by Dr. Patricia Cooney-Hathaway
Pope Francis is calling us to a conversion of mind and heart so that rooted in the values of Jesus we will form a band of joyful missionary disciples committed to spreading the good news of the gospel.
In his writing on conversion, Fr. Bernard Lonergan, SJ, describes three modes of conversion that serve as a criteria for distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic conversions. He states that conversion is not merely a change or even a development; rather, it is a radical transformation that follows on all levels of being: religious, moral, and intellectual.
Such conversion, he emphasizes, is found in our experience. As such, it is personal to each one of us.
Let's take a look at how each mode of conversion finds expression in the life of a few special friends of God.
Father Lonergan describes religious conversion as a falling in love with God in an unrestricted fashion. It involves the discovery of God as real. Dorothy Day describes such an experience when she was seven years old. She was playing with her sister, Della, in the attic of their family home when she came upon a musty old bible.
She began reading the Bible to her sister: Slowly, as I read, a new personality impressed itself on me. I was being introduced to someone. I knew immediately that I was discovering God. Here was someone that I had never really known before and yet, felt to be One whom I would never forget, that I would never get away from.
Dorothy knew her life would be forever changed. She spent the rest of her life serving God in the poorest of the poor through the Catholic Worker Movement.
An intellectual conversion takes place when a person radically changes his or her way of looking at reality. It involves the search for truth, an unrelenting desire to understand and find the meaning of one's life.
Thomas Merton's search for truth intensified when he began studies at Columbia University. One afternoon, while browsing in a book store, he picked up the book The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Etienne Gilson. This Neo-Scholastic philosophy of God was the first understanding of the Christian God he had ever encountered. The philosophy was not a simplistic anthropomorphism. Its concept of Aseitas, God is Being Itselfthat is, the power of a Being to exist absolutely in virtue of itselfwould revolutionize his whole life.
I had never had an adequate notion of what Christians meant by God, Merton explains. This way of thinking about God dismantled his former image of God as a dramatic and passionate character, a jealous, hidden being.
The rest, we know, is history. Merton's conversion to a Christian concept of God, one that his brilliant intellect could accept, was the beginning of his eventual entrance into the Catholic Church, his monastic
vocation as a Trappist, and his becoming one of the most influential spiritual writers of the twentieth century.
Moral conversion leads to a conscious shift in our criteria for decision-making from self-satisfaction to the pursuit of value. It pursues self-consistency between the values one affirms and the deeds one lives by.
Surely one of the most well-known stories of the journey to moral conversion is found in the life of St. Augustine. He struggled for years with a passionate nature that pursued self-satisfaction in many areas of life, particularly in sexuality.
The surrender of his total being to Jesus Christ through grace, described so poignantly in the Confessions, eventually enabled him to learn to love everything and everyone in God.
My conversion to You, he states, was so complete that I sought no more a wife, nor anything else one hopes for in this world.
What does each of these conversion stories reveal to you about your own story? Which one was the catalyst through which Jesus called you to discipleship? Which one is the most challenging as you seek further integration and authenticitythe goal of Christian conversion?
Dr. Patricia Cooney-Hathaway
Dr. Patricia Cooney Hathaway is professor of spirituality and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.