Paradigms of conversion

Today the Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul, the day when he was thrown from his high horse, according to popular belief and many artistic representations of the event.

Yet, if you examine the accounts of Paul’s conversion in the Acts of the Apostles, there is no horse. He is merely surrounded by light and falls to the ground.

This image of sudden conversion and being thrown off one’s high horse has affected many of our ideas of conversion. Many evangelicals, in fact, emphasize knowing the day and the hour when they were saved.

But conversion doesn’t always happen that way. There is not always that sudden moment when everything changes.

There are, I believe, for most of us key moments when the call of God is clearer and more forceful. But real conversion is a process, with many moments.

I think that conversion is never finished – until the final moment when God calls us to live in His presence.

Conversion is a turning, a moving away from our self-centeredness to the all-embracing love of God, an ongoing process of letting God’s love change us and open our hearts to all people, to all creation, and to the God who is “all in all.”

The Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan also talks about different types of conversion, all of which are passages from “self-preoccupation” to “self-transcendence.”

Religious conversion is from alienation to recognition of the Holy Mystery; theistic conversion is from impersonal mystery to the recognition of a personal God. Christian conversion moves from an incomplete community between God and humanity to the recognition that Jesus is the Christ. Ecclesial conversion moves us from individualized religion to incorporation into the People of God, the Church. Moral conversion is the passage from selfish indifference to values to a moral life. Intellectual conversion is from “undifferentiated consciousness” to the “holistic view of truth.”

I find these distinctions helpful – but incomplete. For in all this, conversion is letting God work in us; it’s not all up to us. It’s God’s work – which needs our consent.

And so not all of us will be struck down to the earth in a moment of conversion; most of us will struggle daily on the road of conversion.

But we need to remember that many have gone on this path before and there are many by our side. And most of all, God beckons us: “Come.”

2 responses to “Paradigms of conversion

  1. I too have struggled with the concept of a single point of conversion because my life experience of conversion mirrors what you have described.

    I attended the Catholic Church until we moved from the country into town when I was around age 9. We ended up moving about a block away from a Catholic Church and school. My older brother had attended Catholic School (1960’s) and had not had a good experience so my mom let us choose if we wanted to attend Catholic or public school. My siblings and I chose public school (probably because that’s where are friends were) so the priest told my mom that every day she didn’t send us to Catholic school she was sinning. My mom’s response was that since she was sinning every day there was no point in attending Catholic Church.

    When I was in about the fifth grade, a husband and wife stopped by our house and invited us kids to Sunday school at a local Baptist Church. My first conversion experience. As a fifth grader, I felt a pull to learn about God so I said “yes”. After a couple of years of attending this church with my sister, I stopped attending…my second conversion. I was participating in a revival service and I noticed that as people went to the front “to be saved” the church elders would pull out an index card and ask for a commitment of financial support. That wasn’t what I heard God calling us to.

    My third conversion came when I was a senior in high school. My best friend attended the aforementioned Catholic Church and he invited me to attend the Senior Mass. I shared with him that I was uncomfortable doing this because I didn’t regularly attend but he said that was ok and reminded me of all of our friends that would be in attendance.

    My fourth conversion came my freshman year at ISU. I was an equipment manager for the ISU football teams so I had to arrive on campus a couple of weeks before classes started for two-a-day practices. At some point during those two weeks, I felt a deep sense of loneliness and after practice went to St. Tom’s to just sit and be with God. I was compelled to do this out of a deep sense of calling…that there I would find peace. As you know, John, I never left until I graduated.

    My fifth conversion came my junior year of college. For the previous three years, I had spent my Spring breaks doing home repair work in southeast Kentucky with the Appalachia Committee. The start of my junior year, I realized that I could not spend the rest of my life out in the forest (my major was Forestry) when there was so much human suffering in the world. This began my two and half year discernment about becoming a priest.

    This leads to my sixth conversion. The six months I spent living with some Friars at a parish in Hazard, KY following my graduation from ISU. The longer I stayed there the clearer it became to me that I was being called to marriage and fatherhood.

    As I was writing this, I almost stopped because my comments were getting so long. I continued, though, because I realized that when I look back on all of these experiences, there was a clear sense of God acting in my life. However, as I wrote this comment I realized that these moments of conversion haven’t been as clear the last twenty four years of marriage and fatherhood. I realize that it’s not about God not acting in my life, but about me being caught up in the business of being husband, father and shelter director that I am too busy to see those moments of conversion.

    A reminder of the importance of taking moments like this each morning whereby my actions of reading and meditating are giving God consent to work within me.

  2. Melody Rockwell

    In process… hopefully, always in the process of turning toward God. Thank you for your comments! In Christ’s light, Melody

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