Deathbed and late-life conversions
Are they real? Are they fair? Do they count?
BY KAREN EDMISTEN
When a deathbed conversion is reported, a common reaction is, “That doesn’t sound real. Does it count? Is that even fair?”
Writer, playwright, and notorious hedonist Oscar Wilde said, “One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.” Wilde, who experienced immense suffering and soul-searching in his final years, was received into the Church on his deathbed, the culmination of a lifelong attraction. The complexity of Wilde’s spiritual life offers evidence that one’s true thoughts and motives are often cloaked, sometimes for decades. Visible or not, messy, real lives can, by the grace of God, lead to surprising but sincere conversions.
Holy Scripture affirms that sincere conversion, whenever it happens, is always real and fair, and it “counts.” St. Dismas, the penitent thief who hung on the cross next to Jesus, recognized his Savior moments before it was too late. He pleaded:
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” [Jesus] replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42–43)
In the Gospels we encounter parables that illustrate God’s immense grace. Consider the workers in the vineyard. Some jumped into work at sunrise, others came near dusk, but at the end of the day the landowner paid everyone the same wage. When the early birds grumbled, the landowner scolded: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15). In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32), the father joyfully welcomed his son home, but the elder son grew bitter. Pope Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth (Volume 1, Doubleday, 2007), points out that if we feel bitterness and envy regarding a late convert, perhaps some soul searching is due. Of the resentful older brother, he says:
He sees only injustice. And this betrays the fact that he too had secretly dreamed of a freedom without limits, that his obedience has made him inwardly bitter, and that he has no awareness of the grace of being a thome, of the true freedom that he enjoys as a son.
Do we see deathbed and late-life converts as enviable slackers who get to cut in line at the last minute? Or do we see who they truly are: remorseful penitents who finally recognize the tragedy of a squandered life that did not acknowledge or make room for the love of God?
Some conversions, while not literally on a deathbed, do occur dramatically late in life. One such story is that of Claude McKay, the writer and poet who converted to Catholicism four years before his death at age 58.
McKay was on the cusp of the sweeping, early 20th-century literary and cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Though regarded as one of the most influential of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay struggled his entire life to earn a living from his writing, and he wrestled with something else: his restless soul and a lifelong search for meaning.
On Sept. 15, 1889, in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, Festus Claudius McKay was born to Thomas and Hannah, farmers who possessed little but took great pride in their African heritage and their love of literature. By the age of 10, Claude was writing his own poetry and considered himself a free thinker. He was mentored through his teens by Walter Jekyll, a wealthy Englishman who had settled in Jamaica and encouraged Claude to cultivate his unique voice.
Doubting that he could support himself with poetry, McKay moved to Kingston and became a policeman, but he was so appalled by urban racism that he returned home. Jekyll prodded him to make publication a priority, and in 1912 McKay’s first two volumes of poetry were published. Songs of Jamaica was bucolic, reflecting on simple living and family ties. In sharp contrast, Constab Ballads laid bare the scars inflicted by racism and urban isolation. These two strikingly different volumes proved that McKay was a poet capable of great breadth and complexity.
McKay eventually moved to New York City, and in 1914 he invited an old sweetheart, Eulalie Lewars, to visit. Impulsively, they married, and just as impulsively, McKay invested a sizable chunk of his money in a restaurant. Within months, the restaurant was failing and so was the marriage. Eulalie hated New York and fled back to Jamaica, where she gave birth to their only child, Rhue Hope. In later years, Eulalie tried to reconcile with McKay, but he admitted that his marital failures were due to his ambivalent sexual orientation. Though he never wrote openly about bisexuality, it’s almost certain that he had affairs with both men and women.
His marriage had failed, but his career was showing signs of success. McKay met Frank Harris, a publisher who snatched up his work for the influential Pearson’s Magazine. McKay then met writer and editor Max Eastman, who helped publish McKay’s famous poem “If We Must Die,” a tribute to and rallying cry for the racially oppressed.
McKay’s literary stature grew, though he continued to take a variety of odd jobs to pay the bills. His most urgent project, however — his search for the meaning of life — seemed at a dead-end. Nothing satisfied his longing for the strong moral authority and guiding life principle he sought.
Over many years, McKay would explore a variety of social, racial, and political constructs, including communism. The reality, however, of the communist system disillusioned him; by his 40s, he had lost faith in it. He flirted briefly with religion in the form of Islam but abandoned it.
McKay wondered if any belief system was worth the investment of one’s entire life.
NO STRINGS ATTACHED
In 1940, at age 51, McKay became an American citizen and published his final work, a collection of essays titled Harlem: Negro Metropolis. It received mild praise but failed to live up to McKay’s previous critical and popular acclaim. Professionally, personally, and spiritually, he was floundering.
Out of work, depressed, and constantly ill, McKay reconnected with Ellen Tarry, a writer with whom he had worked in the past. Tarry was a Catholic. She took him to Friendship House, a lay apostolate that had been established in Harlem by Catherine Doherty (whose cause for canonization was begun in 2000 by St. John Paul II). At Friendship House, McKay received shelter, medical care, and three meals a day. He was astonished that there were no strings attached. He assumed that the people who cared for him would pitch Catholicism to him, like a product to be purchased. But they didn’t. They simply and lovingly served him.
As he befriended the workers, he also learned more about the Catholic Church. It dawned on him that Doherty’s belief — that no political system will save us because our problems are moral and spiritual — was his newfound belief, as well.
He then considered two possibilities: applying for work with the Church and converting. In a letter to a friend, he admitted that his reasons might have more to do with a social philosophy than with authentic faith, but he couldn’t shake the attraction.
In the spring of 1944, McKay took a job as an adviser on Russian and African-American affairs for Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Sheil in Chicago, and he began catechetical instruction with several priests. As he inched toward the fold, he often took two steps forward and one back. He wrote to his old friend, Max Eastman, explaining his hesitation. He wanted to act from intellectual honesty, not merely give in to his weary desire to find an earthly agent for social good. He believed the Church was capable of defeating communism, but he didn’t want to become a Catholic for political reasons. He was unsure of his next step.
Eastman was horrified. He saw the Catholic Church as a destructive, repressive force, much worse than communism. McKay conceded that the Church didn’t have every answer, but it was the closest thing on earth to a real human community. And it satisfied his mystical leanings. On Oct. 11, 1944, McKay was baptized — a Catholic at last.
McKay worked for the Church until his death. He taught in Chicago Catholic schools, helped with CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), and contributed poems to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker. He wrote sonnets and essays about his faith and his conversion process. By the spring of 1948, he was two years into a correspondence with his daughter, Hope, in eager anticipation of meeting her. Unfortunately, he became ill again, and they never met.
On May 22, 1948, Claude McKay died of congestive heart failure. The poet, the restless heart, and the seeker of truth was finally at rest in God.
McKay’s story movingly demonstrates that late conversions are not only real and fair, but they “count” in the only way that matters: because of the generosity and grace of God the Father, who joyfully welcomes us home, no matter how far we have strayed.