This morning’s Scripture readings included two conversion stories: the Acts of the Apostles’ account of Saul’s dramatic transformation on the road to Damascus, and the Gospel of John’s account of Peter’s life-changing encounter with the Risen Christ. Saul, the persecutor of the new Christian movement, becomes Paul, the movement’s most energetic and prolific leader. Simon, the disciple who denied and abandoned the crucified Jesus, becomes Peter, the rock upon which the risen Jesus builds the church.
These are powerful, inspiring stories that teach us a good deal about the experience of conversion, and the ways in which we resist conversion. I want to spend some time this morning drawing out these lessons. But first, I want to caution against a reading of these stories that understands conversion as a singular event rather than a life-long experience. Conversion is often depicted as a dramatic turning point, a decision for God that completely changes one’s life. It marks the movement from one identity to another; we become a different person, signified by the taking of a new name.
I would like to suggest that such an understanding of conversion is at best a partial misreading of these stories, one that obscures rather than illuminates the full scope of conversion. While the experience of conversion certainly can include particularly memorable moments of insight or transformation, such moments are part of an ongoing process that is always at work within us. Conversion is the hidden, slow work of God drawing us into deeper awareness of our gifts and limitations so that we can be made usable for God; awakening us to our desire for God, our desire to be fully alive and to live in love. (1)
From this perspective, it is not so much that conversion changes us into something that we were not, but rather is the patient unfolding or shaping of the potential for life and love that was always present in us. This is reflected in the teaching of St. Irenaeus, the 2nd Century theologian who wrote,
It is not you that shapes God,
It is God that shapes you.
If then you are the work of God,
Await the hand of the artist
Who does all things in due season.
Offer God your heart, soft and tractable,
And keep the form in which
The artist has fashioned you.
Let your clay be moist,
Lest you grow hard and lose
The imprint of God’s fingers.
We are created in the image of God, bearing the imprint of God’s fingers. Conversion is God’s work in us to reveal the divine image in all its glory, but it also requires a willingness on our part to be shaped by God. We can be soft and tractable before God, or we can harden our hearts. Conversion is what happens when God’s work and our willingness meet together.
When that meeting together happens, especially after a period of resistance to God’s slow work in us, we can experience it as a dramatic breakthrough. That is, I think, what we find reflected in the dramatic episodes of Saul and Peter’s life-long conversions recounted in today’s Scripture lessons. But the groundwork for that breakthrough, which may take years to establish, and the fruit that the breakthrough must bear in the remainder of our lives if it is reflective of genuine conversion, and not simply the reinforcement of self-centered ego; all this too is conversion.
The 30 seconds of a powerful earthquake do not just happen out of nowhere; there are subtle but profound movements taking place beneath the surface for many years in advance; the event and its aftershocks establish a different pattern of life, a realignment of forces seen and unseen that endures for many years to come. That is what conversion is like.
Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus is a poignant reminder that conversion is God’s work, not ours. Like all too many religious people, Saul was under the illusion that conversion was his job – that by force of will he could become holy and make others holy as well. When we believe we are responsible for our own and other people’s conversion, we can end up breathing threats and murder against the forces that resist our attempts at conversion – both the forces within us and around us.
Feeling responsible for your own salvation, not to mention that of the world, creates tremendous anxiety, and the inevitable failure one experiences trying to do so, gives rise to fear and hatred of the forces of resistance that “cause” our failure. The attempt to compartmentalize our failure from our need to be perfect leads to an unbearable crisis that is either internalized or projected outward or both. We kill what we can’t convert in order to feel justified.
Saul was bound by this dynamic, hating what he couldn’t control or fix in himself and others. The breakthrough for him came when he stopped projecting his own resistance to God’s work of conversion on to others, and became willing to submit to the very thing he was persecuting: the mercy of God whose forgiveness and acceptance takes the form of the Risen Christ.
Saul became willing to look into the mirror provided by his “enemies” and saw his own reflection there; but then he looked a little deeper, and saw the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ. His conversion struck him blind; his normal way of seeing things became darkened so that that he could be given a new perception of reality consonant with God’s desire for him to be fully alive and in love. It was through the healing touch of Ananias, the willingness to accept the love of the enemy, that God gave new sight to Saul.
As Rose Mary Dougherty notes, at the center of conversion is the destruction of our own image of God in order to allow God to be God for us; a God who is not only other than we are but is also other than we want God to be. It is in this acceptance, lived at the daily level of our own experience, that a person begins to awaken to the process of conversion. (2)
A God who simply reinforces our self-righteousness is no God at all, but simply the projection of our ego. And submission to such a God is not conversion, but narcissism. Perhaps the surest sign of conversion is humility, a willingness to let go of one’s self-image and image of God, realizing that one no longer has anything to protect or defend because all is entrusted to God’s loving will for us and for others.
Saul became Paul – not just in a moment on the road to Damascus – we need only read Paul’s letters to know that! It took time, in fits and starts, for Paul to integrate and give expression to the reality of God’s love in his life and ministry. He moved away from threats and murder toward rhetoric and persuasion and finally, martyrdom. Paul’s life was messy, like ours. He struggled with issues of authority, community norms and discipline, setting healthy boundaries and breaking barriers to love. Saints aren’t perfect; they are people who realize and accept their imperfection so that they can become usable for God. Saul, who was willing to kill what he could not convert, became Paul, who gave his life for the sake of the conversion to which he willingly submitted.
It is our attention to the process of conversion in ourselves, our willingness to submit to God’s slow, hidden work in us, that is the most profound witness to God’s reality and love that we can offer others. The work of God in us is a gentle invitation to accept our gifts and limitations, a movement of self-acceptance and a willingness to reach beyond what we are now, consonant with our desire for God. We cannot convert ourselves, much less others. But we can accept God’s invitation to love and make of our lives an invitation to undergo conversion.
It is Peter’s acceptance of this invitation to love that is so moving in the Gospel story we heard today. The story of his encounter with the Risen Jesus is a beautiful portrayal of the power of love as a motivating factor in conversion, of which we may not even be aware. When we awaken to love, the process of conversion moves to a deeper level.
If Saul resisted conversion because of his anxiety and fear, it seems to me that Peter resisted conversion out of a sense of hopelessness and despair. After denying any relationship with Jesus and abandoning him to his death, Peter is in mourning. He is grieving the loss of Jesus, and the loss of his own integrity.
In the story preserved in John’s Gospel, Peter returns to Galilee and to his old life as a fisherman. I wonder which was more painful for Peter: the fact that Jesus didn’t turn out to be who Peter hoped he would be, or the fact that Peter turned out to be less than what he had aspired to become himself. After all, he had told Jesus that he would give his life for him.
Here again, we see a dying to self-image and dying of one’s image of God at work in the process of conversion. This process is nothing less than the living of the Paschal mystery, the passing from death to life, in our daily lives. In the ordinariness of his “old” life, in his coming to terms with failure and sin, Peter is undergoing conversion.
What seems like hopelessness and despair is preparing Peter, like Saul, to see in a new way. Jesus appears to Peter on the beach, not instantly recognizable, but vaguely and hauntingly familiar. A spark of hope is renewed – “Could it really be Jesus?” – and so Peter dives into the water and races toward shore.
It is important to pay attention to spontaneous responses. Peter probably realized more about his love for Jesus in his unselfconscious jumping into the water and swimming ashore than he could ever realize even after years of reflecting on their relationship. (3) Underneath Peter’s hopelessness and despair was an enduring love, a desire for God revealed in the face of Jesus, just waiting to come to life again.
In that instant of recognition, or at least desire to see, Peter awakened to love and became willing to allow it to becoming the motivating force in his life. Simply accepting our deep, but often unacknowledged desire for God, can transform our lives in ways we could not otherwise imagine. That isn’t to say that abandoning ourselves to love is easy or painless. Peter’s encounter with the Risen Jesus, his Beloved, demanded acknowledgement and integration of his previous betrayals; three affirmations of love to match three denials.
Conversion is an abandonment to love, but this also means an abandonment of our own securities, allowing ourselves to be led into a deeper trust that encompasses the painful as well as the joyful dimensions of our lives. (4) Peter lays it all before Jesus, and in entrusting himself to this love is given a new vocation: to feed and tend the sheep, to become a leader in loving others. Conversion leads Peter from isolation back into community. Conversion is never just about my relationship with Jesus, but also my relationship with everything else and the hard work of welcoming the reign of God in community.
Conversion is consent to the patient work of God making us into his image. It requires humility and trust. As Isaac Pennington describes it, our part is simply to let go:
Be no more than God hath made thee.
Give over thine own willing;
Give over thine own running;
Give over thine own desiring to know or to be anything,
And sink down to the seed
Which God sows in thy heart,
And let that grow in thee,
And be in thee,
And breathe in thee,
And act in thee,
And thou shalt find by sweet experience
That the Lord knows that,
And loves and owns that,
And will lead it to the inheritance of life,
Which is God’s portion.
(1) I'm indebted to Sr. Rose Mary Dougherty, SSND for the following remarks, based on her talk on "conversion" given at the January 2009 Shalem Institute Residency Program.