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 Henry Newman 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 ado.
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 truth?
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 personal fulfillment?
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 puzzle completely.
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 Edith 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 Converts, 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, Malcolm Muggeridge. 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, Thomas Aquinas, Francis 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 Chapter 6).
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 it.
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 doubly blessed.
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
Liturgy, Catechesis, 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 Within, Happy Are The Poor, Faith and Certitude, Authenticity, The Evidential Power of Beauty, and Prayer Primer. He has presented many series on EWTN, including an extensive study of the spiritual life of St. Teresa of Avila and a series on the life of prayer.
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