For a person contemplating conversion to the Catholic faith, there are choices to be made. Difficult choices. When I myself was contemplating my proposed conversion over a decade ago, it seemed clear that a drastic separation was being proposed between what I once was and what I hoped to become. Although my life to that point had prepared me for that moment, what lay before me was 30,000 leagues of sea beckoning I wade from shore and never look back. The Catholic Church is monolithic and mysterious, and to join her felt quite different than checking out a new protestant denominational affiliation. In my subsequent experience helping converts enter the Church, I’ve found that my experience wasn’t unusual. Even a person convinced of the intellectual coherence of the faith and who has formed a respect and desire for the Church has a certain difficulty as they approach the moment in which the decision must be made. To convert, one must become brokenhearted and impoverished. It’s a leap into a void and it requires tremendous gifts of faith God and prayers from the angels and saints. One does not convert without divine intervention.
Gertud Von Le Fort, a convert herself, has written a beautiful description of the conversion process in her book The Veil of Veronica. First published in 1931, it’s a sensitive account of how halting the process can be, marked as it is by the juxtaposition of great epiphanies and agonies.
Cluny Media has reprinted the novel in a handsome, well-bound paperback. They graciously sent me a copy and I’ve been reading it every morning in the garden with my first cup of coffee. As the Cluny website summarizes, “The story is that of Veronica: a young, motherless German girl living with her aristocratic grandmother and her religious aunt in the heart of the Eternal City. Veronica is poised between the pagan and Christian worlds, torn between zeal for life and the call of grace.” Setting the story in Rome is a stroke of genius from Le Fort, and she uses the universality and personality of the city to project the inner turmoil of her characters onto the world-historical stage. It seems to me that the salvation of the soul of Veronica is equally as important as any of the other historical events to occur in the great city.
Rome contains both the glories of the pagan age and the glories of the Church, revealing the two poles that tug at Veronica. As she navigates the city, she navigates the interior of her own heart. A stranger in a strange land, living with her grandmother above a converted cloister with a pagan temple out one window and a church out the other, she has intuitive knowledge and sees to the heart of things like a mirror, and so, for Veronica, everything has a veiled meaning. In the end, she discovers that natural beauty and divine beauty shine from the same source, and that the two worlds are not competing but rather overlapped, and that Rome herself is the world-monstrance for St. Peter’s.