The Process of Conversion

Yesterday I gave the reflection at our Weekly Manna gathering at the Law School. I had been planning to talk on the subject of Prophets vs. Protesters and had spent some time the day before thinking about my remarks. However, on the way to the law school yesterday, I stopped for morning mass at my new parish, Christ the King. It happened that yesterday was the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul and the first Mass reading was Paul’s account in Acts of his conversion experience. After listening to the reading and to Fr. Dale’s sermon, I decided to change my topic and speak about conversion.

The story of Paul’s conversion in Acts is a great story, a dramatic story. It is the kind of redemption story we love to hear. (As I said to the students yesterday – who didn’t love the scene in Star Wars Episode Six when Darth Vadar sees the light and saves his son…who wasn’t smiling (or in tears) when we see his redeemed spirit with Obiwan and Yoda at the end of the film.)

The risk of such dramatic stories is that we see conversion as a single dramatic event. It is true that we all have some significant conversion events in our lives, moments we can look back at and say – something significant happened to me here, events after which nothing is really the same. (And I shared a couple of mine with the students.)

But looking back at those moments, and at what transpired between them, helps us to see that we are engaged in an ongoing process of conversion that continues and is not complete until we die.

One important implication of this, and this is one of the points Fr. Dale raised in his homily yesterday morning, is that our conversion doesn’t proceed in one direction. Conversion can be called a process of moving closer and closer to union with God, but the reality is that sometimes we do better than others. Sometimes we move closer…and sometimes we take a step or two back.

Understanding conversion as process also helps us understand how important are each of the steps we take along the path of our conversion journey. We have such a strong tendency to judge harshly what we in hindsight view as missteps along the way. It is so very easy for us to forget that everything we experience and learn from contributes to our growth process, is part of who we have become and how we relate to God and others, and is a potential source of grace. For me – some one who returned to Christianity after spending 20 years of her adult life as Buddhist, this meant coming to understand that my years as a Buddhist, far from being a misstep, were an integral part of my spiritual journey.

So, by all means, enjoy story like Paul’s conversion. But don’t be fooled into thinking conversion happens in a flash and is done.