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Ever since St. Paul gave us an account of his conversion on the road to Damascus in the first-century Acts of the Apostles, and St. Augustine memorialized his own conversion to Christianity in 387 in his Confessions, spiritual autobiography has been an exceedingly rich genre of Christian literature. One thinks, for example, of the ''Life of St. Teresa of Avila,'' or ''The Story of a Soul of St. Therese of Lisieux.'' In English, of course, there is the classic spiritual memoir of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman entitled ''Apologia pro Vita Sua.'' Since I love history and biography, I must admit I'm a sucker for this type of literature.
Joseph Pearce, an English-born writer and since 2012 Writer-in-Residence and Visiting Professor of Humanities at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, has just published an impressive account of his spiritual journey from being a skinhead racist anti-Catholic in the 1970s, a person twice imprisoned for his vitriolic hate-filled publications, to becoming a convinced Catholic in 1989 and going on to write leading biographies of Catholic literary figures like G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Indeed, his 1999 work ''Literary Converts'' tells the conversion story of a number of writers who became Roman Catholics, including Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oscar Wilde, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and J. R. R. Tolkien.
There is a certain inevitability about this distinguished writer turning his considerable story-telling skills to his own life's story. His compelling personal narrative, entitled ''Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love'' (Charlotte, N.C.: Saint Benedict Press 2013), tells the story of a young man born in England in 1961, who by the time he is sixteen, establishes Bulldog, a newspaper of the National Front organization, a white nationalist party opposed to a tolerant, multi-racial society. He participated in street brawls and anti-Catholic demonstrations in northern Ireland, among other thuggish activities.
But he was a voracious reader, and when he was sentenced to solitary confinement in prison he used the time to read voluminously, and fell in love with the work of G. K. Chesterton, an English literary giant who had converted to Catholicism and, along with his fellow Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc, had espoused a political philosophy known as distributism, a way of living Catholic social teaching on the importance of the principle of subsidiarity and the value of local initiative and control.
Like C. S. Lewis, he was attracted to the radiantly joyful outlook of Chesterton, and when he discovered Lewis' instantaneous appreciation of Chesterton, Lewis' assessment resonated with his own experience: Lewis had written: "Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love...I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humour was of the kind which I like best...Moreover, strange as it may seem, I liked him for his goodness. I can attribute this taste to myself freely (even at that age) because it was a liking for goodness which had nothing to do with any attempt to be good myself... It was a matter of taste: I feel the 'charm' of goodness as a man feels the charm of a woman he has no intention of marrying....In reading Chesterton...I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading."
Comments Pearce on this passage from Lewis: "I had fallen in love with the wit and wisdom of Chesterton and had fallen under the charm of his humor and humility. Like Lewis, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young atheist cannot be too careful of his reading, nor can a young racist anti-Catholic. In reading Chesterton I was undermining my own most dearly held prejudices....I realize now what I had no way of realizing then, that it was the combination of Chesterton's eminently rational mind and his transparently virtuous heart that had captured and captivated me.... It was the presence of goodness, the light of sanctity shining forth in the darkness, the life of love that can kill all hatred."
It's an amazing conversion story, and one that must be read to be believed.
Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.