Conversion as Process

Last night was the final session of the Novena of Grace I have been preaching at St. Thomas More Church in Minneapolis.  I chose for my focus the second Mass reading for this Fifth Sunday in Lent, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.

I had remarked in one of my earlier Novena reflections that St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier  understood that what God seeks is our transformation, a deep inner conversion. A transformation to the person God calls us to be.

St. Paul makes an important point with respect to this transformation: conversion is not a single moment; it is a continual process.

When we look at Paul’s great conversion moment on the road to Damascus, I think we forget that although that was an important moment of transformation, a foundational religious experience for Paul, it was really the beginning and not the end of his conversion. He tells us today

It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.

Paul says this despite (as he says in the opening lines of the reading) “the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus.” He came to know Jesus, he had a deep experience of Jesus, but still he knew he hadn’t attained “perfect maturity”, he hadn’t reached “the goal.”

This is such an important message for us. It reminds us that wherever we are on our spiritual journey at any given time, there is still need for growth, still need both for the deepening of our relationship with God and the strengthening of the fidelity with which we live out the consequences of that deepened relationship.

Among other things, understanding conversion as process helps us understand how important are each of the steps we take along the path of our spiritual 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.

Paul describes himself as “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead.” I think a more accurate phrasing than forgetting would be not beating myself up for what lies behind (the beating ourselves up is the influence of the enemy spirit, not of God), but rather, seeing what I can learn from the past, and seeing how the past might contribute to my discipleship today.

Our process of conversion is never over.  And so, as Paul did, as Ignatius did, as St. Francis Xavier did – let us (in Paul’s words) “continue our pursuit in hope that we may possess it, since we have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.” Let us “strain forward to what lies ahead, continue our pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Jesus Christ.”

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