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.”


What Hauls People Aboard

One of the books I am reading is Journeys Home 2: The Journeys of Men and Women to the Catholic Church, edited by Marcus Grodi. As its name suggests it is a collection of conversion stories of a number of men and women who have found their way to (or back to) the Catholic Church.

I want to share a small excerpt written by someone who was formerly a Dutch Reformed Calvinist. He writes

Like all converts I ever have heard of, I was hauled aboard not by those Catholic who try to “sell” the Church by conforming it to the spirit of the times by saying Catholics are just like everyone else, but by those who joyfully held out the ancient and orthodox faith in all its fullness and prophetic challenge to the world. The minimalists, who reduce miracles to myths, dogmas to opinions, laws to values, and the Body of Christ to a psycho-social club, have always elicited wrath, pity of boredom from me.

St. Paul’s Conversion

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.

God Keeps Working on Us

Not infrequently parents whose children are in their late teens or early twenties come to me concerned about the fact that their children are not actively practicing their faith. Some have stopped going to Mass or other worship services, others have toyed with atheism or at least expressed serious reservations about the faith in which they were raised.

Usually my counsel to parents in that situation is patience. If nothing else, the twists and turns of my own faith journey have convinced me that God has got it covered, that God is with each of those young people every step of the way and will help them find their way.

A book I’ve been reading shared two quotes, one by C.S. Lewis and the other by Karl Marx. One of the quotes, which could have been written by one of the young people whose parents have expressed concern to me, read like this:

You know, I think that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention – Christ as much as Loki. Primitive man found himself surrounded by all sorts of terrible things he didn’t understand….Thus religions, that is to say mythology, grew up. Often, too, great men were regarded as Gods after their death – such as Heracles or Odin: thus after the death of a Hebrew philosopher Yeshua (whose name we have corrupted into Jesus) he became regarded as a God, a cult sprang up, which was afterwards connected with the ancient Hebrew Yahweh-worship, and so Christianity came into being – one mythology among many.

Although many might guess that was the quote written by Karl Marx, in reality it was written by a young C.S. Lewis, in a letter he wrote when he was eighteen.

Clearly something happened that radically changed Lewis’ worldview. The truth is that God never stops trying and God will use all means at God’s disposal to help change our hearts.

What Does the Lord Ask of You?

As I mentioned earlier this week, this is our week of Orientation for the incoming first year law students. One of the things we do during Orientation is give the students a sampling of some of the spiritual growth and worship opportunities that are available during the school year. Monday the St. Thomas More Society led a Lectio divina, Tuesday we had a Bible study session, Wednesday, Weekly Manna, and today I gave a Mid-Day Reflection.

I picked Micah 6:8 as the basis for today’s gathering: “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

It seemed to me a perfect passage with which to begin the year. In the context of this new environment, I thought it would be worthwhile to encourage the students to spend some time reflecting on how they will actualize what God asks of them; to think about what it means for them as law students (and future lawyers) to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly.

I began my reflection with a little background to the passage, and then spoke a little about each element of “what the Lord requires.” We then took time for some individual silent reflection, and ended with some sharing by the participants.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 20:53. You can find the handout I distributed for individual reflection here.

To Live Wholeheartedly for Jesus Christ

Today is Independence Day in the United States, a day on which many of us will gather with friends or family for a meal and watching fireworks.

I read a reflection by Archbishop Chaput about the celebration of this day that makes an important point. Talking about the blessings God has bestowed on this country he said

We have so much to be grateful for. But these are gifts. They can be misused. They can be lost. In coming years, we’ll face more and more serious challenges to religious liberty in our country…

And yet, the political and legal effort to defend religious liberty – as vital as it is – belongs to a much greater struggle to master and convert our own hearts, and to live for God completely, without alibis or self-delusion. The only question that finally matters is this one: Will we live wholeheartedly for Jesus Christ? If so, then we can be a source of freedom for the world. If not, nothing else will do.

We don’t seek religious liberty for its own sake. We seek freedom to practice our faith, to grow in our faith for a purpose: So that we can live for God completely. So that (speaking in Christian terms) we can be Christ to others. Our freedom enables our own conversion, which then allows us to aid others in theirs.

The need to live wholeheartedly for God is also why religious freedom means more than the freedom to safely sit in our places of worship and pray together. It is a freedom to live our lives in all respects consistently with the Gospel. That is both a freedom, and a responsibility. And it is not a small responsibility.

Conversion is Always Possible – For Everyone

Today’s first Mass reading is one of the two accounts of the conversion of St. Paul. And it is a story I never tired of hearing.

Saul is a pretty bad guy. Forget the “pretty” – a really bad buy. He is not harmlessly misguided, not just a slackard with no appetite for serious prayer and deepening his life with God, not just a bumbler who doesn’t have a clear sense of the road forward.

Saul is a murderous persecutor of Christians. He stands by watching Stephen stoned to death because of Stephen’s proclamation of his faith in Christ. At the beginning of today’s first Mass reading from Acts, Saul, “still breathing murderous threats” against Jesus’ disciples, “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might arrest them.

But God doesn’t discard him. Instead, he has great plans for Saul.

And when Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, he is irrevocably changed. Jesus appears to him, speaks to him, invites him and he becomes a different man. No longer Saul, he is now Paul, “a chosen instrument of [Jesus] to carry [Jesus’] name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel.”

If even someone as seemingly beyond redemption as Saul, can be turned from darkness toward the light, how can we doubt the healing power of Jesus? There are some people who have a tendency to think, “It’s too late for me” or “After what I’ve done, God can’t possibly have any use for me.” The story of the conversion of St. Paul is a vivid demonstration of the fallacy of such thoughts. It is never too late for any of us.

Conversion is always possible – for everyone.

It Is Impossible For Us Not to Speak

The Lineamenta for last year’s Synod of Bishops (for those who may be unfamiliar with that term, a limeamenta is a text written in preparation for a General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops) reminds us that we can transmit the Gospel to others only on the basis of our own personal encounter with Christ. In simple terms, we can’t share what we don’t have. We can’t effectively evangelize others unless we ourselves have been touched by Christ.

And if we have been touched by Christ, we can’t help but share it. That truth is illustrated in today’s first Mass reading, which is taken from the early part of The Acts of the Apostles, a book from which we hear each year in the Easter season. In today’s reading, the leaders, elders and scribes are upset at the boldness of Peter and John in proclaiming the Gospel and they want to put an end to the spread of the message of Christ. So they bring Peter and John before the Sanhedrin and order them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. However, Peter and John, in no uncertain terms, proclaim: “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”

It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.

When I read those lines, I think of the feeling I have at the end of a retreat (and that I hope the women here with me this weekend feel by the end of our time together tomorrow). I come to the end of a retreat, filled with all of the blessings of the experience, overflowing with joy, and marveling about how great God has been to me. And I have the burning desire to climb to the highest mountain and yell out to all the world, Hey, don’t you know what is going on here? Can’t you see that (in the words of the Hopkins poem) all the world is charged with the grandeur of God?

That is the urge that I think Peter and John are expressing. Once we’ve experienced God, we can’t not share what we have seen and heard. For me, that urge prompted me to become a spiritual director and retreat leader. For others, it plays out in a different way. But however it plays out, it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard. When we experience God, we are changed and I think it is impossible for us to sound any way other than passionate about a deep experience of God.

Bernard of Clairvaux and Conversion

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Bernard, a Cistercian monk and a Doctor of the Church. Although not actually the founder of the Cistercian order, he is honored as such because of his work in strengthening the order and its works.

Despite being quite active in the affairs of the church in his time, Bernard authored a number of works in addition to the many sermons he delivered.

On the question os what is necessary for a true conversion of the soul, Bernard wrote:

Neither fear nor self-interest can convert the soul. They may change the appearance, perhaps even the conduct, but never the object of supreme desire… Fear is the motive which constrains the slave; greed binds the selfish man, by which he is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed (James 1:14). But neither fear nor self-interest is undefiled, nor can they convert the soul. Only charity can convert the soul, freeing it from unworthy motives.

As we pray in the Collect for today’s Mass, let us pray that we may be “on fire with the same spirit” that animated St. Bernard, “a man consumed with zeal” that we may “walk always as children of light.”

Original Goodness

I’ve made the point a number of times in talks I’ve given that it makes an enormous difference whether we view our starting point as sin or grace. A column in the current issue of Shambhala Sun (which contains my review of Brad Warner’s There is No God and He is Always With You) expounds nicely on that same theme.

We are a mixture of wisdom and neurosis. Everything we think, feel, perceive, say, and do has both an awakened and a confused aspect.

So, we are a mix of good and bad. This we all know. The important question is which we really are, which is the deeper reality of human nature. Which is more original, as it were, the sin or the goodness?

How we answer that question will define our path to becoming better people – whether we are struggling against our basic nature or trying to realize it.

What the author of the column describes as the Buddhist path to becoming a better person proceeds from the notion that it is the goodness that is more original. “The Buddhist path to becoming a better person is about being who we really are.”

Although not a Buddhist, I proceed from the same premise. If I take seriously the idea of being created in the image and likeness of God, and believe that God looked on his creation and judged it “very good,” than it is the goodness that is more original.

That means that our task is not struggling against our basic nature, but uncovering what Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and others term our “true self.” Our task is to peel away the false layers of ourselves so that we can be who we really are.