I felt a lump in my throat. I found myself telling him how much he had helped me the day he had taken me to lunch, and how good it had been to talk about my mother to someone who had known her.
I recalled how strange that luncheon visit had been. For the first time in many years and in a noisy restaurant in Manhattan someone had talked to me reverently about God. The people I had known in my adult life had sworn in the name of God or had repeated sophisticated jokes on religion, but none had talked of God as a living personal Reality.
He asked me if I wanted FBI protection, and I must have shivered noticeably. Though I was afraid, I was reluctant to live that kind of life. He did not press the issue. Instead, he said: “I know you are facing danger, but if you won’t have that protection, I can only pray for your safety.”
He looked at me for a moment as if he wanted to say something else. Then he asked: “Bella, would you like to see a priest?”
Startled by the question, I was amazed at the intensity with which I answered, “Yes, I would.”
“Perhaps we can reach Monsignor Sheen at Catholic University,” he said. Rose put in several calls and an appointment was made for me late that evening at the Monsignor’s home.
I was silent as we drove to Chevy Chase. All the canards against the Catholic Church which I had heard and tolerated, which even by my silence I had approved, were threatening the tiny flame of longing for faith within me. I thought of many things on that ride, of the word “fascist,” used over and over by the communist press in describing the role of the Church in the Spanish Civil War. I also thought of the word “Inquisition” so skillfully used on all occasions. Other terms came to me — reactionary, totalitarian, dogmatic, old-fashioned. For years they had been used to engender fear and hatred in people like me.
A thousand fears assailed me. Would he insist that I talk to the FBI? Would he insist that I testify? Would he make me write articles? Would he see me at all? And then before my mind’s eye flashed the cover of a communist pamphlet on which was a communist extending a hand to a Catholic worker. The pamphlet was a reprint of a speech by the French Communist leader Thorez and it flattered the workers by not attacking their religion. It skillfully undermined the hierarchy in the pattern of the usual communist attempt to drive a wedge between the Catholic and his priest.
By what right, I thought, was I seeking the help of someone I had helped revile, even if only by my silence? How dared I come to a representative of that hierarchy?
The screeching of the brakes brought me back to reality. We had arrived, and my friend was wishing me luck as I got out of the car. I rang the doorbell and was ushered into a small room. While I waited, the struggle within me began again. Had there been an easy exit I would have run out, but in the midst of my turmoil Monsignor Fulton Sheen walked into the room, his silver cross gleaming, a warm smile in his eyes.
He held out his hand as he crossed the room. “Doctor, I’m glad you’ve come,” he said. His voice and his eyes had a welcome which I had not expected, and it caught me unaware. I started to thank him for letting me come but I realized that the words which came did not make sense. I began to cry, and heard my own voice repeating over and over and with agony, “They say I am against the Negro.” That accusation in the Party resolution had made me suffer more than all the other vilification and I, who had for years been regarded as a hard Communist, wept as I felt the sting anew.
Monsignor Sheen put his hand on my shoulder to comfort me. “Don’t worry,” he said. “This thing will pass,” and he led me gently to a little chapel. We both knelt before a statue of Our Lady. I don’t remember praying, but I do remember that the battle within me ceased, my tears were dried, and I was conscious of stillness and peace.
When we left the chapel Monsignor Sheen gave me a rosary. “I will be going to New York next winter,” he said. “Come to me and I’ll give you instructions in the Faith.”
On my way to the airport I thought how much he understood. He knew that a nominal Christian with a memory of the Cross can easily be twisted to the purposes of evil by men who masquerade as saviors. I thought how communist leaders achieve their greatest strength and cleverest snare when they use the will to goodness of their members. They stir the emotions with phrases which are only a blurred picture of eternal truths.
In my rejection of the wisdom and truth which the Church has preserved, and which she has used to establish the harmony and order set forth by Christ, I had set myself adrift on an uncharted sea with no compass. I and others like me grasped with relief the fake certitude offered by the materialists and accepted this program which had been made even more attractive because they appealed for “sacrifice for our brothers.” Meaningless and empty I learned are such phrases as “the brotherhood of man” unless they have the solid foundation of belief in God’s Fatherhood.
When I left Monsignor Sheen I was filled with a sense of peace and also with an inner excitement which stayed with me for many days. I flew back to New York late that night, a beautiful, moonlight night. The plane flew above a blanket of clouds, and over me were the bright stars. I had my hand in the pocket of my blue wool coat and it was closed over a string of beads with a cross at the end. All the way to New York I held tightly to the rosary Monsignor Sheen had given me.
For the rest of that year I remained alone in New York, limited in my contacts to the few clients I served and the occasional friend who dropped in. Now and then I stepped into a church to sit there and rest, for only there was the churning inside of me eased for a while and only then fear left me.
Christmas, 1950, was approaching, an I again my loneliness was intensified. I was now living in a furnished room on Broadway at Seventy-fifth Street and still shuttling from my room to my office and back again every day and night.
On Christmas Eve, Clotilda and Jim McClure, who had lived at my house on Lexington Avenue and who had kept in touch with me and worried about me, called and urged me to spend the evening with them. After I sold my home they had had a miserable time finding accommodations. Harlem and its unspeakable housing situation was a cruel wilderness cheating the patient and undemanding. The McClures had moved to a one-room apartment on 118th Street where the rent of the decontrolled apartment was fantastic for what it offered. But Jim and Clo made no apologies for their home, for they knew how I grieved at their predicament.
It was cold when I arrived, but I forgot that in the warmth of their welcome. They rubbed my cold hands and put me in their one easy chair, and Clo served a simple supper. Jim said grace as he had always done at our house. We talked about Christmas, and as I listened to them I knew why bitterness had not twisted these two. They had made the best of what they had. They were gay and full of life, and above all they were touched with a deep spirituality which made their shabby room an island of harmony. There in a squalid building on an evil-looking street with its back areas cluttered with refuse and broken glass they had found spiritual comfort.
After we had eaten, Jim opened his well-worn Bible and read a few of the psalms and then Clo read several. As I listened to their warm, rich voices sounding the great phrases I saw that they were pouring their own present longings into these Songs of David, and I realized why the prayers of the Negro people are never saccharine or bitter. Jim handed me the book and said: “Here, woman, now you read us something.”
I leafed through the pages until I found the one I wanted. I began to read the wonderful phrases of the Eighth Psalm:
“For I will behold the heavens, the works of Thy fingers ... What is man that Thou art mindful of him? ... Thou hast made him a little less than the angels ... Thou hast subjected all things under his feet.... Lord, our Lord, how admirable is Thy name in all the earth.”
For a few moments after I had finished no one spoke. I handed the Bible back to Jim. Clo poured another cup of coffee for me. Then I said I was tired and ought to get home since it was almost eleven o’clock. I promised I would come again soon, and Jim walked with me to the Madison Avenue bus and wished me a “Merry Christmas.”
The bus was crowded with chattering and happy people. I sat alone in the midst of them, with my face against the window, watching the drab streets go by. On many of those corners I had campaigned. I had walked many of them in a succession of months of meaningless activity, a squandering of my creative years in sham battle. So many wasted years, I thought, drab as the streets!
So immersed was I in my thoughts that I forgot to get off the bus when it reached Seventy-second Street to transfer for the west side. I realized I had gone too far, but had no real desire to get off the bus at all, and I watched Madison Avenue turn from stores and flats into smart shops and hotels, and when we crossed Forty-second Street I still did not get off the bus.
I have no recollection of leaving the bus at Thirty-fourth Street or of walking along that street to the west side. My next recollection is of finding myself in a church. The church, I learned later, was St. Francis of Assisi.
It was crowded. Every seat was filled. There was hardly room to stand, for people packed the aisles. I found myself wedged in the crowd, halfway between the altar and the rear of the church.
Services had begun. From the choir came the hymns of Christmas. Three priests in white vestments took part in the ancient ritual. The bell rang three deep notes; the people were on their knees in adoration. I looked at the faces etched in the soft light, faces reverent and thankful.
It came to me as I stood there that here about me were the masses I had sought through the years, the people I loved and wanted to serve. Here was what I had sought so vainly in the Communist Party, the true brotherhood of all men. Here were men and women of all races and ages and social conditions cemented by their love for God. Here was a brotherhood of man with meaning.
Now I prayed. “God help me. God help me,” I repeated over and over.
That night, after Midnight Mass was over, I walked the streets for hours before I returned to my rooming house. I noted no one of those who passed me. I was alone as I had been for so long. But within me was a warm glow of hope. I knew that I was traveling closer and closer to home, guided by the Star.