In this liturgical season of conversion, we are faced with the question: Just exactly how does “conversion” happen? How is change possible in our daily lives, and in a lasting way?
I’d like to go deeper into thoughts from my last post, as a kind of part II (see: Living Lent Like a Little One). In that post I talked about what seems to happen when we are too much of “an adult” with God. We become full of explanations and rationalizations on the one hand, and on the other so afraid of being judged and found wanting that we run away from forgiveness or shut down. We often think as ‘responsible’ adults that we have to be perfect before God, that being holy means having “a clean collar,” and that this perfection gains us access to God. When we inevitably fall and dirty those collars, we can be left with frustration at ourselves, anger at ‘impossible’ requirements, resentment towards God, or an inner anxiety about our human limitations. I think that the root of many of our struggles as Christians today can be linked back to taking an overly “adult” posture with God.
Modern man and pride
Often times we have an inner longing for renewed closeness to God, a pure yearning for conversion – but we just get stuck and don’t know how to get there. A traditional way of conceptualizing conversion is that pride is the main thing standing in the way – that if we could just slay our pride, we’d finally experience humility and become more open to God. Just convert already! Get down on your knees, quit being so proud, and humble yourself before the Almighty God.
I think there is nothing untrue about that message and that it has worked in a clear and healthy way for centuries of Christians. But I don’t think it’s really effective these days. There are many historical undercurrents that have contributed to modern man being who he is, and to analyze them would be beyond my wisdom and the purpose of this blog. That being said, from where I sit, it seems that centuries of emphasis on rugged individualism combined with an intense pressure to be like everyone else has increased modern man’s anxiety to such an extent that he oftentimes responds to any invitation to conversion as an attack on his self, and instinctually responds by picking up a sword. It may be that modern man’s hubris is just too great to hear that more clear (or severe) message of repentance.
As a child of our times – and aren’t we all? – I have experienced this in my self. Following what I perceive as a failed attempt at holiness, it’s not uncommon for me to berate myself or try to cajole myself into ‘doing better’. I’ve never had much success at changing anything about myself after one of those internal “lectures.” And if the invitation to change comes from outside myself in one those of those more head-on forms, inevitably my inner defensiveness arises and I get stuck in a pointless battle of the wills with the message-bearer of the invitation to “Repent and convert!” Even if I might ‘behave better’ for a short while are such an encounter, it never seems to lead to lasting inner conversion – and it certainly doesn’t lead to freedom. Speaking often with friends and family and those in ministry, this frustrating and fruitless dynamic seems a somewhat common occurrence.
So how is conversion to happen in such a stuck situation? In our ‘adult’ times it seems that the pathway of childlikeness (referred to by Christ in Matthew 18:3) is much more effective than the perhaps more old school or traditional pathway of battling our pride head on. And a big part of what that pathway to conversion looks like is the image of God behind each one. Is that image a God of justice whom I fear? Or is that image a Father of mercy who loves me unconditionally? Pope Francis knows this very thing! Time and again, Pope Francis speaks of God’s love for us, of God as the Merciful Father, and Christ as the Face of God’s mercy!
When Jesus calls one to conversion, he does not set himself up as judge of persons, but he calls from a position nearby, because he shares in the human condition, and therefore calls from the street, from the home, from the table…. Mercy towards those who needed to change their lives came about through his lovable presence so as to involve each person in his salvation history. Jesus persuaded people with his kindness, with love and with his way of being, he touched the depths of people’s hearts and they felt attracted by the love of God and urged to change their lifestyle. For example, the conversion of Matthew (cf. Mt 9:9-13) and of Zacchaeus (cf. Lk 19:1-10) happened in exactly this manner, because they felt loved by Jesus and, through Him, by the Father. – Pope Francis, Jubilee Audience, June 2016
The merciful Father & miserable child
The pathway of conversion of becoming a child begins by getting to know God as our merciful Father. And while I don’t want to get lost on theological byways that go beyond my knowledge, I think it’s enough to say that God not merciful or just, but merciful and just. Overly accentuating God’s character as one of justice seems to contribute to that “adult” posture of trying to keep a clean collar, which fuels that frustrating and fruitless waging of war against our pride.
Fr Kentenich, a master of guiding souls towards transformation, put it this way:
What does merciful love mean? The eternal, infinite God possess all good attributes to an infinitely high measure and degree. You see, thus we speak of God as being just, as omnipresent, as omnipotent. But when we open Sacred Scripture, we encounter a few words which open up to us a whole world: Super omnia haec misericordiae eius. (Cf. Ps 149:9: His compassion is over all that he has made.) His merciful love, his compassion surpasses all other attributes; it surpasses everything else.
Nor merely love, but merciful love. God knows how weak I am. God knows that I am limited. God knows that I have original sin. God knows that I have personally committed countless sins. And now? His merciful love says “yes” to me. – Fr J. Kentenich Jan 18 1957
I feel as if I can hear you laying down your swords! That’s what happens for me when I contemplate the Father’s merciful love in my life – my pride quietly lays down its sword, suddenly finding that in the face of such warmth and acceptance, the sword isn’t really needed after all. And slowly, so slowly – freed from any tension of a battle of the wills – that
very same pride evaporates into the humble truth about myself – I am small, God made me that way, and I am perfect in my smallness.
It is this acceptance – and I would even say embracing – of our smallness that is the first step to becoming a child. On Holy Saturday we will proclaim with all the Church – O Felix culpa! O Happy fault!: “O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son! O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” (The Exsultet)
How can we rejoice in our smallness? How does it possibly make sense for our “faults” to be blessed? For the greatness of the Redeemer! And if we claim this title as small and before the Lord, we will surely feel it is a kind of death to self (the quiet death of pride) – but what we gain in return is so much infinitely greater. Then our faults, our sins, our weaknesses – even that darn pride – are not an obstacle to us, but rather a great wide open door through which grace can pour into our hearts, transforming into the person He designed us to become.
May the Blessed Mother be our example along the way – in her humanity she knew her lowliness, and yet in the courage of her faith, she trusted that her lowliness was no obstacle for God, yet rather the condition for Him to work his wonders.