Conversion: Learning from a Child
My Religious Order allowed me to go home this year for the Thanksgiving Holiday. To say I am overjoyed by this gift is an understatement. Now, one of the many blessings I receive when I visit my family in Michigan is the time I get to spend with my two nieces, Claire and Maggie. Maggie is now about 1 ½ years old. She is now running all around the house and starting to speak. One of the things I have noticed about her during my last two days home is the way she looks at me. Her eyes are deep and filled with curiosity. I tower over her parents (I am a good foot taller than both her parents). Yet, within her gaze, she recognizes me but does not seem to fully remember who I am. Maggie will walk around me slowly staring as if she is sizing me up. I will make a funny noise or speak her name in a hilarious way and she will respond to me, but something in her tells her to still be cautious about me. She will allow me to pick her up and she gives me a kiss, but only because her mom and dad say it is okay. The look in her eyes tells me “I know you, but how?” As I meditate on her gaze I cannot help, but think are we any different in our relationship with God? How often do we spend time away from God, to only have Him reenter our life, and all we can offer Him is a look ‘I know you, but how?’ As I think about this experience and the question it has invoked within, I find my mind going to the idea conversion. What is conversion to a Christian? A reconnecting of our gaze with the gaze of God. What happens once our gazes reconnect?
Conversion: Our Doorway for Transformation
Before we address the question above, let us spend some more time firming up our foundational understanding of the idea of conversion. Traditionally, conversion has always been written and spoken about within the Catholic Church as a turning point in a person’s life. A movement from one view or way of life to another. In the context of our relationship with God, it is a movement of blindness, not seeing or knowing God, to a perceiving and open relationship with Him, ie. our gaze reconnecting. The word itself, conversion (convetere), etymologically means a turning around. However, the action of just turning around does not give a full picture of what it means to be converted. Within, a Christian schema, a converted person went from no relationship, on their part, with God, to have a relationship with Him. The movement from darkness to light. The presence of light always causes a change, a transformation. For example, plants grow in the light. Even the human body itself needs the sunlight for the processing of vitamin D in its system. Each process taking its time for the necessary aspects of life to strengthen and begin to live homeostatically within its environment. A turning to the source of life leads to a time of transformation in that life. Conversion, itself, is a true and necessary process of transformation and not merely person’s mere turning to God’s presence in his or her individual life. Conversion is an opening of a door into a new life. A point of clarification. Now, both Maggie and I are being changed in relation to each other as we step through the door open to ourselves through our conversion to each other. She and I are being transformed by each other’s presence, but this is not the case with God. God is not changed by us. He is immutable, impeccable, and simple. It is we, God’s children, that are changed by His presence in our lives. However, God may choose to meet us in different ways throughout the countless conversation moments we may have with Him within our lives. We, as God’s children can never forget “God our Savior, who desires all to be saved […] (1 Timothy 2:4)” and “My ways are not your ways […] (Isaiah 55:8).” God wants all people to be saved and know Him as their true God, and His ways of relationship are not limited by our weak imaginations. God meets us where we are at, in our lives, to take us where we are meant to be, which is with Him for all eternity in heaven (John 14: 1-3).
Witnesses to Conversion
There is no better proof of this idea of conversion leading to transformative than the apostles themselves. What do I mean? Let us look at Thomas, Peter, and Paul.
Thomas, Conversion of Faith
Our first encounter with Thomas outside of his calling by Jesus is in John 11. It is here that we read about his total commitment to Jesus, even if it means death. He has faith in the ministry of Jesus and is willing to utterly give his mortal life up to that cause. Next, the time we hear from Thomas is John 14, where we see him confronting how little he knows about Jesus, but thanks to the openness of Thomas we are told who Jesus is. Jesus is our way, our truth, and our life (John 14: 6). Unfortunately, Thomas cannot embrace this reality until he encounters our Resurrected Lord. Why? The faith of Thomas is still rooted in his earthly ambitions of Jesus’s ministry. It is in the presence of the Risen Lord, where Thomas expresses his need to touch Him that we see the gift of faith flood the heart of Thomas, making his conversion of faith possible. It is from this conversion that his understanding of faith happens, making it possible for Thomas to profess “My Lord and My God (John 20: 28).”
Peter, Conversion of Love
As Christ told Peter, he will be a foundation of strength for his brethren (Luke 22: 32). Even though his faith failed and he ran away from Jesus, Peter would be able to write later in his life “[…] hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).” How could Peter write such an insight on love? Because he experienced the truest power of unlimited love. In John 21: 15-19, Peter is asked the three questions of love, but his conversion of love happens within the passage before the questions. Jesus invites Peter once again to break bread with him at ‘the last breakfast (John 21: 12).” The act of love by Jesus, in receiving Peter and opening again to him the gift of table fellowship, turned Peter’s heart back to Christ, transforming him in such a way that he could receive the questions of Christ, give answer to them, and go forward in service making Christ’s love known to all. As Thomas was turned back to the Lord through a new manifestation of faith, Peter was turned back to the Lord by his merciful love.
Paul, Conversion of Hope
Paul, a murderer, was asked a question by our Lord “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me (Acts 9:4)?” This question started Paul down a long path that turned his whole life upside down. Paul, himself, tells us in his letter to the Galatians that after his experience with the Lord, he went off into Arabia for three years (Galatians 1: 17-18). Paul’s experience shows us the transformation that arises from a specific conversion moment, may take time to understand. God’s gift of patience to Paul has always been astounded to me. But, how does hope factor into Paul’s conversion? Remember, Paul writes about himself as a Hebrew among Hebrews (Philippians 3:5). Hope for the Hebrew people existed in the coming of the Messiah who would restore the nation of Israel. The Messiah would make things right for the people of God and restore them to their glory, as promised by God to their ancestors. Paul has now been called by Christ, and his hope for his people is now realized. We see this in the thought of Paul through his letter to the Romans. In Romans 4: 18, Paul points to the hope that is realized through God’s promised, made known by Jesus Christ in faith. Paul continues and teaches that grace is now made accessible to the people, which is a cause for a new hope-filled rejoicing (Romans 5: 2). This new hope, as understood by Paul, can never disappoint, because of the Love of God, through the Holy Spirit is being poured into the people of God (Romans 5:5). Paul’s hope has both been fulfilled and transformed in God’s love made known through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s experience of Christ, who is the manifestation of his people’s hope, transformed Paul in such a way that his new path would lead to the conversion of the Gentile people, in hope, to the God who saves.
An Insight from Carmel: Transformation and God’s Love
As my niece, continues to experience and learn about me, she is being transformed. Her transformation is making it possible for her to understand and live out a relationship with me. She is slowly learning what it means to be a niece and me to be her uncle. Her gaze at me is telling me that she knows our relationship is different than the one she has with her mother and father, yet that our relationship is good. As a Christian, conversion, a turning to Christ, is always connected with a transformation of the person in Christ. Conversion being that doorway to transformation. The apostles above bear witness to that reality. All three men point and lead us to Jesus, but their conversions to Christ are different. Finally, John of the Cross offers us an insight into the depths of the transformation that awaits us through that door of conversion. John of the Cross teaches us that we are all like a log that needs to be placed in the fire of God’s love (The Living Flame of Love). It is only by being transformed in God’s love that we can shine forth with the fullness of the Imago Dei. It is by the moments of conversion, the doorways of transformation, in our lives that makes it possible for us to become exposed to the transformative gift of God’s love to and for us! As my niece is being transformed by my presence in her life, we too are being transformed by God’s presence in our lives. Conversion is the starting point to our openness to God’s love and therefore our transformation in it. May we never forget the transformative gaze that Christ offers us when we step through the doorway of conversion.
God passes through the thicket of the world, and wherever His glance falls He turns all things to beauty. – St. John of the Cross