20th January, 2012 was a very special night for me. It was St Agnes’ Eve.
And the night I decided to become Catholic.
St Agnes, funnily enough, is the patron saint of girls looking for husbands. Heavens knows why since she was brutally murdered for refusing to marry. Maybe the idea is add some perspective. Sure, your love life stinks but at least you haven’t been dragged into a brothel so you can be raped in order that the Prefect of Rome, whose son you refused to marry, can have you executed. That’s good news, right?
Girls used to perform special rituals and pray certain prayers on the eve of St Agnes, believing that if they did, she would grant them a vision of their future husband. That seems a mighty useful trick to me. (But no, I haven’t tried it. I’ve been too busy not walking under ladders and avoiding black cats.)
John Keats also spotted the dramatic potential there and wrote a lyric verse called The Eve of St Agnes.
In his poem, on the eve of St Agnes, the Lady Madeline performs these rituals, and longing for love, goes to sleep. However Prophyro, her family’s enemy, sneaks into the castle. He persuades her maid to let him sneak into Madeline’s bedchamber. Madeline, in a half-dream state gets a bit overcome by Pophyro’s classic good looks and whispered words of love… if you know what I mean. When she wakes up, she is devastated but Porphyro declares his love and they run away together. The End.
As you can see, it’s all very romantic.
Anyway, I want to talk about my last St Agnes’ Eve, which was a bit different. There were no visions of future husbands, no glimpses of handsome men, and definitely no man bribing my maidservant to trick me into to sleeping with him. (More’s the pity, really.)
But something special did happen last St Agnes’ Eve.
I decided to become Catholic.
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.
– John Keats, The Eve of St Agnes, 1820
It was late at night, probably at one or two in the morning. I had just finished reading Born Fundamentalist Born Again Catholic by David Currie. After months of thinking and agonising, and more late nights than I care to remember, I put down that book and realised I was done.
(And yes, the above painting is an accurate representation of me, in my pyjamas and stressing about over what to do.)
I had to do it. I’d spent the whole book pre-empting his arguments, agreeing with them and then adding some more salient points in their favour.
Somewhere along the way, though I didn’t know when, I’d stopped being the opposition. Somewhere, I’d started believing it was true. All of it. Mary, the Church, saints, the Eucharist, the papacy, purgatory, the whole lot. It was true. I suppose it was a bit like waking up from a dream. Not a bad dream and not a good dream, just a dream. I’d spent so long tossing up ideas, playing around with them, dreaming of what church is and what it should be like.
But you can only play with ideas so long your head. At some point, you have to get up and follow them. Or in my case, get down on your knees. I knelt on the floor and prayed, begging that God would lead me out of all this if it wasn’t His will. I asked Him to show me truth, to lead me, to keep me close to Him and give me the strength I needed.
And I told Him, if You’re still set on this by morning, Lord, it’s happening. I’m going home to one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
The Lover of my Soul didn’t change His mind, and on St Agnes’ Eve, I decided to come Home.
“Hark! ’tis an elfin-storm from faery land,
Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed:
Arise—arise! the morning is at hand;—
The bloated wassaillers will never heed:—
Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see,—
Drown’d all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be,
For o’er the southern moors I have a home for thee.”
– John Keats, The Eve of St Agnes, 1820