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Seeking Deep Conversion | An excerpt from Deep
Conversion, Deep Prayer | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
If someone interested in trivia was to ask me to name the ten historical
persons who have had the greatest impact on my life (aside, of course,
from the Lord and his Mother), my list would include Saints Augustine,
Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, together with John
and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
To determine the other four might take a bit more pondering, but among
them would surely be the man with whom we shall begin our reflections:
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.
This doctor of the Church, a man of towering talent, brilliant mind and
golden eloquence, traveled about Europe at the behest of the pope as a
highly gifted troubleshooter. But more important than his natural gifts
was his sanctity. At about the age of twenty he entered the Cistercian
order, bringing thirty other men along with him. Most of us entering a
religious community bring no one but ourselves. The monks recognized the
youngster early on as a highly unusual newcomer and before long elected
him as abbot. Bernard united among his many talents fearlessness and tenderness,
a rare combination. The most touching funeral homily I have ever read
or heard was the one he delivered at the death of his blood brother. The
saint was a man of profoundly deep prayer and love for Godwhich,
of course, translated, as it always does, into a genuine love for the
people in his life.
A fine biographer of Bernard details for about six hundred pages the drift
of this paragraph, but we will get to our immediate point without further
The young abbot was speaking to his community one day, and he made a remark
that shocked me on my first reading of it. "There are more people converted
from mortal sin to grace, than there are religious converted from good
to better." Over the years the more I have experienced of life and thought
about this statement the more I have been convinced of its truth. Yet
one may ask, what is so shocking about it?
Before responding to this question, it may be helpful to unpack the implications
of this plain fact. What Bernard said of religious unfortunately is true
in all states of life: bishops, priests, married men and women. Routine
daily experience bears it out. Like any competent speaker, the saint wanted
to be clear and direct, and so he spoke of the men in front of him. Yet
we may wonder: what is shocking about this prosaic but seldom discussed
Putting the saint's observation in simple contemporary terms may help.
Bernard was saying that there are more men who give up serious alienation
from God, mortal sin, than there are people who give up small wrongs,
willed venial sins. And there are even fewer who grow into heroic virtue
and live as saints live. If we are not saddened by this realization, we
ought to be. We need to notice the title of this book: Deep Conversion/Deep
Prayer. The twice repeated adjective is important. Seldom explained, it
is what we are about here.
Yet a bit more unpacking is needed. A large part of the sadness is the
expectation that anyone who basically loves another (real sacrificing
love, not mere attraction) in important matters (for example, a husband
loving his wife), would naturally go on to love her in smaller ones. I
would assume that he would stop being grouchy and abrupt and harsh, that
he would be at pains to be kind and gentle, patient and forgiving. I would
assume the same in her behavior toward him.
A step further: We would suppose that a person who realistically and fundamentally
loves God would be at pains to avoid all smaller offenses against him:
gossiping, laziness, overeating, as well as the venial sins mentioned
in our previous paragraphand myriads of other minor wrongs. A third
step of unpacking: Most of us would like to think that this person would
go on to prove his love further even to the point of total self-giving,
even under the duress, hardships and sacrifices entailed in persevering
in heroic holiness. But everyone knows that such is unhappily a rare occurrence
in the human family. Something is amissand on a large scale. Yes,
if everything were normal in society, deep conversion would be common,
and life would be incomparably happier for everyone. Much more about that
as we proceed in our task.
What Is Moral Conversion?
To a goodly number of people the idea of moral conversion is heavily negative,
even threatening. It suggests giving up fun things, making sacrifices,
cutting down and cutting out, getting rid of numerous selfishnesses. This
reaction is understandable, but it is only the smaller aspect of a larger
and liberating truth.
An accurate synonym for conversion, as we are using the word here, would
be transformation. Put simply, conversion is a basic and marked improvement
on the willing level of the human person. Even more pointedly, it is a
fundamental change in our willed activities from bad to good, from good
to better, and from better to best. Anyone who is fully alive will find
this a stimulating set of ideas. We can put the matter in still another
way. Conversion is a change from vice to virtue: from deceit and lying
to honesty and truth ... gluttony to temperance ... vanity to humility
... lust to love ... avarice to generosity ... rage to patience ... laziness
to zeal ... ugliness to beauty.
From the point of view of attention to and intimacy with God, supreme
Beauty, supreme Delight, conversion includes a change from little or no
prayer to a determined practice of christic meditation leading eventually
to contemplative intimacy, "pondering the word day and night", leading
to a sublime "gazing on the beauty of the Lord" with all its varying depths
and intensities (Ps 1:1-2; 27:4).
In all of secular literature there is nothing that approaches the literary
excellence and the touching tenderness of the parable of the prodigal
son, a matchless portrayal of conversion and forgiveness. If the reader
notices and ponders the small details of this masterpiece, he finds the
divine handwriting throughout the narrative. One verse may exemplify what
we mean by this high praise. The egocentric son, having wasted half of
his father's fortune with prostitutes, finally comes to his senses, renounces
his sins and decides to return to his father. We are then struck with
the extraordinary welcome he receives: "While he was still a long way
off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped
him in his arms and kissed him tenderly" (Lk 15:20 JB). Not a single word
of reproachthe sinner had already repented. Music, dancing and feasting
follow. This scene with its touching tenderness and complete forgiveness
is nothing short of divine. The son has been restored to life. He has
been transformed, converted and healed. This passage from ugly egocentrism
to divinized altruism is a literary and theological gem profoundly instructive
for each of us.
Our task in these pages is to reflect upon and absorb what divine revelation
has to say about this fundamental conversion and its more profound depths:
how can our lives be completely transformed from ugliness to beauty and
Normal people instinctively seek to excel at least in small ways. Little
boys skipping stones at a lake shore will spontaneously shout, if anyone
is noticing, "Look, I can make a stone skip more times than he can." We
all enjoy winning at a game of cards or sports-or even finishing a crossword
There are two kinds of human excellence, the first of which is on the
level of natural talents, gifts, accomplishments. These occur in many
areas and to differing degrees: intelligence, scholarship, literature,
music, art, sports. The second and higher type lies on the level of personal
goodness, integrity, virtue, sanctity. Here we find the beauties of selfless
love, humility, honesty, patience, chastity, fidelity, generosity.
It is immediately obvious that someone can be eminent in the first area
of talents and accomplishments and yet a moral wretch in the second. There
are the few who excel on both levels: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine
of Siena, Teresa of Avila. It should be obvious to a consistent theist
that to be a saint is immeasurably more important than to be a world class
scholar, violinist or an olympic gold medalist. In these pages we are
concerned with conversion through all the degrees of growth in the virtues
and prayer depth that lead up to the transformation of the human person
as a person, from one beauty to another still more lofty (2 Cor 3: 18).
Kinds of Conversion
Hence we are not here concerned chiefly with changing from atheism to
theism or from one religion to another -absolutely basic as these are.
What we directly envision are moral and spiritual developments for the
better: giving up mortal and venial sins, loving and serving God and our
neighbors more and more perfectly, growing in a deepening prayer intimacy
with the indwelling Trinity.
There are several ways in which moral conversions can occur. We find in
the history of the Church sudden and profoundly powerful experiences of
God that instantaneously change a person for the better. Unexpectedly,
rapidly, these experiences can convince an individual of the truth of
divine revelation together with a powerful desire to live it out. There
was Saint Paul on the road to Damascus and Saint Augustine in the garden.
Closer to our own day André Frossard, an atheist, while in a church,
received in an instant a powerful light convincing him of the truth of
Catholicism. He later wrote that what he learned in that one moment about
the Church and her teaching would fill ten volumes.
Then there are conversions that happen rapidly, even if not in an instant.
I think of the teenage girl in the atheistic Soviet Union who somehow
came into the possession of the Gospel of Luke, read it, and then said,
"I fell in love with Him" (Jesus). Many of us know of the philosopher
Stein who read the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Jesus (Teresa
of Avila) in the course of one evening, put the book down and declared:
"This is the truth." A keen minded intellectual was immediately convinced
that only God through his Church could produce so magnificent a woman.
I myself knew firsthand of a young man who, while a university student
on a secular campus, after listening to one homily, then and there decided
to become a Catholic. Now in this last case it is possible that considerable
thought had preceded this decision. But it seemed from the firsthand account
that his decision was triggered by evidence he found absolutely convincing
on the spot.
More commonly the path to truth and moral goodness is gradual. Deepening
insight, earnest study, continuing moral growth combine with divine grace
to open new vistas to the sincere inquirer. Thousands each year attend
parish instruction classes especially suited to their needs and desires.
But especially fascinating are the accounts of searching and finding that
intellectual giants have left us. John
Henry Newman and G. K. Chesterton,
each in his own unique way, have favored posterity with eloquent and penetrating
descriptions of their long and arduous searching through studies of Scripture,
history, philosophy and theology-as well as enemies of the Church. One
might think that the latter, the foes of Catholicism, would have dissuaded
these brilliant minds from further investigations. On the contrary, the
typical shallowness of their attacks and often mutually contradictory
objections all the more convinced these two Englishmen that indeed they
were on the right track. And neither man later regretted for a moment
the decision he finally made.
Joseph Pearce, in his book Literary
narrates captivating account of how keen and honest minds find ultimate
truth. In addition to Newman and Chesterton, we may suggest a few of the
many prominent intellectuals who in our modern period have entered the
Church from Britain alone:
Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Dorothy Sayers, Ronald
Knox, Edith Sitwell, Christopher Dawson, Maurice Baring, Arnold Lunn,
In these examples and others like them among ordinary people, we should
note that the conversions of which we speak include the serious intent
to embrace the world's most demanding and lofty moral code. These men
and women were by no means looking for an easier and lax morality acceptable
to the worldly world. That would be regression, not improvement.
A Word about Motivation
What prompts people to move from mediocrity (or worse) toward a radical
reversal to the morally good and the best? Supposing, of course, the illuminating
grace of God (available to anyone who really and honestly wants it), evidence
indicates that there are almost numberless reasons why serious persons
move toward the Church Jesus founded. He surely is the most powerful of
them all. Despite the faults of individual members who fail to live up
to what they profess, thoughtful people recognize that the only fair way
to judge any institution is according to its principles and the example
of those who live in accord with them. That simple fact points to the
sheer goodness and beauty of the saints, those who live heroically well
what Catholicism is and teaches. Where else can we find women like Catherine
of Siena, Teresa
of Avila, Thérèse
of Lisieux and Elizabeth Ann Seton, or men to compare with Augustine,
Xavier and Francis
of Assisi, John
of the Cross, Thomas
More and John
Vianney? Only truth can produce these heroes and heroines with their
burning love, radiant chastity, overflowing generosity, exquisite patience
and fortitude, all that is lofty and noble. They are prime illustrations
of the evidential power of beauty. We have pointed out elsewhere and at
length that science and theology now converge in their agreement that
beauty is the best pointer to truth-whether the matter be an equation
of physics, a given lifestyle or a doctrine in theology. (See EPB, especially
A third motive prompting conversion for many lies in the simple facts
of history. Jesus founded only one Church and to her alone he committed
his authority and promises: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you
... He who hears you, hears me; he who rejects you, rejects me ... I am
with you all days even to the end of time" (Jn 20:2 1; Lk 10: 16; Mt 28:20).
This is bedrock evidence convincingly rooted in Sacred Scripture and the
twenty centuries following Jesus' birth.
Another dimension of history is the fourth reason for many conversions.
Jesus' Church teaches everything that he taught with no omissions or alterations
to suit the moods of differing times and places. No cafeteria picking
and choosing. Unfortunately all groups who through the centuries have
left this ecclesia, while they retain some doctrines and moral
precepts, have left others aside. People like Newman who study ecclesiastical
history are aware of this symphony of beauty. They are struck with the
wholeness, the unity and the inner radiance of divine revelation as it
is preserved in the magisterial office established by Jesus himself Honest
intellectuals seem especially attracted to the coherence, completeness
and consistency of this otherworldly phenomenon.
We will content ourselves with one further example of a motivation that
underlies many conversions: the shortness of life and the endless duration
of eternity, along with the momentous implications of the eternal enthrallment
of heaven or the eternal disaster of hell. Jesus put it perfectly: "What
does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his
soul?" (Mt 16:2,6). As sensible people grow older, they see more and more
clearly that alienation from God together with the tinsel of worldliness
is futility and frustration in this life, and, unless there is repentance,
calamity in the next. They are then more inclined to do something about
Yet, in my work over several decades, I have on occasion had the happiness
to deal in spiritual direction with teenagers and young adults in their
twenties who have responded generously and beautifully to divine grace.
They have been touched by the Lord and have said a youthful and enthusiastic
Yes. Imitating young saints like Agatha, Maria Goretti and Aloysius, these
young people come to see what their elders often fail to grasp. They are
Since we vary a great deal in the depths or shallowness of determination
with which we direct our lives and make our commitments and decisions,
we turn our attention at this point to the basic and pervasive condition
of growth in personal excellence, a deepening moral and prayerful conversion,
all the way from the dawn of reason to our final breath.
[This excerpt is from chapter one, "Getting A Feel", of Deep
Conversion, Deep Prayer.]
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
The Source of
Certitude | Epilogue to Faith and Certitude | Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Catholic Spirituality | Thomas Howard
The Scriptural Roots of St. Augustine's Spirituality | Stephen N. Filippo
The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
Blessed Columba Marmion: A Deadly Serious
Spiritual Writer | Christopher Zehnder
The Measure of
Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., is a well-known retreat master and expert
in the spiritual life.
A Marist Priest, Father holds a Ph.D. from Catholic University of America
and has taught on both major seminary level for about fifteen years. He
spent the last twenty-seven years giving retreats and writing books (over
twenty at last count) on various aspects of the spiritual life.
Ignatius Press has published several of his books, including Fire
Are The Poor, Faith
and Certitude, Authenticity,
Evidential Power of Beauty, and Prayer
Primer. He has presented many series on EWTN, including an extensive
the spiritual life of St. Teresa of Avila and a series on
the life of prayer.
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