April 7, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Being struck from our horse by Lenten conversion

We hear it all the time in sermons, retreats and Bible studies: Lent is a time for conversion. Lent is a six-week focus on soul-searching in the hope of turning away from our sins, a time of purgation so that we’re freshly joyful at Easter.

Now, most of us won’t be struck off our horse, as St. Paul was in a painting depicting his conversion experience. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I’d want to be thrown off my horse for any reason. But it’s true that most of us probably won’t experience some kind of dramatic change or revelation, despite worthy spiritual intentions and efforts.

Since our Church is usually a bit more conservative than some others, the idea of throwing ourselves at the foot of the altar in a religious ecstasy of faith is not appealing. We prefer the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults approach to that of finding God in the heat of a moment.

This is not to say that St. Paul was not converted in that way, or that others who come to Christ suddenly are just emotionally needy folks who get carried away by the religious fad of the moment. Conversion can be, has been and will continue to be swift for some. After all, it’s God who’s behind it.

But in the end—for most of us—conversion is a slow process of change in our hearts and minds that comes in fits and starts, encounters here and there, daydreams and inexplicable inspirations. In the human, everyday world, we’re usually not preoccupied at every moment with prayer or reflection, examination of conscience or purposeful virtue.

Besides, we might just wonder why we need conversion at all since we’re already believers. What does conversion really mean? Is it only deciding to believe in God, or accepting the truth of a certain Church or denomination?

To me, conversion is a continuing process of “giving in” to God, resting in his love and allowing God to work through me in the world. If we live long enough, we should learn that although we may first come to the Lord through our own will, we continue to grow in faith because God showers us with graces. As an adult received into the full communion of the Roman Catholic Church, I can vouch for this.

The vague unease, which dogged me until I entered the Church, disappeared and I felt at home in the new practice. But as cradle Catholics do, I found that faith continues to grow far beyond its inception, if only we allow ourselves to accept it.

We’re “converted” when we see a baby smile, smell the first lilacs in spring or listen to Gregorian chant. We grow in faith when we see God’s hand in happy life events or feel his comfort in tragic ones. We continue to convert when we find God in each other. Seeking God and discerning God’s will is a private journey, but it’s also in some sense a public effort.

An adolescent grandson who’s going through the usual and, indeed, necessary doubt and examination of faith told me he’s not sure he believes in God. I said, “That’s O.K. because God believes in you. Don’t give up on God because he certainly won’t give up on you. Give it some time.”

Indeed, that’s what Lent is: A time to convert, a time to slow down from being human long enough to “let go and let God.”

We can will it to happen, and only God can complete it.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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