In the spring of 1908, an Irish priest was walking through the slums of Great Yarmouth in the east of England when he came across an old woman—“over ninety,” as he wrote in a letter home. They got talking and she mentioned that she had not been to church for many years. But something about the priest, Fr. Willie Doyle, SJ, touched her heart. “I have led a wicked life,” she told him, “but every day I asked God to send me a good friend before I died, and I feel now my prayer is heard.” The next day, Fr. Doyle wrote, “I came back and heard her Confession and brought her Holy Communion on Easter Sunday. As the tears streamed down her old withered face, she said, ‘Oh, Father this is the first happy day of my life, for I have never known what happiness is since I was a child.’”
It would be possible to take a severe view of that old woman’s lifelong prayer. All the warnings her conscience must have given her over the years, all the chances she had to repent, all the trifling with the fate of her immortal soul...That is a valid perspective. But there is another perspective—one which, incidentally, Fr. Doyle preferred to emphasize—which focuses instead on the awesome specificity of God’s mercy. Nothing would get through to that old woman except someone she could identify as “a good friend”? In that case, He would send a holy priest to the other side of the British Isles, to that precise slum at that precise moment.
Conversion stories remind us that God understands us better than we understand ourselves. As a comedian knows that a particular inflection or pause will bring an audience to laughter, as a psychologist can read someone’s story from their body language—but at an infinitely deeper level than either—God knows the secret passages of our hearts and approaches us through them, not to exploit us but to offer us our freedom.
More than a few converts could tell their own stories of Divine Providence. A book came to hand, a conversation turned to a particular topic, some coincidence struck. In the film Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Paul Darrow describes flicking through TV channels and seeing a nun wearing an eyepatch. Overcome with hilarity, he calls out to his partner Jeff: “You gotta see this!’” Jeff and Paul have a good chuckle at the pirate nun and these ridiculous Christians. And then the nun—Mother Angelica of the Catholic media network EWTN—speaks: “You see, God created you and I to be happy in this life and the next. He cares for you, He watches your every move. There’s no one that loves you can do that.” Those words stunned Darrow and changed his life: He kept returning to EWTN, and eventually found his way back to the confessional and to happiness.
Who could have known that that sentiment, at that instant, would suddenly make him realize that he was loved? Only the God who knows us inside out.
St. Augustine converted when, amid his spiritual agonies, he overheard a child repeating in a sing-song manner, “Take and read, take and read.” Augustine racked his brains about whether children used this phrase in any everyday context—in a game, for instance—but could not think of one. It must be a sign from God, he decided, and so he opened his Bible at random and found the verse which flooded his soul with light: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.” Those words, at that minute of that hour, through the inexplicable chanting of that child, provided the key that opened the lock.
Some of these tales have a ludicrous aspect. The late Fr. Hugh Thwaites, SJ laughingly related the following story:
A man told me once that a friend of his had got cancer with only six months to live, and would I ask him if he’d like to become a Catholic? I said, “No, you ask him. God will help you say the right thing.” It turned out that the man did want to become a Catholic, so I instructed him and received him into the Church, and then he died. I asked his friend, “What did you say to make him want to be a Catholic?” He said, “I told him that if he became a Catholic, he could be buried near me.” This well illustrates St Paul’s claim that the foolishness of God is wiser than men. The Holy Spirit used those words, devoid of any argument or proof, to bring a man to desire the gift of faith and to a happy death.
St. Vincent Pallotti, meanwhile, once converted a man through the power of cookies. This man, who lay dying in hospital, was so filled with rage that people thought he might be possessed. When the priest came to his bedside, the man began foaming at the mouth and prepared to hurl his usual blasphemies and insults. St. Vincent opened a box of cookies and placed one in the sick man’s mouth. As he chewed effortfully, the priest spoke to him with great tenderness of God and the final judgment. The man eventually swallowed, and prepared to let fly again. St. Vincent inserted another cookie and spoke on. The process continued for a while. At last the man broke down in tears and received the sacraments—a soul brought to Heaven by his sweet tooth.
It’s all in the Psalms, of course. “You understand my thoughts from afar. You sift through my travels and my rest; with all my ways you are familiar. Even before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it all.” Yes, even at this very moment.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.