A Writer’s Annunciation at Walsingham
Convert poet Sally Read returns to England’s Marian shrine.
Sally Read is an award-winning poet, who was known as an outspoken feminist and an anti-Catholic atheist. Then, unexpectedly, in 2010, she converted to Catholicism. Subsequently, in 2016, she published an acclaimed spiritual memoir, Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story about her faith journey.
Her latest book, Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World, published last year by Ignatius Press, is a meditation on the mystery of the Annunciation as well as being a discourse on the nature of faith written for and to her teenage daughter, Flo.
Prayer is practicing the knowledge of God’s eyes upon you. He is the only one who should act as your mirror. Prayer should be God’s gaze drenching you, as the rain drenches the grasses in the garden, vivifying their greens and making them stand taller. God’s gaze awakens you to everything you were created to be. It enables you to leave the darkness and to walk to him (p. 36).
English by birth, Read lives today with her Italian husband and daughter just outside Rome. Currently, as with the whole of Italy, she lives under lockdown due to the coronavirus now rampant in that country. In happier times, on a trip with her daughter back to England last Christmas, she spoke to the Register at Walsingham, the great Marian shrine associated with the Annunciation.
In bright winter sun over the East Anglian countryside, this journalist wondered if Sally Read missed her homeland. “Very much,” she replied. “I’d love to move back, and perhaps one day we will manage that. Being an expat without a community of other expats is a mortification — you’re never really seen as who you are. I’ve come to understand that language is more than words — it’s a whole way of thinking. When my daughter, who’s bilingual, switches between languages, her body language changes too, and even her persona. I came to Italian late, and I’ve never developed an Italian persona, so I remain a bit of an outsider.”
Born in East Anglia in 1971, Read was working as a psychiatric nurse in London by the 1990s. Many of her experiences from that time were to find expression in her award-winning poetry and would later be detailed more fully in her memoir. Her first encounters with Catholicism took place during that time. But it was not until she was married and living in Italy that she finally converted.
This is only her third visit to Walsingham, England’s chief Marian shrine. “My first visit was 20 years ago, when I was still an atheist, and only saw the Anglican [not Catholic] shrine,” she recalled. “I wasn’t all that struck. I felt like something was missing. My sister-in-law brought me back to Walsingham, as a Catholic, two or three years ago. We only went to the Catholic shrine and the Slipper Chapel, and, equally, I wasn’t as stirred as I’d expected to be. Again, I felt that there was something I was missing. It was only after I’d written Annunciation and heard that England was being rededicated to Mary in 2020 on the feast of the Annunciation that I saw how my book connected to the Walsingham mystery.”
With so many books and meditations published already on the Annunciation, what drew her to that particular mystery? “The Annunciation has always been an obsession of mine, though it’s hard to say why,” she explained. “I do find that various saints, prayers or passages of Scripture find you. Even as an atheist I published two poems about the Annunciation, and my favorite painting was always Fra Lippi’s Annunciation. Since my conversion I’ve written a further three poems on the subject. When I was praying about what to write for Flo,” she recalled how she “saw the shape of the Annunciation very clearly — God swooping towards us and his hair-raising nearness; our anxiety as to what might be asked of us; our finding our identity in God; our consent to our vocation; and finally the periods when God does not seem so near.”
Annunciation comprises five chapters, each responding to one of the five “words” from the Gospel of St. Luke: “And he came to her.” “Do not be afraid.” “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.” “Be it to me, according to your word.” “And the angel departed from her.” Within each of these verses, Read “found a plethora of stories and answers” to her daughter’s questions.
“The Annunciation is — for me, my daughter and for the English generally — a very apposite mystery,” Read reflected. “ It is about consent, identity and mission: things very important to those with strong and independent hearts. … An understanding of this encounter between God and man is what England needs right now. We need to re-choose our Christian identity.”
Mother and Daughter
What impelled Read to write on this mystery, specifically for her daughter? “I converted from atheism to Catholicism when my daughter was 4 years old,” she explained. “We’ve always been close, and she was very interested in what I was going through. She wanted to know the truth about angels and the Trinity. It’s only now, perhaps, that I can reflect on how odd those kinds of questions are for a 3-year-old, as she was at that point, to pose. She’s always had a canny theological sense — but at the same time she’s an average kid who gets bored at Mass and moans about having to go! When she was about 9, she took to complaining that she didn’t ‘feel’ anything in prayer, and the night before her first Communion she suddenly said she wasn’t sure if she should receive the sacrament — she wanted the party more than the Eucharist. It was that incident that ignited the writing of this book. I wanted to set down the deepest reasons for her to hold onto God and faith and to try to answer some of her questions, like why some ‘feel’ the presence of God more than others at certain times.”
Flo was with Read for her visit to Walsingham. Together mother and daughter wandered down the ancient pilgrim paths, visited the ruins of the medieval Franciscan friary, and gazed upon the spot where once stood the Holy House (a replica of the Holy Family’s home in Nazareth). Mother and daughter also spent time in prayer, side by side in the Slipper Chapel, the last remnant of the original shrine.
As Read watched Flo move around the grounds of the Catholic shrine, she reflected, “My daughter is a very sensitive and passionate soul; and I had first-hand experience, as someone with a similar disposition, of how hard life without faith can be. I thought she needed to know of how God helps us in suffering and his essential role in giving sense and meaning to life.”
Given that the book was such a personal project, and written for her daughter, was the idea hard to sell to her publisher, Ignatius Press?
“They only wanted to change one thing — the title,” she said. “The book was originally called ‘Annunciation for My Daughter,’ but they felt that the book was more universal than that title would imply. Indeed, it isn’t a children’s book. I hope it’s relevant to every believer; although, of course, it reads very intimately, as I’m talking to my daughter. She’s 13 now, and she loves it.”
Sacred Source and Summit
Both in her memoir and her latest book, Read’s writing is luminous. She reveals a sense of the sacred, the mystical even, in what many Catholics take for granted. Is this sense something converts to the faith see with clearer eyes?
“There are different types of conversion,” Read replied. “Some [conversions are] of the intellect, some of the heart — though mind and heart can only be starting points; any conversion involves a conversion of the whole [person]. From what I’ve read, there are also mystical conversions, such as those of Alfonse Ratisbonne [a 19th-century convert from Judaism who in 1848 was ordained a Jesuit priest], where God chooses to give a particular private revelation. I’ve heard many converts talk about these heightened experiences of God, and I would bracket my conversion in with them. When God came to me in 2010, he gave me three vivid, life-changing encounters with him. Of course, no one lives with that kind of intensity forever, but perhaps converts do see the mysteries with fresh eyes.”
Read then added, “I think that poetry and prayer are linked, and I suspect I’m able to express — sometimes — what some people experience during prayer and Communion. I would tentatively suggest that mystical experiences are more common than we might think. After all, as Catholics we witness a miracle every time we attend Mass.”
On that point, recent surveys in the United States show a lack of understanding among Catholics, ignorance even, of a basic understanding of the Eucharist. What does Read’s book have to say to those Catholics?
“In a sense, my book Annunciation is also written for those Catholics,” she said. “The Eucharist is the greatest gift that we have, and it’s tragic that people have lost perspective on that. It seems to me that in general, as a society, we’ve lost sight of the magnitude of the gift that is Christ and the Eucharist. God, who needs nothing, has chosen to need us! He wants us to love him; he wants to be that intimate with us. Intimacy with God is essential for our well-being. Without it we fall prey to all kinds of anxieties, addictions and idolatries.”
Read went on to point out: “If people are confused, feeling misunderstood, marginalized or undervalued, they need to revisit the Eucharist — in adoration and/or Holy Communion — and listen to, rest in his gaze. I can say, through personal experience, as someone who didn’t used to believe in God at all, that these things are life-changing.”
Captured by Grace
By then the winter sun was setting. In these, her last hours in England, and at this place hallowed by centuries of pilgrimage, what thoughts were coming to her?
“Coming back to Walsingham and walking around the entirety of it has made me understand how it all fits together,” she responded by invoking Richeldis of Walsingham, the 12th-century female mystic who, after an apparition of Our Lady, had the Holy House built at Walsingham. . “The ruins of the Augustinian priory and Franciscan friary particularly brought the mystery of Richeldis’ vision alive to me.”
Just prior to her departure, while looking upon the ruins of the Augustinian Priory and within its grounds the former site of the Holy House, Read reflected, “It’s a place of hidden history; it’s Mary doing what she does best — allowing herself to be effaced but enduring in holiness. I see now that it’s a very mystical place — the heart of Catholicism in the bleak beauty of the Norfolk countryside. This area, East Anglia, where I was born and grew up, is known for its huge skies and its unrelenting flatness. It’s attracted a great many artists over the centuries and has produced a number of remarkable mystics: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and, of course, Richeldis of Walsingham.”
As Read turned to leave, she added, “It feels like they’ve been chasing me down the decades, but, finally, I have found Mary here — and the Annunciation.”