24 January 2010

Feast of the Conversion of St Paul

Tomorrow is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, and my own feastday as well. We know Paul's story well. A good Jew, indeed, a scholar of the Law who saw the early Church as a distortion and danger to orthodoxy, one who understood that a crucified person was godless and shameful and could in no way be a faithful Jew or prophet, much less God's anointed one, persecuted the Church in the name of orthodoxy and for the glory of God. In sincere faithfulness to the covenant Paul hounded men, women and children, many of whom were his own neighbors. He sent them to prison and thence to their deaths. He, at least technically And according to Luke's version of things), colluded in the stoning of Stephen and sought to wipe Christians from the face of the earth.

While on a campaign to Damascus to root out and destroy more "apostates" Paul had a dramatic vision and heard someone call out to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Paul inquired who this voice was and was told, "I am Jesus whom you persecuteth." In that moment everything Paul knew, believed, and practiced, was turned upside down. God had vindicated the One whom Paul knew to be godless acording to the Law. He was alive rather than eternally dead, risen through the power of God as the Christians had claimed. For Paul nothing would ever be the same again. So it is with conversions.

Perhaps it is a matter of faulty perception on my part, and if so, I apologize, but it seems to me that conversion is not something most Catholics regard as pertinent to their lives. Conversion is something non-Catholics do when they become Catholics (or vice versa!). It is a onetime event that those "born into the faith" don't (it is thought) need to worry about! Those "born Catholic" may think in terms of "growing in their faith" or "becoming a better Catholic" (and there is certainly nothing wrong with thinking this way!) but "conversion" seems to be a word that is simply little-used for these processes. Somehow (perhaps because of the story of Paul!) conversion is too dramatic and messy a process it seems. It disrupts and is marked by difficult and abrupt discontinuities and conflicts or tensions. It demands a spiritual praxis which sets one apart from the norm, a prayer life which is central, engagement with the Word of God which is profound and more extensive than usual -- not minimal or nominal, and a faith life which does not tolerate compartmentalization. Growth, becoming, etc, are safer words --- demanding, yes, but somehow less total and more socially acceptable than references to "conversion."

In monastic life, and especially in Benedictine monastic life the primary vow is to conversion of life. This vow includes those ordinarily made in religious life, the vows of poverty and chastity. One commits oneself to continually allow God to remake one into the image of Christ (and into one's truest self). There is a sense that such conversion is a gradual and lifelong process of growth and maturation, yes, but there is also an openness to conversion as dramatic and all-consuming. Here conversion is something which does not allow the monastic to divide their lives into sacred and profane or to compartmentalize them into the spiritual and the non-spiritual. Here the Word of God is expected and allowed to convict, challenge, transform, and empower. Here the Spirit of God is accepted as the spirit which moves within us enlivening, edifying, consolidating, and purifying --- the Spirit which humanizes and sanctifies us into the covenant reality we are most truly. It is a pattern which should be true of every Christian.

Paul's initial conversion experience was dramatic by any standards, but drama aside, it did for Paul what encounter and engagement with the Word of God is meant to do to any of us. It caused him to see his entire world and life in terms of the risen and Crucified Christ. It put law completely at the service of love and made compassion the way to accomplish justice. It made human weakness the counterpart of divine strength, mercy and forgiveness the way God's will is accomplished, and in every other way turned the values of this world on their head. May each of us open ourselves to the kind of conversion of life we celebrate today.