March 17, 2006


The call to conversion is countercultural

The personal vocation that each of us has received from the Lord requires us to change the way we think and act. The Christian lifestyle is not a secret. Jesus’ teachings and examples are given to us in the plain language of the Gospels, where Jesus uses parables and other graphic illustrations to help us hear and understand how he wants us to live.

The problem is that we are not inclined to live the way that Jesus did. It goes against the grain of our sinful human nature, and it runs counter to the dominant beliefs and values of the culture in which we live.

It doesn’t matter whether we are Jews living in the time of Jesus, or Europeans in the 12th century, or Americans in the 21st century. Much of what Jesus asks of us—to deny ourselves, to forgive our enemies, to share our time and our money with others—rubs us the wrong way. To live the way Jesus wants us to, we have to change our own attitudes and behavior, and we have to stand in opposition to many of the cherished values of our particular time and place.

Even if we recognize the need to change, we would prefer to do it gradually and not make too many lifestyle adjustments all at once. We find ourselves wanting to pray as Augustine did: “Lord, make me chaste [or patient or unselfish or generous or forgiving], but not yet.”

Unfortunately for our procrastinating tendencies, there is an immediacy to the Lord’s call to conversion. We are called to change now—without looking back—and to respond readily to Christ with a more decisive personal conversion and evermore generous fidelity to the Gospel.

This is enough to make a hesitant or uncertain disciple stumble and fall—as Peter and all the disciples did until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit and the transforming grace of the Eucharist.

Our Catholic tradition tells us that following Jesus is the work of a lifetime. No one—except the Blessed Mother—gets it right from the beginning. That’s why we are given the grace of the sacraments—especially baptism, reconciliation and the Eucharist—to help us get back on our feet and keep going after we have fallen or lost our way.

True conversion needs to be prepared and nurtured through prayerful reading of the Word of God, through worship and the reception of the sacraments, through participation in the life of the Church and through solidarity with all those who are poor or vulnerable in any way. To adopt the lifestyle that Christ asks us to live day in and day out, we must pray, we must learn from others and we must practice. It is urgent that we begin, but successful Christian living—which means changing the way we think and act—is the work of an entire lifetime.

Sin causes us to turn in on ourselves; to become grasping and exploitative toward possessions and other people; to grow accustomed to conducting relationships not by standards of generous stewardship, but by the calculus of self-interest: “What’s in it for me?”

If we want to be truly happy, we must ask God for the grace of conversion: the grace to know who we are, to whom we belong, how we are to live—the grace to repent and change and grow, the grace to become good disciples and stewards.

The good news is that we are not alone or isolated. We are members of the family of God called to be partners in the magnificent work of creation, redemption and sanctification of the world we live in.

If we can turn away from our preoccupation with selfish things, a whole new world will open up for us.

We will be “born again” as people who are part of something much greater than ourselves. We will be stewards of all creation and partners in the transforming work of God.

—Dan Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.)


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