The Conversions of Elizabeth Seton and the poet Denise Levertov - Seton Shrine
Seton&Culture - Denise Levertov

The Conversions of Elizabeth Seton and the poet Denise Levertov

Elizabeth Seton and Denise Levertov were strong women with strong wills who surrendered themselves body and soul to God.

What moves someone to convert from one religion to another? Or from agnosticism to religious faith? As an adult convert to Catholicism myself, I can attest that the process is a mystery: you feel God’s will pulling you in a particular direction… until you can’t resist.

For Elizabeth Ann Seton, conversion to the Catholic faith was a multi-year, many-staged process. Like her upper-class Manhattan family, Elizabeth began adulthood as a nominal Episcopalian. But Christianity seemed to her merely “ethical”; its God was distant, not intervening in human affairs. Then in 1798, reading the popular Anglican minister James Harvey, she began considering God’s love as the core of all life. An avid reader, she increasingly read the Bible and Christian sermons and, astonishingly enough, Rousseau. 

In Rousseau’s novel Emile, Elizabeth was excited by the character of a Catholic priest who is filled with a sense of God’s immanence. Then coincidentally–or providentially–, a new rector at Trinity Episcopal Church, J. H. Hobart, also preached on divine immanence. For the first time, Elizabeth felt that institutional religion could offer her the experience of God present in the world and not merely an intellectual and ethical assent to God’s existence. 

Interestingly, she didn’t question Hobart’s anti-Catholic teaching (common at the time) that the Episcopal Church was the true heir of Jesus’s apostles and that the Catholic belief in transubstantiation was “a barbarous superstition.” 

Meanwhile, Elizabeth increasingly longed for heaven, for escape from the world’s many trials and sorrows. In that era, suffering and death were everywhere: children died young, mothers died in childbirth, countless people, including her immediate family, were wracked by tuberculosis and cholera.

In 1803, Elizabeth and her husband, William, (who himself suffered from tuberculosis)and their oldest daughter sailed to Italy to stay with friends, the Filicchis, in the hopes that the Mediterranean climate would improve his health.

But on the voyage across the Atlantic, William became sicker and, on their arrival, William, Elizabeth and their daughter were quarantined in the Lazaretto for fear that William was contagious. During a hellish month, Elizabeth tended him while focusing on staying close to God through prayer. 

After William’s death shortly after the family had been released from the Lazaretto, the Filicchis took Elizabeth to see Italy’s sights in order to distract her from her terrible grief. 

It was in Florence’s ornate churches, so different from the starkness of Manhattan’s Protestant churches, that Elizabeth found comfort in the Virgin Mary. For the first time, making the Sign of the Cross felt meaningful, as did Catholic teaching that suffering could be offered to God. And at the consecration of the Host, she sensed that she’d witnessed a miracle. Still not sure if transubstantiation was true, she wondered if it was not more improbable than so much else of Christian teaching.

Back home, Elizabeth felt that she had become a Catholic believer. However  she wanted to be sure to choose the “true” faith. Months of anguished indecision followed. Finally, praying at a chapel in Trinity Church, she asked God to “show me the way you mean me to walk in.” Her prayer was answered, as her journal attests: 

“I will go peacefully and firmly to the Catholick [sic] Church.” 

Which she did, making her first Communion in November 1805. Her journey from believing in a distant God to receiving God’s very body into her own in the Eucharist had taken a full seven years.

Like Elizabeth, Denise Levertov moved through several stages and years on the way to Catholic faith. Her childhood home in England was religious (her father was a Hasidic Jew who converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest), but Denise dropped all religious practice in her early teens. Moving to the United States in 1947, she soon joined the activist movements against nuclear bomb tests and later against the Vietnam War. During this time her published poetry collections, which solidified her fame as a poet, often reflected her anguish at the world’s sufferings.

In this frame of mind, in October 1979 she began writing the long poem “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus”—the “Doubting Thomas” with whom Levertov felt such an affinity. She thought of it as “an agnostic Mass” based on the traditional Mass liturgy.

 Her “Kyrie” addresses the “deep unknown” and mourns the world’s “death” and “terror.” Her “Gloria” praises “wet snow,” “invisible sun”—and “god or the gods, the unknown.” Her “Credo” includes a slight but telling shift: again addressing “Thou / unknown I know,” the “Credo” ends with the prayer “Be, that I may believe. Amen.” Echoing Thomas’s words—“I believe, help thou my unbelief,”—Levertov is clearly stating her longing for faith and the paradox that expressing one’s doubt can itself be an act of faith.

The “Sanctus” finds holy “all that Imagination / has wrought.” The “Benedictus” first finds “the spirit” in nature; then asks, “But what of the deft infliction / upon the earth, upon the innocent, of hell by human hands?”; then ends, surprisingly: “The word / chose to become / flesh. In the blur of flesh / we bow, baffled.”

Levertov’s Mass so far has swung between unbelief and prayer for belief. 

In the “Agnus Dei” (written in 1981), something transformative happens. It comes directly out of her years of political engagement, of identifying with the world’s suffering and longing in order to help heal it. She tries in this movement of the poem to picture what this “Lamb” of God is:

Given that lambs
are infant sheep, that sheep
are afraid and foolish, and lack
the means of self-protection, having
neither rage nor claws,
venom nor cunning,
what then
is this ‘Lamb of God’?

Soon follows a desperate question: “What terror lies concealed / in strangest words, O lamb / of God that takes away / the Sins of the World…?”

God then,
encompassing all things, is
defenseless? Omnipotence
has been tossed away, reduced
to a wisp of damp wool?

With this startling image before her —an image she herself is startled by— she ponders what our human relation might be to this God as a willingly defenseless “wisp of damp wool”:

And we,
frightened, bored, wanting
only to sleep till catastrophe
has raged, clashed, seethed and gone by without us, …

is it implied that we
must protect this perversely weak
animal, whose muzzle’s nudgings
suppose there is milk to be found in us?
Must hold to our icy hearts
a shivering God?

So be it.

This is an amazing moment in the history of faith: through composing a poem, being true to the implications of her imagery, and reflecting out of her longtime conviction of our human responsibility to heal the world’s hurts, the poet is moved to accept responsibility to protect this tender, shivering Lamb of God. 

Reflecting on this moment later, Levertov said: “When I had arrived at the ‘Agnus Dei,’ I discovered myself to be in a different relationship to the material…from that in which I had begun. The experience of writing the poem—the long swim through waters of unknown depth—had been also a conversion process.”

This was to be just the start of Levertov’s conversion process. She kept exploring the possibility of Christian belief —through writing poems taking Julian of Norwich as her mentor, for instance. But uncertainty persisted: the 1989 poem “Flickering Mind” begins “Lord, not you, it is I who am absent.”

Still, she began attending various religious services—Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Catholic—in the Boston area where she lived. Her friend Judith Dunbar, writing in America magazine after Denise’s death, says that in the mid-1980s Denise “formed a strong connection to Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston, because of both its liturgy and its peace and justice work.”

Levertov’s first poetry collection containing explicitly religious poems was Oblique Prayers (1984), which includes the incarnational poem “This Day”: “God’s in the dust, / not sifted // out from confusion.” Still, her faith was developing. Four years after writing the “Mass,” she feels the desire not to love and protect “a shivering God” but (like Elizabeth Ann Seton) to experience God’s love. Thinking of herself as a Christian, but an “unorthodox” one, she’s still saying “my religious faith is at best fragile.”

And pressing theological questions dogged her, such as: why doesn’t God intervene in the world’s suffering? During this time of Covid and the extraordinary suffering of so many, we can surely empathize with the cry of Denise Levertov’s anguished heart.

But then, as she recalled later, she “began to see these stumbling blocks as absurd. Why, when the very fact of life itself, of the existence of anything at all, is so astounding why…should I withhold my belief in God or in the claims of Christianity until I am able to explain to myself the discrepancy between the suffering of the innocent…and the assertions that God is just and merciful?” 

This was a question that Elizabeth Seton had also asked herself.

When Denise Levertov moved to to Seattle, and lost her connection to Emmanuel Episcopal Church, her searching for God came to a climax. Having befriended Franciscan Father Murray Bodo, she asked his advice on her becoming a Catholic. What drew her to Catholicism, she said, were was  [stet, because 3 things drew her, as follows:]its sacramental center, its mystical tradition, and its commitment to peace and justice. But would she have to accept everything coming from the Vatican? she asked.  Fr. Bodo evidently gave her a green light, because she began her  instruction to be received into the Catholic Church at St. Edward’s Catholic Church and was received on November 18, 1990, at the age of sixty-seven. 

I’m intrigued by similarities between Elizabeth Seton’s and Denise Levertov’s conversions. Both were multi-year processes of agonized indecision. Also, in converting to Catholicism, both Seton and Levertov were defying the cultural norms of their era. 

In post-revolutionary New York, Protestantism (in its various forms) was the religion that nearly everyone practiced, with anti-Catholic sentiment pervasive. 

In Levertov’s time, secularism was the cultural norm. 

Both these extraordinary women possessed not only the intellect and courage to go against the grain, but also a kind of holy stubbornness. In the lives of both, we see strong women with strong wills surrendering themselves body and soul to God.

PEGGY ROSENTHAL has a PhD in English Literature and has published many books and articles on the intersection of poetry and spirituality.

Photo: Portrait Of Denise Levertov by Chris Felver / Getty Images