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Conversion
Being Born Again
and Again and Again

by Rev. James B. Dunning

A year ago, a young woman from Oregon jotted down some poetic reflections on her Easter Vigil experience. She wrote about "waiting...for the flash that changes everything" when she and other candidates for Baptism were "passing like sleepwalkers through the water, the oil, the first bread and wine."

But there was no "flash" and "no release from the frailties" of ordinary human life. Yet, as her verse concludes, she found that certain "unpretentious miracles" were happening:

"Over and over, we struggle out of the tomb, Feet tangled in the winding sheets, Decay just setting in; Over and over catch the scent of clean air As the stone yields; And over and over, turn again To the dawn, to the new light."

Rolling stones over and over

This new Catholic knows that Easter is just a beginning. "Over and over" we are born again and again. Over and over God rolls back stones from our tombs of complacency. Some unexpected event—whether heart-lifting or heart-breaking—nudges us towards questioning the meaning of life. A baby is born. Someone betrays us. We lose a job. We find a friend. News from Cambodia appalls us. We celebrate a marriage of 25 years. A relationship sputters and dies. A child leaves home. A spouse dies.

Catholics believe that these are revelation times. These are times when life pushes us to our limits. In happy times, we ask, "How did we deserve this?" If our answer is, "We don't. It's pure gift. It's pure grace," then we have seen the revelation of God's generous love. In painful times, we ask, "How did we deserve this?" If our answer is, "We don't. And we can't handle this alone," if we turn to God (or to companions as the enfleshment of God) for hope and healing, once again we have tasted the revelation of God's love. It was in such oppressive times that God's loving presence was revealed to Abraham and Sarah in the desert, to Moses and Israel in the burning bush and the exodus, to prophets looking at the violence and injustice of their times, to Jesus in his desert (see readings for First Sunday of Lent).

Conversion: our response to God's call

Therefore, over and over, such times can be conversion times. These moments of revelation are God's call, God's reaching out to us. Conversion and faith are our response. Conversion is our "turning toward" God who is always turning toward us. Conversion is the ongoing response of our whole person turning in faith and love to the God who loves us. Faith is far more than a head-trip with the mind. If revelation and grace are the gift of God's very presence and life and Self to us, faith is the giving of our whole self (head, heart and hands) back to God. That takes time. That takes some chipping away at the stone and defenses that block God's entrances to our tomb. We self-made Americans would rather pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. It takes time and humility to find that healing love is not self-made but pure gift.

That is why Catholic versions of conversion differ from fundamentalist pentecostal versions. Pentecostals leap into faith. Catholics tend to crawl. The classic model for the pentecostal version is Paul's sudden conversion on the way to Damascus, knocked off the horse onto his rear by grace. That "born again" experience is identified by time and place. It's a one-time event. Once it happens, we've got it made—or so we are tempted to think. With Jackie Gleason we cry, "How sweet it is!" It seems to come from nowhere. It is "baptism in the Spirit" by direct action of the Spirit.

Catholics agree that God's Spirit is behind it all. Catholics also believe in a Spirit incarnate, a Spirit enfleshed in persons and events. The Spirit was never more incarnate than in the person of Jesus (1 John 1). Jesus reveals this Spirit of God's love to us in what he says but more by who he is and what he does—as embodied in the events of his life: healing the sick, forgiving and eating with sinners, caring for the poor, dying and rising. He is the Word made flesh (John 1) by the power of God's Spirit. Jesus gives us that same Spirit who speaks through the events of our lives—babies born, jobs lost and friendships found. In these times the Spirit can reveal the God of hope and healing.

Conversion as birth

Catholics agree with evangelicals, nonetheless, that one image for conversion is birth. Although conversion is no one-time born-again experience, each conversion is a new birth—we are born again and again. Philosopher Sam Keen writes, "Every crisis in which the psyche is stretched, pushed and impelled into a larger world, invited to become spirit, will be symbolized by the trauma and triumph of birth. Without being born again, and again, there is no journey, no spirit, no love" (The Passionate Life, p. 30). All great moments of agony and ecstasy normally involve the trauma of birth (cutting cords, moving out, letting go) and the triumph of birth (new life, relationships, responsibilities). At life's great turning points (choosing a vocation, entering marriage, having children, making a commitment, experiencing the death of a loved one) especially, we are like Abraham and Sarah setting out into the desert. There's no National Geographic map, no AAA insurance. Are we able to let go of control and journey in faith on uncharted paths?

These dramatic kinds of conversion, however, are still crisis-oriented, like fundamentalist conversions, "peak experiences." There are also "plateau experiences," the long heat of the day after setting out on our path. Abraham and Sarah did not face crises every day. They were simply called to live each day in fidelity. Some may not be able to point to vivid born-again experiences prompted by crises. But they know they live more deeply in God's love today than they did five years ago. A greater and greater portion of their personal and communal lives is born into the new creation.

Since Catholics are many times born again, we have sacraments and a liturgical year to celebrate and nourish this new creation. All of human life can be born again. The ordinary is born again into the extraordinary; our faith-vision helps us see this. Eating, drinking, bathing, anointing, reconciling, healing, leading, marrying, using bread, wine, water, oil, gesture and vesture, music, laying on of hands and taking part in processions in a community of faith—all these human events are caught up into the new creation. Sunday after Sunday, Lent after Lent, year after year, we bring all this to liturgy so that all of life and all creation might be born again and again through God's Spirit who makes all creation new (Romans 8).

Conversion as dying/rising

A second image of conversion is the paschal mystery, namely, our entering the dying/rising of Jesus. This image is grounded in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). There the Church offers a vision of conversion for new members. The RCIA states that this also holds true for all members since conversion is an ongoing journey. "The whole initiation must bear a markedly paschal character, since the initiation of Christians is the first sacramental sharing in Christ's dying and rising" (#8). Once again, the Catholic version of conversion is sacramental. Initiation is the first sharing in Christ's dying/rising; but every sacrament, especially the Eucharist, celebrates our deepening experience of the death and resurrection of Christ.

We need to move beyond the jargon of paschal mystery, however, and connect that dying/rising with concrete events in our lives. Our biblical tradition does precisely that. Unlike the writings of some other religions, the writings of Jews and Christians are rooted in historical events and stories—stories of real people to whom God gives life even when they are dead, powerless, enslaved: to Abraham and Sarah when they are old and barren, to Rachel and Rebecca when they are barren, to Moses when he is fearful and timid, to Hebrews in slavery, to David when he is too weak, to Israel in exile, to Jeremiah when he is too young, to Isaiah when he sees himself as too sinful, to Mary who is a virgin, to the Samaritan woman rejected because she was a woman and a Samaritan, to workers in the vineyard who are late, sons and daughters who are prodigal, sheep who are lost, tax collectors who are traitorous, adulterous women whom "perfect gentlemen" want to stone, sinners who know their sin, Jesus tempted in the desert, sweating blood in the garden, nailed to the cross. In each story there is death—powerlessness, barrenness, rejection, crucifixion. In each story God gives life—power, birth, acceptance, resurrection.

We proclaim these stories, and we listen. It is not so much that we take hold of the stories. The stories take hold of us. We ask, "Have I and my people ever felt too old, barren, fearful, enslaved, weak, exiled, young, sinful, Samaritan (read black, Hispanic, Polish, Irish), prodigal, lost, in a desert or on a cross?

If so, do I believe God is there in those times turning to me and my people offering love, grace, freedom, liberation, gift, life? If so, have I put my trust in that God, turned to that God? That is hardly a head-trip. It is surrender of our whole person to the God who surrenders in love to us.

For many people, dying often means a crisis. Dying, however, can also mean the day-to-day dying of people who love, for example, in marriage, friendship, serving others. In Italian, amore (love) has its roots in morte (death). In the quiet dailiness of our relationships and our vocations we experience death to self and to our needs. This kind of dying is part of one's care, compassion, sensitivity and love for other persons. We experience the new life which that death brings. When we turn to God as the source of that life, conversion happens. "Those who live in love live in God and God in them" (1 John 4). That is the life for which we give thanks at Eucharist and which is the place of ongoing conversion.

Conversion as mirrored in the RCIA

There is no better way to understand the meaning of conversion in all its dimensions than to look at the RCIA. Various signs of conversion are found there. This is the Church's own vision for nourishing the ongoing conversion of its members. The RCIA identifies the signs of this ongoing conversion. In the first period of the RCIA (inquiry), a time when candidates for initiation search for faith with the Catholic Christian community, the goal is "faith and initial conversion." Very simply, that means a person "feels called away from sin and drawn into the mystery of God's love" (#36, 37). This is a first sign of conversion. That may or may not have happened for an inquirer. If it has not, the inquiry period offers evangelization, which literally means "sharing the Good News" of God's love as an invitation to conversion. We simply tell the great stories of God offering life where there is death. We invite inquirers to see themselves in those stories. "Yes, I am the prodigal embraced by the Father. I am the lost sheep carried home. We are the people with whom Jesus is present during the storm." If they see themselves in these stories, conversion has happened.

The same is true for baptized Catholics—they may or may not have been "drawn into the mystery of God's love." In a study by George Gallup of all major Churches, Catholics scored lowest (65 percent) in agreeing with the statement, "God loves you a great deal," and lowest (82 percent) in believing that they have a personal relationship with God. If any of us as baptized Catholics have not experienced personal faith and conversion, we have some catch-up work to do.

Once again, the RCIA suggests what we might do. The second period in the RCIA, the catechumenate (the period when the Church nurtures candidates in deeper faith), does not totally shift gears. It simply continues what the inquiry period began, and nourishes, stabilizes and deepens the ongoing conversion of new members. It does so in four ways: 1) Scripture and doctrine; 2) prayer and moral life of the community; 3) liturgy; and 4) apostolic witness (#75). That is a revolutionary vision of catechesis (which in Greek means echoing the Word, hearing the Good News again and again). It moves far beyond head-trips. We can never know what is in a person's heart; but if conversion is deepening for new members, there should be signs in these four areas. The same is true for old members. Therefore, let us explore some dimensions of these four avenues of catechesis.

Scripture and doctrine: conversion as 'afterthought'

Scripture scholar Raymond Brown suggests that the Greek term for conversion, metanoia, means afterthought. Many identify conversion with moral change. But, in a sense, the people who rejected Jesus, especially the Pharisees, were morally good people. They followed the law. However, from the start they had refused to change their minds. They felt Jesus had nothing to teach them. They had their minds made up that they were self-made. They did not think differently after they met Jesus Christ. They missed the message—morality and law do not save. God saves. Grace saves. And the absolutely free gift of God's love and mercy is what makes morality possible.

There is much concern these days about "the closing of the American mind," not only to the three R's but also to the fourth R, religion. Up goes the cry, "Back to the basics!" Indeed, we need the basics of religious knowledge. That does not mean all the tomes of Thomas Aquinas. It does mean what some have called the hierarchy of doctrine, including such things as the Creed, Ten Commandments and Beatitudes, the Our Father and the sacraments.

We can know those basics, however, and miss the basis. Theologian Bernard Lonergan says that the basis of conversion is to discover life as wonder, mystery, the gift of God's love. At the heart of all doctrine is the one message of God's love in Christ Jesus through the Spirit. At the heart of all the great stories of Scripture is God's love calling us through death to life. How do we think after we hear those stories? Do we connect those stories with our own born-again and death-resurrection stories? When catechumens put themselves into those stories—when the stories cease to be just facts about Israel and Jesus and become revelation of our dying and rising through the power of God's love in a community today—it is one sign that Scripture and doctrine have generated conversion for these new Catholics. The same holds for veteran Catholics, some of whom Gallup claims are weak in personal faith in God's love.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland claims that, just like the religious leaders of Jesus' day, some of our leaders are also weak in proclaiming God's love. He says, "I am sick and tired of perfectionism." He adds that true witness is full of compassion: "We witness because we want to try to help broken people." This compassionate witness is contradicted by those who would "get rid of the divorced, the gays and everybody else who gives us problems." If we share such self-righteous attitudes, we may need to ask: Has Jesus really changed our minds?

Prayer and morality: conversion as 'doing truth in love'

We not only talk the Way. We walk the Way. We not only speak the truth. We do the truth. We learn about Christ by following Christ. The Hebrew word for word is dabar, better translated as word-deed. To believe God's Word is to do God's Word. God's love comes first. The initiative is always with God. But God's love makes our love possible. A second sign of conversion for new and old members is that we are praying and living better.

Catholics believe we learn about Christ by following him where he lives today—in a community of faith. We believe in "Christ among us" more in people than in books. We follow Christ by experiencing him in sick people who pray, married people who communicate, alienated people who reconcile, broken people who work for justice. We ourselves are born again and again; we die/rise again and again in our life of prayer and living out our commitments to communicate, reconcile and work for justice. This does not mean we are sinless. It does mean that, after we believe in the power of God's love and let it transform us, we become better lovers—in prayer and action in the community.

Liturgy: celebrating conversion with 'good red wine'

A third sign of conversion, especially for Catholics and others who believe in a sacramental world, is discovering and celebrating God's presence and love in the liturgy: in bathing, anointing, eating, drinking, reconciling, marrying, leading and healing, in gesture and vesture, smells and bells. The Catholic vision which celebrates God's creation and love in the Eucharist and other sacraments extends to the whole of creation—rejoicing in God's goodness revealed in all the earth's blessings. At our best, Catholics have special devotion to parties. As English author Hilaire Belloc put it in the 1930's, "Where e'er the Catholic sun does shine, there's music and laughter and good red wine. At least I've always found it so, 'Benedicamus Domino.'"

Catholics take the incarnation, the enfleshment of God, more seriously. We never came closer to God than we did in the flesh of Jesus. But his Spirit has been poured forth on all flesh. Wherever "two or three gather in his name" to "do things in memory of him," God in Christ Jesus is in our midst. For new Catholics the most powerful experiences of God's presence in community are usually the liturgies of the RCIA, especially the robust incarnation of that presence in light, Word, water, oil, meal and community at the Easter Vigil. For all Catholics a sign that they are entering more deeply into a Catholic understanding of conversion is that they are able to celebrate their lives as born again and again in the liturgical year, brought through death to life in the galaxy of Catholic liturgies.

Witness: conversion to mission

One of the exciting results of Vatican II is the proclamation that all the baptized are called to Christian witness and service. All are called to be missionaries. All vocations are religious. The fundamental sacrament is Baptism. Members of religious communities and the ordained simply live Baptism in a certain way. Most of the baptized are missionaries in their family, work, neighborhoods and civic communities.

Scripture scholar Eugene Laverdiere insists that commitment to Christian mission is a sign of readiness for adult initiation. It is the fourth sign of conversion in the RCIA. Put negatively, if we aren't ready to witness actively to the gospel, then we aren't ready for Baptism. That means that some of us baptized as infants and raised on a passive diet of "pay, pray and obey" may yet have a long way to go in activating our missionary vocation.

That does not mean that most live that vocation in a formal Church ministry, for example, lector, eucharistic minister, catechist. Too often we recognize, celebrate, even pay for only those ecclesial ministries. The reason those specialized ministries exist is to empower the baptized to live the gospel of compassion, justice, peace and love in the world where the Reign of God happens (or does not happen). All ministries of liturgy and catechetics are there to launch and celebrate ministries of diakonia, that is, ministries of broader service and witness in a broken world crying for hope and healing.

Conversion: a joyful response

The Catholic version of conversion, therefore, is that we are born again and again, through dying/rising again and again. Conversion is the ongoing response of our whole person turning in faith in the amazing grace of God's love, our response of love in prayer and moral action, celebrating that love in a myriad of liturgies, and witnessing to that love and justice in our world. Another new Catholic, baptized on a Cherokee reservation, reveals that she has taken that conversion journey. She prays:

"Will you take us now and make us useful? Can we share these treasures? Water and wine for a thirsty time—Bread and roses for hungry hearts. As you gave life for life As life has been shared with us for life So now we give our days and strength To walk each gifted year around In joy."

Father James B. Dunning, Ph.D., is president of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate. A nationally known lecturer, he is also author of New Wine, New Wineskins: Exploring the RCIA and Ministries: Sharing God's Gifts.

 
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