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.”


The Will of The One Who Sent Me

Today’s Gospel from John ends with Jesus telling his listeners,“I cannot do anything on my own; I judge as I hear, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.”

I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.

What a counter-cultural statement in a society that celebrates the rights of individuals to make whatever choices bring them pleasure, that treats all visions of the good as equally valid, that acts as though it is we who assign the purpose of our lives.

Jesus models a different way of being, one that says my life and my purpose come from God.  One that acknowledges that we live in a world that is not ours to do with as we choose…a universe not designed by us for own goals and purposes. Johannes Baptiste Metz says that in poverty of spirit “we learn to accept ourselves as beings who do not belong to ourselves.”

I’ll be speaking more extensively about this statement of Jesus’ at tonight’s Novena of Grace at St. Thomas More in St. Paul.  If you are in the area, join us for the Novena Mass at 7:00p.m.

Take Up Your Cross

In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and be rejected. That in itself would have been unhappy news to his friends.  But then he adds the kicker: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his live will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes these words talking about Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and rejection:

Jesus Christ must suffer and be rejected. It is the “must” of God’s own promise, so that scripture might be fulfilled. Suffering and rejection are not the same thing. Jesus could, after all, yet be the celebrated Christ in suffering. The entire sympathy and admiration of the world could, after all, yet be directed toward that suffering. Suffering, as tragic suffering, could yet bear within itself its own value, its own honor, its own dignity. Jesus, however is the Christ who is rejected in suffering. Rejection robs suffering of any dignity or honor. It is to be a suffering devoid of honor. … Death on the cross means to suffer and to die as someone rejected and expelled.

Suffering and rejection. This is what Christ must experience – a suffering devoid of honor.  It is not surprising this is a difficult pill for the disciples to swallow.

Bonhoeffer also speaks of the final portion of the passage, reminding us that “[j]ust as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross.”

So we can enjoy being with Jesus at wedding feasts and dinners at the home of friends. We can share his joy in healing and in feeding those without food. We can wander merrily through grain fields, and take boat rides with Jesus. (And I have no doubt Jesus enjoyed time with his friends – and that they had times when they joked and laughed and maybe even had a little too much wine.) BUT if we would call ourselves disciples, we must also stay wedded to him in Jesus’ suffering and rejection, that is, be “disciples under the cross.”

What Has This to Do With Me?

I’ve prayed with today’s Gospel reading  – St. John’s account of the Wedding Feast at Cana – any number of times.  What struck me in my prayer this morning, however, was not the miracle.  Rather, it was Jesus’ response to his mother when she tells him their hosts had run out of wine.  “What has this to do with me?”

What immediately came to my mind was Scrooge in the Christmas Carol when solicitors come seeking a contribution for the poor.  “It’s not my business.  It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”

And that, too often, is the response – consciously or unconsciously – to the pains and suffering of others.  The fact that some lack adequate housing, food or medical care.  The reality that many in other nations lack access to clean drinking water.  The plight of refugees.  What has this to do with me?

Mary’s response to Jesus, effectively, is: You’re here and you can do something about it, so do it.  That’s the response to Scrooge and that is the response to us.

As I sat with that thought, I heard John Donne’s lines: “Every man is a piece of the continent…Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind.”

What Elizabeth Recognized

Today’s Gospel is Luke’s account of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth after learning that she (Mary) will bear a son. It is a story we all remember well.

When the angel appears to Mary, one of the things the angel tells her is that her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought to be barren, has conceived a child – the child who we know will be John the Baptist. And so Mary goes off to visit Elizabeth. When Mary enters the house and is greeted by Elizabeth, the baby inside Elizabeth leaps in her womb with joy. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in a loud voice, “Blessed are you, Mary, among all women, and blest is the fruit of your womb.”

And then Elizabeth says adds: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me.” The title reminds us that the incarnation is not simply God taking on human form or a human becoming God. Instead, in this act of the incarnation, God was conceived and birthed in Mary’s womb, thus becoming simultaneously fully human and fully divine.

The Mother of the Lord. Psychologist writer Sydney Callahan writes,

The truth revealed in this Marian title astounds me. A woman bears God within her womb. God unites the Divine Word with human flesh. When we think of God as Mary’s newborn infant, we see the Lord of all creation in need of human love. Jesus is totally dependent upon his mother’s care. What risks God takes in loving us! And how much God expects of human kind in bringing the new creation to birth! Mary is the first to know the humility of God.

Callahan’s words are good ones to take to prayer as we celebrate these final days of Advent.

Where Would You Cut and Paste

My friend Bill Nolan, Pastoral Associate at St. Thomas Apostle Church, writes a weekly column for his parish. I receive it by e-mail each week.

This week, Bill wrote about what is known colloquially as “The Jefferson Bible.” This is the version of the Bible created by Thomas Jefferson with the aim of creating a condensed compilation of “the doctrines of Jesus, what he believed to be the essential elements of a Christian life.” Bill describes the work as “essentially a biographical chronology and collection of Jesus’ more famous speeches and parables.

What most interests Bill is what Jefferson cut from the original Gospels, both in and of itself and in comparison with what many people would be most likely to cut today. He writes

[I]t is the “cutting” from the original that makes the Jefferson Bible so intriguing. For what Jefferson also sought to do was eliminate from the story that which made him uncomfortable. And what made him most uncomfortable were the stories of the supernatural, the miracle stories, the divinity references, and the Resurrection. In summary, what makes Jesus who he is, at least in the eyes of mainstream Christian tradition.

What I find most interesting in the composition of the Jefferson Bible is that it eliminates – and retains – exactly the opposite of what I find most Catholics would eliminate and retain when it comes to the story of Jesus. It is not the divinity of Christ that we tend to have the most trouble with, it is the humanity of Jesus, the real person, the flesh and blood. It is not the supernatural, but the natural; not the miraculous, but the everyday; not the Resurrection, but the suffering and death.

Bill ends his column with a great thought exercises: If you could cut and paste the Gospels to your liking, what would you keep and what would you cut? I suspect Bill is correct that “your answers might reveal much about the Jesus – and the Christ – you need to know.

Thanks to Bill for allowing me to share his thoughts.

One Body, Many Parts

Today’s first Mass reading from Romans is one of those I think we could all benefit from taking to heart. Paul reminds us that

We, though many, are one Body in Christ
and individually parts of one another.
Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,
let us exercise them:
if prophecy, in proportion to the faith;
if ministry, in ministering;
if one is a teacher, in teaching;
if one exhorts, in exhortation;
if one contributes, in generosity;
if one is over others, with diligence;
if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Many parts, one body: with each part given different gifts. If I can remember that then

– I can rejoice in the contributions and successes of others without jealousy because they are doing their part to further God’s plan.

– I can do my part without comparing myself to others, knowing that my task is simply to do the best I can with the gifts I have been given, and it is no matter whether my part is smaller or bigger than the part of others.

– I can avoid pride and embrace the humility of knowing that my gifts are not my own, but gifts from God.

– I can remember that it is God’s plan I am about, not my own.

It is a simple passage but one worth sitting with. It can make a tremendous difference in how we approach our work and our lives.

Look at the Throw-Away Lines

Reacting to my post of yesterday about Bartimaeus throwing aside his cloak, my friend John wrote me a brief e-mail this morning commenting on how much he loves these “throw away lines,” which are often so rich. I replied that I was amazed I had missed the line about which I wrote so many times in my reading and prayer with that Gospel passage, to which he responded that he has had that experience so many time that now he almost looks for those throw away lines.

That seemed to me a practice worth sharing.

You know what I mean by throw-away lines: the lines that are part of the descriptive detail of the narrative story that we tend to gloss over in out haste to get to what seems to be the central encounter. So in yesterday’s Gospel: What will Jesus say to, or do for, Bartimaeus. And so it is easy to pass over Bartimaeus’ throwing aside his cloak.

I think there is a particular danger with passages we have heard so many times to glaze over until we get to “the good part” – the central part, the place where all the action is. If we do that, we can miss an awful lot.

I’m reminded as I write this of a morning where I was praying with the passage in John’s Gospel in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. I got to the first line of the passage: There was a man named Lazarus who will ill, and I never got any further. I had a very powerful experience that took off only from that one line – I never got to the “good part,” the big action. I didn’t even get to the powerful exchange between Jesus and Mary, let alone the raising of Lazarus. Yet the prayer I had taught me an enormous amount. Something I would have missed if I skipped over the “throw away” line.

So, consider adopting my friend John’s practice: Look for the throw away lines.

He Threw Aside His Cloak

I woke up this morning still thinking about a line in yesterday’s Gospel, the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man Bartimaeus. It is a passage I have read and prayed with often.

What struck me when I listened to the reading at Mass yesterday was the description of Bartimaeus’ action when people told him Jesus was calling him. “He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.” And that is the phrase that I woke up with this morning. He “threw aside his cloak.”

A begging blind man has very few possessions. And if you’ve seen homeless beggars on the street, you know that they guard their few possessions very carefully, keeping them close and carrying or pushing them around with them when they move from place to place.

But Bartimaeus was so anxious to meet Jesus, so excited to know that he had been called, that he threw aside what was probably one of his only possessions.

That the phrase stayed with me, suggests it is one worth praying with. Are we willing to drop everything when Jesus calls? Are we so excited for him and his healing touch that we can drop our need to control and guard our plans, our possessions, our everything?

What Do You Wish Me to Do For You?

In today’s Gospel, James and John approach Jesus and tell him they want him to do whatever he asks of them. Jesus replies by asking, as he asks people so often, “What do you wish me to do for you?”

And what is the response of James and John? “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” The response is particularly jarring because this passage in Mark follows immediately after one of Jesus’ predictions of his passion. James and John don’t seem particularly anxious to be at Jesus’ left and right during his suffering.

What came to mind as I reflected on their response was the passage in the Second Book of Chronicles, where God appears to Solomon and says “Whatever you ask, I will give you.” Salomon asks for “wisdom and knowledge” to govern God’s people.

The contrast is striking. James and John want to be rewarded with the choicest seats in the house; Solomon asks for the grace he needs to carry out the task to which God as appointed him.

Jesus asks the same of you and I: What do you wish me to do for you?

How do you reply?

Does your response sound more like James and John’s or like Solomon’s?