It is a rare event when the secular press carries a Christian conversion story. Such an event, therefore, should be given additional attention.
On Jan. 27, Canada’s National Post carried Dawn Eden’s conversion story under the slightly indelicate title, “Between my sheets, a lonely world.” It is both heartwarming and heartrending. Coming home, at long last, to the Catholic church is always a heartwarming story, but oftentimes, learning about the bumps along the way tears at the heart.
Eden tells us she was born in 1968, “the year of The Beatles and Humanae Vitae.” What “fearful symmetry!” William Blake would say. She came into the world amidst a centrifugal force toward God and a centripetal force toward the self. The encyclical, however, that championed the former, she writes, “remained virtually untouched by the masses – like a still-sealed vinyl record.”
A mantra of the Sixties generation was that everything should be free. So why did the hippies who proclaimed this view at Woodstock return several years later at its revivals and sell water for $5 a bottle? Setting the charge of hypocrisy aside, Eden came to realize through painful personal experience, the cost of casual sex, like the water, came at a very high price, indeed.
She confesses how she spent her 20s and early 30s involved in, well, to put the matter delicately, sexual “shenanigans”: “I sacrificed what should have been the best years of my life for a black lie.” Her royalties from the sexual revolution were loneliness, self-recrimination and a terror of intimacy. Whatever degree of intimacy she might derive from a sexual dalliance would be merely a prelude to another rejection. Superficiality was mandatory. Depth of relationship was not an option.
And then, one day in December 1995, an unexpected window opened to her. In an interview with the leader of a rock band called The Sugar Plastic, she asked him what he happened to be reading. His answer was G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. She picked up this book out of curiosity and was fascinated. Soon, she was picking up everything by Chesterton that she could get her hands on, including his Orthodoxy. She was struck for the first time in her life by the thought that Christianity could be exciting and that the true rebels were not those who meekly conformed to the Zeitgeist, but Christians.
She does not tell us what passages in Orthodoxy stirred her soul, but I would like to think that Chesterton’s chapter on “The Paradoxes of Christianity” must have had a considerable impact. Here, Chesterton tells us how easy it is to fall captive to any passing fad and how simple it is to be victimized by a simple-minded philosophy. It would be “obvious and tame” to attach oneself to the dominant impulse of the time. But to have kept one’s head, as the church has throughout history, “has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision, the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling, but erect.”
Chesterton had a great influence in drawing C. S. Lewis to Christianity. Lewis informs us inSurprised by Joy about how he reacted when he first read Chesterton: “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”
For the redoubtable author of the G. K. Weekly, the whole of Catholic theology can be justified if you are allowed to start with two ideas that the church is presumed to oppose: reason and liberty. “To become a Catholic,” Chesterton wrote, “is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think.” As for liberty, “The convert has learnt long before his conversion that the church will not force him to abandon his will.”
The hippies of the sexual revolution were neither reasonable nor free. Their sexual misconduct came at an unreasonably high price; their freedom was more like enslavement to an impulse. As far as they were concerned, reason and liberty were fierce enemies: Reason crippled liberty, while liberty laughed at reason. But Chesterton showed, with style and humour, how they embrace each other to produce joy. And, “Man is more himself,” Chesterton averred, “when joy is the fundamental thing in him.”
Dawn Eden does not specify any particular lines from the copious works of Chesterton that impressed her more than others. There is one passage, however, she may not have found, appearing in the Sept. 27, 1919 issue of the Illustrated London News, that could have had a decisive impact on her, for it says more about the truth of human sexuality that most tomes on the topic do: “Mankind declares with one deafening voice: that sex may be ecstatic so long as it is also restricted. That is the beginning of all purity; and purity is the beginning of all passion.”
Eden continued to devour her newly discovered literary hero and then, one night in October 1999, she heard a woman’s voice saying: “Some things are not meant to be known. Some things are meant to be understood.” It was an overwhelming experience for her: “I got on my knees and prayed – and eventually entered the Catholic church.”
Her first book is now on the market: The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On. Chastity, as Aquinas and other great thinkers have told us, is the reasonable expression of sex. Or, to put it a different way, the humanization of sex. After all, the sex that human beings engage in should be human. Pleasure alone is not quite human. Rabbits experience pleasure. Hugh Hefner may want his legion of followers to behave like rabbits, but he is not inviting them to be human or to experience joy.
Eden has re-learned, through her own “whirling adventure,” that she is a synthesis. Pleasure alone is too fragile to carry the weight of joy. Human qualities are not to be isolated, but consolidated. “It’s only now that I’m truly ready for marriage and have a clear vision of the kind of man I want for my husband,” she writes. When sex is severed from love, marriage, and life, it is attenuated and becomes a source of grave discontent. Her decline, she now recognizes with uncommon perception, “had begun when I first sought pleasure for its own sake.” This recognition is yet another personal ratification of what Pope Paul VI stated in Humane Vitae.
Dawn Eden, whose very name suggests a new day in paradise, came into the world when a papal encyclical that promoted joy was being overshadowed by the lads from Liverpool who were promoting pleasure. It was a time when the new paganism was boasting a richer way of life than what Christianity had to offer. John Lennon claimed to be more famous than Jesus. No doubt, Eden would have read the following passage from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy that, in one clear snapshot, puts the drama of her whole life into sharp perspective: “It is said that paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that paganism is a pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy… . To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on … Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this: that by its creed, joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small.”
Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.