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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3 thoughts on “Conversion as Process

  1. Thank you Susan. So beautifully expressed. . .

    “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.”

    I often also share why “judge (yourself) harshly?” Jesus through infinite patience and Mercy seldom does, continually inviting each of us upon the dawn of each new morning, ‘Wake up you sleepy head. Come! There is work to be done. Come walk with Me.’

    If given the opportunity I would love to ask of Paul, “Why (pursue) seek to ‘attain (personal) perfect maturity’ if our goal is to ultimately ‘surrender’ our self to The Lord?”

    Such a contradiction, a contradiction the Church often appears to embrace – continually reminding each of her followers of their weakness, brokenness, imperfection, and . . . of their next pre-ordained transgression.

    Holy Mother Church has become more and more focused on the salvation of the individual soul, less upon God’s Kingdom Come. Often If left to the Church and our own devices, we cling too tightly to self . . .

    As Father Antoniy’s Russian Orthodox priest from Moscow recently expressed, ‘If you truly walk with the Lord, prayer is not required.’ What is more Blessed than to be in Christ’s presence? What more is there to seek?

    “Perfect maturity” is unattainable no matter how herculean our intention, desire and effort.

    Surrender of self is an invitation offered with each beat of our heart – and it is a precious invitation and gift that we do not have to earn or save for, a gift that we do not have to study and pass a test to receive, a gift that is not a prize we must win, a gift that does not come as a reward for emeritus service or performance.

    Our precious gift of life is a gift that is given freely and with one request. A request that we surrender our self to God and reverence, nurture and share our God Given Gifts with everyone we encounter, share our gift(s) with all of creation. It is a simple request that we often have difficulty sharing easily and openly. . .

    “It reminds us that wherever we are on our spiritual journey,” accepting Jesus’ invitation, “Come!” – today, instead of hopefully joining Him upon ‘end of days,’ offers the best possible of journey’s companions. . .

    When we walk with Jesus, we are comforted by, ‘Be assured, out of My Love for you, you will never disappoint Me.’

  2. Could complete surrender not be described as perfect maturity in God – so that God, through each of us, gets to dream the dream he has for the world in all that we say and do and are to and for each other.

  3. “… in the spiritual life, not to advance is to go back.” — Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, Second Letter.

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