By DAVID A. KING, PH.D., Commentary | Published April 16, 2014
According to the Scripture translation you read, they were robbers or thieves, criminals or revolutionaries. They hung on crosses at Calvary, crucified like Jesus, on either side of Him. St. Luke’s Gospel, in particular, provides what is for me one of the most poignant and dramatic moments in the Passion:
“And one of those robbers who were hanged, blasphemed him, saying: If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering, rebuked him, saying: Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art condemned under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the reward of our deeds; but this man hath done no evil. And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom. And Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.”
It is a moment of profound mercy, one that we have come to refer to as a “deathbed conversion,” the moment when a person recognizes sins, pleads forgiveness, and is received by Christ with the same mystery of grace extended to the thief at Golgotha.
It is a moment that causes puzzlement for many believers. How is that we, having lived good lives, are deemed no greater than the person who is given the same salvation after a wicked life?
I remember hearing the story as a child and thinking, as I am sure children still think today, that I would just lead a happily hedonistic life and then near the moment of death, renounce my sinful ways and be safely bound for Heaven!
Of course, as we all now know, it’s not that simple.
This Holy Week, as my RCIA elect prepare to enter the Church at the Easter Vigil, I have been thinking about that repentant thief on the cross, and conversion, and the fact that no matter when one decides to embrace Christ and his Church, grace will be extended in full.
Because I write about Catholic artists and other modern cultural figures who are Catholic, I thought of four very different people who entered the Church either late in life or, literally, on their deathbeds. They come from a variety of backgrounds, and they worked in different art forms, but all of them made a sincere conversion to Catholicism and all of them died in communion with the Church.
I’ll begin with a local example, a man whose legacy is finally being fully understood and whose reputation is once again being nurtured as it should be. Joel Chandler Harris, the folklorist and progressive apologist for what Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady termed the New South, is most famous for his transcriptions and adaptations of African-American folk tales that became known as the Uncle Remus stories.
Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia, and spent most of his life in Atlanta. You can still visit his home, the Wren’s Nest, in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood. The house and its programming have been revitalized lately, and there is a renewed sense of pride about the example not only of Harris’ work, but of his life.
In many ways, Harris was Catholic in spirit long before he converted. His attitudes about social justice and his insistence upon the necessity of human kindness reflect his reading in Catholic authors such as Newman and Thomas à Kempis, and he was in fact married to a Catholic and admired her discipline and devotion to the faith.
Harris received instruction in the faith and was baptized on June 20, 1908; he died almost two weeks later, on the 3rd of July.
The Irish writer Oscar Wilde, a contemporary of Harris, likewise had a deathbed conversion, though its roots are more difficult to detect in a life that remains one of the most rakish and flamboyant in literature. The exploits and controversies that surround Wilde’s career are far too numerous to address here; suffice it to say that the author of such masterpieces as “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” was not one we would associate with a pious convert. But then neither was the early life of St. Augustine, or the youth of Thomas Merton, or the life of the thief on the cross.
Like them, when Wilde was ready, God was ready.
In fact, Wilde might have always been ready. Indeed, Wilde claimed to remember that he was baptized as a Catholic when he was a child, and three years before his death he had attempted to make a retreat at a Jesuit center. Despite being denied, he still claimed an intention to be received into the Catholic Church. On the 29th of November 1900, Wilde lay on his deathbed and agreed to be seen by a priest. Respecting Wilde’s childhood memory, the priest administered a conditional baptism. Father Cuthbert Dunne recounted the moment: “I administered conditional baptism, and (Robert Ross) afterwards answered the responses while I gave Extreme Unction to the prostate (Wilde) and recited the prayers for the dying. … I was fully satisfied that he understood me when told that I was about to receive him into the Catholic Church and gave him the Last Sacraments . … And when I repeated close to his ear the Holy Names, the Acts of Contrition, Faith, Hope and Charity, with acts of humble resignation to the Will of God, he tried all through to say the words after me.”
Wilde died the next day, the 30th of November; the epitaph on his tomb, taken from his own poetry, offers an ironic allusion to the conversion at Calvary, “For his mourners will be outcast men, and outcasts always mourn.”
Like Wilde, Alice B. Toklas might also have been meant to become a Catholic. A non-observant Jew, Toklas frequently told the story of having been “baptized” when a well-meaning Catholic family friend sprinkled her with holy water when she was a baby. Eighty years later, the sprinkling incident came full circle.
Toklas was a literary maven and writer associated with a rebellious and influential movement in art and literature centered on Paris’ Left Bank in the 1920s. In Paris, as Gertrude Stein’s close friend and most ardent admirer, Toklas was associated with some of the most important artists and writers of 20th-century High Modernism.
When Stein died in 1946, Toklas focused most of her energies on preserving Stein’s legacy. She remained as well an important historical link to those remarkable days of American expatriates and other international artists who made the Paris of the 1920s one of the most important centers of art and culture in modern times.
Toklas was haunted by the loss of her friend; for 10 years she endured a spiritual struggle that finally culminated in her conversion to Catholicism in 1957. She described her reception into the Church as assurance that she and Stein would one day meet again in Heaven. Toklas died in Paris 10 years later and following a funeral Mass was interred in the grave next to Stein’s.
Few film actors share as close an association between their actual lives and their onscreen performances as Gary Cooper. Though he was as reckless in love as Wilde and Toklas—he was a notorious philanderer—Cooper was also a decent, kind and humble man, much like some of his greatest characters. Longfellow Deeds of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” Lou Gehrig of “Pride of the Yankees,” and Marshal Will Kane of “High Noon” are just a few of the iconic performances Cooper created.
Cooper was one of the greatest actors of Hollywood’s golden age, or indeed of any cinematic era, and his thoughtful and empathetic nature is embodied in his performances.
Cooper had thought for some time about becoming a Catholic; troubled by his extramarital affairs, he sought help through religion and was greatly inspired by the sermons of Father Harold Ford, the priest at his Catholic wife’s parish. An audience with Pope Pius XII provided further influence. Gradually, as Cooper explained, he came to the awareness that “I’d spent all my waking hours, year after year, doing almost exactly what I, personally, wanted to do; and what I wanted to do wasn’t always the most polite thing either. … I’ll never be anything like a saint; the only thing I can say for me is that I’m trying to be a little better.”
Cooper was received into the Church in April of 1959. Two years later, he was dead of cancer. A week before his death, he stated publicly, “I know that what is happening is God’s will. I am not afraid of the future.”
Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit said of the Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” that “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Facing death prompts serious decisions, decisions that some of us tragically postpone. Yet a confrontation with the end of life also opens the way for profound grace, whether for a repentant thief on a cross, four artists or ourselves.
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta. He is also the director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.