Conversion, What Conversion?

In this year of St. Paul, you probably have more in common with this great saint than you even realize!
by Kathryn M. Cunningham, MAPS | Source:

       So you have it together, you pray, take advantage of all the sacraments, attend daily Mass, tithe and volunteer at the homeless shelter. So, you’re good, right?  Do you think you’re as good as a trained scripture scholar whose teacher was one of the most famous scholars of the day?  Maybe in your own way you are and after all, not everyone is meant to be a teacher or a scholar.  This is absolutely true, but what about conversion?  Is that something you experienced a while ago in a flourish of “praying in tongues” and a gaggle of intercessors surrounded you or maybe in the privacy of an elegant adoration chapel on a quiet afternoon when you had been weeping for days and praying straight from the grief of a broken heart?  

       Most of us can identify a before and after, or a seminal moment that divides our time of non-belief or luke warmness from the period in our life when it made nothing but perfect sense to pursue our faith voraciously, and let it grow. Some of us can tell dramatic stories of “the moment” or can recall when we really began the work of faith.  Like Paul’s dramatic witness on the road to Damascus , we call our moment or new attitude the “conversion” point in our lives.  As David brought to mind all the beasts that he previously killed (I Sam. 17:35-37), on the way to battle Goliath, it is a good thing to recall and relive our conversion. That was a time of personal victory and it can only strengthen us when times in our faith life are not so clear.  It is also a good thing to step back and take the “long view” of where we have been and where we are now.  

       It is important to recall the reality of that conversion experience and what it felt like, especially if we are years past it.  We need to reinforce that it was tangible and that it really happened.  Time can be a thief.  But there is a more important issue surrounding our conversion.  That would be the demon of complacency.  As spectacular or deep as our moment or period of conversion was, we need to remember that point as a beginning and not an end in itself.  In this Year of St. Paul we look to this great saint as an example of what I mean.  Paul’s conversion was truly spectacular. It involved falling from a horse, visions, voices, heavenly light, seeking a stranger as a healer and travel to a strange land.  This was as dramatic as it gets and was no “ordinary miracle”.  The conversion of St.Paul is even more spectacular when we examine his background.  Less than a day or two before he was unhorsed, the bible describes him as “spewing oaths” against the Christian sect with the focused intention of murder in his heart which was tangibly affirmed by his high priest.  So Paul’s conversion story was actually a mega-drama worthy of Shakespeare!  Our own conversion story, maybe, “not so much”.  But what is of interest to our own faith life is the “after story”.  What did Paul actually do after this mind altering experience?  If that was me, I would have needed a week or two in order to recoup before I let things settle back to normal.  

         Oops, normal!  For a believer, what does that actually mean?  If we understand our commission clearly, we could be profoundly distressed on any day that we hoped or aimed for a life that was free of distress with no elements that could be described as disturbing our peace, in other words “normal”.  Our most reliable model is, of course, Jesus.  Rise early in the morning, walk eight or ten miles, expel a demon, raise a dead man, chastise a woman for touching your clothes, calm a storm, instruct thick headed followers for the umpteenth time, challenge the ruling authorities publically, multiply bread, withdraw for private prayer, start all over again.  This was Jesus’ normal.  Yet we do not find one recorded instance in the bible of Him complaining that things were too hard, or too stressful, too tiring or too much.  This is the life of a believer clearly in touch with his mission.  Expect the unexpected and be flexible enough to (try to) reflect God’s love in every circumstance.  

     As a result of our baptism and confirmation do we have any “less mission” than Jesus did? No!  In the earlier example of Paul, we see the reflection of how any Christian is commissioned to respond to their “conversion moment”.  We must remember that Paul’s response to his conversion experience was not to panic at the drama of it all or to be angry because he was now blind.  Rather, he allowed himself to be lead by someone else and then fasted for three days.  He, of course, was healed and without one lick of hesitation launched into his mission of bringing Christ to the world.  His transformation was so profound and instant that people who heard he was coming were totally confused because they knew that this was “the man who in Jerusalem ravaged those who call upon this name [of Jesus]” (Acts 9:21).  Remember that Paul, like you, never actually met Jesus in the flesh.  But because of his spiritual experience he surrendered totally and went on to evangelize the known world and write over half of the books in the New Testament.  His conversion was deep and intimate.
      Our own personal circumstance is no different than Paul’s.  Whether it was dramatic or long suffering we too are called to a conversion that is ongoing and constantly maturing. St. Augustine teaches: that in the spiritual life, if we are not moving forward, we are moving backward. “The best way that we can celebrate the year of St. Paul is to go to the Risen Lord and ask him about what deep and intimate conversion of life he is calling us to.  We know from Paul’s life that at the heart of conversion is surrender to the love of the Risen Lord.” (Bishop Michael Saltaratelli, Diocese of Wilmington Delaware ).  It is not an option to seek deeper conversion. It’s our responsibility as believers.  God always desires to give us more sophisticated tools to do His work and being willing to experience constant conversion is how we access these tools.  We might even be ready to “fall off the horse” of complacency and comfort. But no matter how the Lord asks you to take the next step, get ready because you’re work’s not done yet! 

Copyright ©2009, Kathryn M. Cunningham, all rights reserved.




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