiritually rich passages of the book come in her reflections on giving birth, being a mother, and embracing the beautiful reality of the feminine. And then, shy of the halfway mark, Favale describes entering the Catholic Church. That act, to harken back to Chesterton, was hardly easy. But it was easier, in so many ways, than trying to live the Catholic life — a struggle described with unwavering honesty and edifying clarity in the second half of the book. As Favale explains:
“At this point in the tale I’m telling, I’ve become Catholic, but it’s the inner conversion after this outer declaration that is the real story, the messy story, the story that unfolded in my second year of being Catholic. That was the year of upheaval and anguish … yet also a time of deepening conviction and inner consolation like I’ve never known.”
While the first part is rooted in narrative, the second half of the book dives deep into questions about abortion, contraception and homosexuality, while contemplating a host of fundamental truths about the Person of Jesus Christ, the fatherhood of God, the sacraments, salvation, prayer, anthropology and Mary. Although not a theologian, Favale has clearly both studied and contemplated the mysteries of the faith, and she draws upon Scripture, the Office of Readings and various spiritual masters in her reflections, offering not just an apologia, but a mini-catechesis.
Many evangelicals (including myself) have said that in becoming Catholic they fulfilled their deepest longings, especially in receiving the Eucharist. Favale says the same, stating that if “one primary force drew me to Catholicism from afar, it was a thirst for the sacraments” and a “hunger for the Eucharist.” But she also points out that what she sought vainly to find in feminist ideology was what was waiting for her in the Catholic faith. She had “turned to feminism to discover the significance of my womanness, and I was initiated into an ideology where womanness itself is ultimately renounced.”
In Catholicism, especially in the liturgy and worship of the Church, she came to an “understanding of woman as a sign.” Evangelicalism was bereft of Mary, the saints, the visible Church, having “no Mass with its iconography of the bridegroom and bride, no sacramental understanding of our bodies as sacred signs.” Thus she had sought meaning in feminism. And the “yearning that initially drove me to feminism was fulfilled, at last, in Catholicism.”
One of the men in our reading group, after discussing this book, said to me: “I learned so much from this book. It was amazing.” And another friend, a woman, recently remarked to me that Favale’s book is the “best new Catholic book no one is talking about.” For me, it was a beautiful and often challenging witness of the Trinitarian, incarnational and sacramental foundations of the faith, which are not dry or abstract at all, but the very sources of existence, reality, being and beatitude — for all men and all women. Chesterton’s observation at the start of the account of his own conversion rings true:
“The phenomenon of conversion apparent in every class, affecting every type of character, is the great modern witness to the truth of the claim of the Faith; to the fact that the Faith is reality; and that in it alone is the repose of reality to be found.”
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight.