Conversion of St. Paul at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Acts 22:3-16;  Mk 16:15-18

As Ordinary Time begins we find many of our gospels are about conversion. It is my most favorite topic. I came to New Melleray to give thanks for my own conversion from being turned away from God to being aware of His presence. I wanted to give thanks for His goodness. I read that Cistercians took a vow of conversion and thought that would be a point of bonding, of a sense of “belonging” in the community. I thought that “truly seeking God”, being “centered on Christ” and answering the call would be points of connection in the community.

Many often think that “conversion” refers to a change from a life of debauchery to one of virtue. Such is not the case in Paul’s experience or mine. Conversion is a change of heart, specifically, in the hearts sense of importance. There is a change in what affects the heart; in what it is “set on”. To change a heart the way conversion does, something must have a unique power. The Holy Spirit is that power.

When St. Paul writes about his own conversion he does not mention the Spirit, but he does when writing to others about their conversion. He reminds the Galatians and the Corinthians that the Spirit called them back to their senses, to straight thinking. He tells the Thessalonians that the Spirit is encouraging them in their Christian lives, in thinking with the Christian story. In both cases the Spirit is changing their sense of importance. He is reducing the importance of the satisfying and enlarging the importance of the spiritual, the important-in-itself. He does this so that they will notice the difference; the difference is important!

It is that contrast between pre-conversion life and the new life that makes the lasting impression. It is, as Paul repeatedly says, liberation. Liberation can’t help but make a lasting impression! He specifies it as liberation from the Law. We still benefit from the structuring of our conduct by a rule to aid in conforming our wills to Gods, but the motivation is not one’s status as a “good girl” or “good boy.” It is motivated by a responding love to the God Who loved us first. He converted us because He wanted to. That becomes the great fact of one’s life.

That great fact is important because it makes a great difference in one’s life. As the gospel and Paul’s life show, conversion is not for one’s own sake, for one’s own interior peace. It is for the glory of God. His goodness is to be “shown and known.” His word is spread and people unite around it.

And because of that difference it is never to be forgotten. A person devotes herself to it for its own sake. That is its deepest effect on who we are. One can never forget that the conversion, the transformation is the reception of a gift, rather than a purpose attained by one’s own will.  One seeks a community that shares that gift. As God told the people in Deuteronomy (6:12), “Do not forget the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.” In other words, the converted must not forget what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.