At the 11:00 Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes this morning, we had the Rite of Acceptance of our RCIA candidates and catechumens. The Rite of Acceptance is the first of the “threshold rites” of the RICA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and the first public ritual. The Rite of Acceptance officially welcomes the candidates and catechumens as disciples and marks then with the sign of the cross as belonging to God through Christ.
I thought it was fitting that we celebrated this rite on the (optional) feast of the conversion of St. Paul. In our first reading at Mass, we heard the story so familiar to all Christians. 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.
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.
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.
Understanding conversion as process 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 remember it is a process. And perhaps spend some time reflecting on what have been some of your moments of conversion.
I do not remember a time when I was not interested in God and going His way. But when I was eleven years old, I knew one Sunday I had to decide for or against following Christ for the rest of my life. I made the commitment to accept Jesus as my personal Savior and was, as some people say “converted.” All of the succeeding years He has been “growing me up” as I believe Paul was talking about in Philippians 2:12-13: “So then, my dearest friends, as you have always followed my advice—and that not only when I was present to give it—so now that I am far away be keener than ever to work out the salvation that God has given you with a proper sense of awe and responsibility. For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose” (Phillips).
What a wonderful post to reflect upon this past week, especially when combined with the parable of the seed and sower. One can pray your RCIA candidate’s faith will be rooted in good soil and continue to bear ‘good fruit’ – while praying for those, born into the Catholic faith, who continue to leave.
“It is true that we all have some significant conversion event(s) 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.” Could it also be said that conversion is invitation to toil in His vineyard – a chronicle of the ‘missteps’ of spiritual journeys? And how refreshing and relieving to weigh ‘missteps’ instead of ‘unworthy, broken, rebellious, greedy, self-serving and the host of other descriptive words spoken from pulpit, media or written to instruct.
Three days before this past Christmas, my dearest cousin buried his wife who passed away unexpectedly the day after she buried her father. As family gathered (12 cousins raised Catholic all) with spouses, children and grandchildren to celebrate life, It was an blessing to be among those dear to me and especially their respectful, caring and gifted children and grandchildren – wonderful additions all to God’s family. . . And of 82, not one besides myself attends mass. . .
Most of them are no longer struggling with the perceived ‘arrogance’ of their faith – ‘Rationalizing there are numerous religions, all claiming that they alone have god’s words preserved in their holy book, that they alone understand god’s nature, that their god exists and that the gods of other religions do not. Some claim that god is masculine, some that she is feminine and others that it is neuter – satisfied that there is ample evidence to prove the existence of their god but they laugh in disbelief at the evidence other religions use to prove the existence of another god. It is not surprising that with so many different religions spending so many centuries trying to prove the existence of their gods)’ that religions appear to hold too tightly to almost mythical traditions. . .
‘Primitive man found himself in a dangerous and hostile world, the fear of wild animals, of not being able to find enough food, of injury or disease, and of natural phenomena like thunder, lightning and volcanoes was constantly with him. Finding no security, he created the idea of gods in order to give him comfort in good times, courage in times of danger and consolation when things went wrong. To this day, you will notice that people become more religious at times of crises, you will hear them say that the belief in a god or gods gives them the strength they need to deal with life. You will hear them explain that they believe in a particular god because they prayed in time of need and their prayer was answered. All this seems to support belief that the god-idea is a response to fear and frustration.’
Such contrast to Jesus’ messages of faith, hope and love. ‘Did not ‘the Buddha teach to try and understand one’s fears, to lessen one’s desires and to calmly and courageously accept the things one cannot change?’
How to respond to their questions that ‘belief in god is not necessary to have a happy, meaningful life? There are millions of atheists and free-thinkers, not to mention many Buddhists, who live useful, happy and meaningful lives without belief in a god. Some claim that belief in god’s power is necessary because humans, being weak, do not have the strength to help themselves. One often hears of people who have overcome great disabilities and handicaps, enormous odds and difficulties, through their own inner resources, through their own efforts and without belief in a god. Some claim that god is necessary in order to give man salvation’ – salvation, often a concern returning to many as life’s journey moves closer to completion.
Does Christianity, most notably Catholicism, focus unequally and place conditions upon Christ’s sacrifice and gifts offered through His death and resurrection? The promise through Him of overcoming death and new life, life everlasting, is a promise given. A place has been prepared for us, often with choices ours more determining than acknowledged. . .
The promise of sins forgiven is a gift not given, it is a gift ‘offered’ in love and mercy requiring acceptance with a contrite heart.
Only when love and mercy proclaimed and preached in word are replaced with love and mercy practiced and shared within an open heart, where God working within us is experienced and ‘affirmed’, will religion(s) remain a place of refuge, rest and comfort for the journeying spirit.
“Based on his own experience, the Buddha saw that each human being had the capacity to purify the mind, develop infinite love and compassion and perfect understanding. He shifted attention from the heavens to the heart and encouraged us to find solutions to our problems through self-understanding.” DP 188. Words of wisdom that when paired with Jesus’ unconditional love, promise and message are also worth reflection. . .
As St. Paul wrote, “For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose” –Judy. . . “his purpose” is contribution ours as He guides and leads – ours to acknowledge, affirm and encourage in another; not necessarily ours to overly critique and direct in another. . . All are ‘called, each in their own way. . .
“For me – someone 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.” Amen. . .