It’s a notion we take for granted. We all know what it means – but does our definition stand scrutiny; do we really know what we are talking about?
When I think of conversion, two people jump to mind first: St. Augustine and St. Paul. Their conversions weren’t identical, though. Augustine’s was far more gradual and far more intimately marked by his unique personality. St. Paul was probably much too spiritually deaf for such a thing to work in his case. God sung with the voice of a child to Augustine; He had to thunder and flash at Paul. Yet though they were different experiences of God’s grace, in the most important ways they were identical: in both cases conversion brought about a permanent and radical change for the better.
Theologians avail themselves of lots of different terms when speaking of God’s interventions in our lives, that is to say, the different kinds of spiritual gifts (graces) He gives us. These terms can’t unravel what is in essence a mystery, but they can help us to get a bit if a handle on it, and to help us to better appreciate and respond to His gifts.
Of course, Paul and Augustine didn’t have these terms available to them. It wouldn’t be until a number of years after his own conversion that Augustine was able to develop some of this technical jargon. He passed the torch to Aquinas, who passes it on to others, and that’s where we get the Catechism’s treatment of the kinds of graces, which says in part,
The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification (para. 1999)
Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification. (2000)
There is a lot that can be unpacked from this quote. The central point, of course, for our purposes is that conversion is a work of God. This doesn’t mean that our response to the gift is irrelevant. Oftentimes, God makes much to depend upon it. Even in St. Paul’s case, Paul could have said to Christ what Dostoevsky’s fictional ‘Grand Inquisitor’ said to Him, “I don’t know who You are and don’t care to know whether it is You or only a semblance of Him”. Theologians have fought long and hard over whether grace can be irresistible or not. Frankly, because God can do whatever he wants, He can be irresistible to people if He wants to be, but even so, that’s not an all-important issue. If the grace cannot be refused at one single point in time, over a great length of time, it can be, not because God is powerless against us, but because He wants people to cooperate with His graces.
As the most exhilarating thing is to hear about a sinner turned from his evil ways – like an abortionist – the most depressing thing is to see a conversion go sour. It can make one a little cynical. How often do you hear of a young person, especially, gain great enthusiasm for the Lord, receive the accolades of the faithful, only to find him or her a few years later as if it were all a dream and meant nothing? Maybe they went from a worldly life of drugs, alcohol, and sex to the seminary or a monastery, only to end up after a while more or less right back where they began? How many times does a diocese rejoice to hear that they have five, ten, twenty… seminarians one year, only to find that within a year or two half of them have left the seminary and have moved in with some girl? Not just leaving the seminary – leaving a good lifestyle! Why does this seem to happen so often?
How is any of this possible? If it was grace then, why is it not grace any longer? Part of the problem is how we understand how the various parts of the person come into play in conversion: the body, the mind, and everything in between. Sure, for some people it’s all a matter of the body: physical temptation is too strong. There is nothing very interesting when this is the case. Conversion can’t just be a matter of the body changing, because saints still like the things they liked before they became saints. Even at his holiest St. Francis still liked tasty food, but after his conversion he just wouldn’t eat it.
Since it’s not a matter of the body, is conversion a matter of the mind or of the will? Is it a matter of the mind: do you suddenly see that something is true which before you considered false? Were Paul and Augustine convinced by miracles? Socrates famously said that knowledge is virtue. Was he right? According to St. Paul, he was not. Paul wrote that “what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.” (Rm 7:15) Knowledge, in other words, is not the same thing as virtue. No, Paul and Augustine both believed in God before their conversions and believed He could talk to people and work miracles. Of course, they both realized they had God wrong. So, it is in part at least a matter of the mind.
But it’s not all mind. I have met people whose ‘perversions,’ that is to say, whose turning away from God, was not a matter of changing their beliefs. Truth can lose importance for people. When I was in a bad place with God, I never once doubted He was who I believed He was. And now that I find myself in a better place, He is still who He was for me then. It’s just that at certain times, truth—what you know—loses its hold on you. I have had a friend go from a state where all that mattered to him was what God wanted to where he seems to be now, where he will do what he wants despite knowing that God hates it.
So that leaves us with only one thing: the will. I am not saying that our bodies and our minds are not important in the matter of conversion and of living a holy life. Someone who is physically addicted to sex, or drugs, or alcohol, etc., finds it very hard to live a life they know is pleasing to God. Someone who does not believe that God can exist, or that the Church can be really God’s Church, will find it very hard or impossible to live according to God’s law too. But what I am saying is that conversion is mostly a fact of the will. Suddenly, I can do the things that before I did not wish to. That is God’s gift, says St. Paul in Romans 7.
But if it’s a gift of God, how can such a great thing be lost? There are at least two answers possible to this: 1) It was grace, but mixed in to it was a lot of egoism, 2) it was grace which was gradually pushed away for other things.
First let’s look at what conversion does and then we’ll see how we can undo it.
In the body, God makes what were formerly pleasures that we seemed not to be able to live without lose their vigour. That may be a sudden or a gradual change. Many people who struggle with the Catholic Church do so on account of its teaching on sexuality, especially, its teaching on contraception. Yet, the time may come when they see that uninhibited sexuality isn’t all they once took it to be, and that the Church was not, therefore, asking the impossible of them.
In the mind, this argument against the existence of God or against the holiness of the Church, which at one time seemed unassailable, now seems weak and irrelevant. I think St. Paul fit into here when he had his conversion experience: He thought God had to hate sinners as much as he did. On the road to Damascus he was suddenly shown that God is merciful and loving. That was new to him.
In the will, I just felt unable to go one day, one week, one year, without a certain sinful indulgence… Now, it seems like I can do anything. This is what happened to St. Augustine: God’s truth had to lay where the strength to live a good life lay, he thought. It was only when he came close to God’s Holy Scriptures to close to good Catholics that he finally discovered that he had the will and the confidence to live chastely.
Now, these changes aren’t something that ‘just happen’ to us. Nor are they things we give ourselves. They are gifts in the truest sense of the word. That our bodies, minds and/or wills changed, was a gift. But, alas, we can change them back. Take the mind, for example. God’s truth might lose its importance for us quite unexpectedly. This might be because we have immersed ourselves in a context that makes a preoccupation with truth seem obsessive and inconvenient. Get around the wrong friends, the wrong parish, the wrong job, the wrong marriage and just see what happens. And when the mind falls, the body and the will usually follow soon after. Or, the will: if you find your vigour weakening, go on a retreat, find a good spiritual director, read good books – like lives of the saints, seek good friends.
Oftentimes, the seeds of perversion lay within the conversion itself. (But it’s never too late to undo their harmful effects!) What do I mean? Perhaps a part of the reason why you wanted to ‘get your act’ together lay in your need for the esteem of others. What happens to your firm resolve when the praise of others wanes or loses its attraction? A sudden conversion gets attention. It can actually make ‘conversion’ a rather pleasant experience. If so, I would say that that is the beginning of the end for the convert. A priest friend of mine, whenever he heard about a young person converting would say to me – and it would bug the life right out of me: “Wait and see, wait and see.” He meant that he had seen enthusiasm come and enthusiasm go. Remember the Parable of the Sower.
It’s tempting to see the holy life in terms of the excitement of the knight riding out to battle. The problem is, campaigns are usually long and hard. They involve a lot of miserable nights, marching in the rain, hunger, thirst, terror and uncertainty. When we come to depend upon things other than God, and those things fly away, then we are left with nothing.
For me, my first vigour came and went almost twenty years ago. I did one thing right, though: I got into theology. I didn’t know much, but I did know that I had to concentrate my mind on God if I were to stay on His path. Despite that, sometimes I veered very far away, and yet, theology played a pivotal role in allowing me to get back to where I needed to be. I am not saying that all Christians must become theologians. We all have different make-ups. But whatever we are, we need constant nourishment from God and to flee that which takes us away from Him or dilutes His presence in our lives. Conversions have beginnings but they can have no ending in this life.
Colin wrote this Article for the Knights of the Holy Eucharist. He has been married to Anne-Marie since 1999, and they are proud to raise their six children, in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Colin has a PhD in Theology and works tirelessly to promote the Gospel. “Just share the Word,” is what he believes the Lord says to him – and so he does. He recently founded The Catholic Review of Books, a printed journal and website dedicated to “all things books” from the perspectives of faithful Catholics. He is fascinated by the concept of chivalry as it applies to being a man and a father in today’s crazy world.