Friday, January 25, 2013
Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, which gives us occasion to reflect on our own faith journey and our own conversion experiences. How do we relate to Paul’s conversion story?
St. Paul's Conversion
Paul was the most ferocious enemy of the Church, who as a zealous Jew and Pharisee was persecuting Christians during the first century. Paul rooted out Christians in the synagogues, taking them into Jerusalem in chains to have them persecuted. In fact, he even assisted in the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr. Then, suddenly, without warning, as he is traveling on the road to Damascus, he hears the voice of God speaking to Him, is blinded by a bright light, and is knocked off his horse. While Paul was an intellectual, a learned Rabbi, a great theologian, his conversion experience was hardly an intellectual one. He was not converted by reason, by an acceptance of Christian ideas, nor was he swayed over by Christian apologetics, but his was a deeply spiritual experience.
My Own Conversion Story
As I reflect on my own conversion, it was hardly an intellectual experience, but a mysterious work of God. It was 1987. Both my mother and younger sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer that year. My parents were living in Texas and I was living in Illinois. I was working as a School Psychologist at a special education cooperative there and went to visit my parents on my Easter break. I had left the Church fifteen years earlier and had now joined my parents for the Good Friday liturgy at their parish.
We were affectionately greeted by their deacon and a nun in full habit, who seemed so jovial and loving. This impressed me, as I wasn't used to seeing people greet one another this way in my daily environment. Usually, people were pleased or relieved to see me and immediately began sharing their problems or concerns with me and it was my job to solve them. My dad (who had emphysema and bursitis, and later, lung cancer) insisted on pushing my mom's wheelchair into church. During the liturgy, we watched a dramatic depiction of the Passion, which was re-enacted on the altar with what appeared to be professional actors (members of the parish) that was heart-wrenching. I felt Christ's pain and His deep love for me. I felt so unworthy and so guilty for my sins -- something I had not felt in a long time.
Of course, I had been raised Catholic and taught to say my prayers at the age of three. I had attended daily Mass when I was a student at my Catholic parochial school. I also made daily visitations to the Blessed Sacrament after school. I regularly attended the annual vocation days held at McCormick Place in Chicago for junior high students considering a religious vocation and had a strong desire to become a nun, like my aunt and my cousin and the teaching nuns I admired so much. By the time I was a senior in high school, I began to have other ambitions. Although I was very active in my Catholic faith, I began to wonder what it would be like to live in the world and experience life like I thought other people (who, unlike my family, had money) did. Our family life revolved around school and church-related activities -- our Catholic faith was our life. Still, I was curious about things outside of our small community and yearned for something more. In my freshmen year, I had traveled to the New York World's Fair and seen the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. I wondered what it would be like to live there or in Chicago. I wanted to be free and to experience life -- it was time for a change.
My metamorphosis began my freshman year in college, which wasn't far from "the Windy City". I lived in an apartment only a few blocks from school with an older roommate -- a working girl who loved to party. My life seemed to take a bit of a downhill turn from there. I began to develop an inordinate attachment to worldly goods, money, status, and spent my time engaging in numerous pleasurable pursuits to satisfy my ego. I rationalized any guilt I felt and soon lost my sense of sin.
I continued in my secular ways following graduation. When I became well-established in my career, I would meet people who told me "You are so lucky. You have it all!" But I certainly didn't feel like I had it all -- I felt empty inside. There was an inner yearning for something more -- something I couldn't define -- but desperately needed.
On Good Friday that year, I watched my dad fall to his knees and embrace the life-size cross, tenderly kissing the feet of Jesus. Then, my mom seemed to "fly" out of her wheel chair and, in an instant, was on her knees, too, embracing and reverently kissing the corpus. It was at that moment, that I knew where the void was in my life. Jesus had been missing.
This was the turning point in my life – the decisive moment when I knew I would return to my faith. It made me realize how much I loved Jesus and how much I missed Him and yearned to receive Him in the Eucharist. When I did return to my faith, like St. Paul, I felt compelled to reach out to others in love and to share the gospel message with as many people as I could. It has only been through my acceptance of the free graces of God that I have been given and continue to receive daily that my ongoing conversion continues.
All conversions are the result of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. And, yes, they also involve an intellectual component – the acceptance of a creed and the doctrine of faith. However, it is only when our hearts are transformed by the love of Christ that we are able to follow after Him.
In the words of Pope Benedict XVI:
"Turning now to ourselves, let us ask what this means for us. It means that for us too Christianity is not a new philosophy or a new morality. We are only Christians if we encounter Christ. Of course, he does not show himself to us in this overwhelming, luminous way, as he did to Paul to make him the Apostle to all peoples. But we too can encounter Christ in reading Sacred Scripture, in prayer, in the liturgical life of the Church. We can touch Christ's Heart and feel him touching ours. Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we truly become Christians. And in this way our reason opens, all Christ's wisdom opens, as do all the riches of truth. Therefore let us pray the Lord to illumine us, to grant us an encounter with his presence in our world, and thus to grant us a lively faith, an open heart and great love for all, which is capable of renewing the world." (Wednesday Audience, September 3, 2008)
~ copyright January 2013, Jean M. Heimann