St. Bernard of Clairvaux taught that in the spiritual life we cannot remain the same: we must either advance or go backward. Nor is a relationship with Christ static; either we take up our cross and follow him, or we hold on to our “self” and try to stay put. A disciple’s path is one of ongoing conversion.
“Ongoing” doesn’t mean we don’t experience ebbs and flows. One kind of growth is cumulative, like a pile of sand growing as we pour on more and more. Knowledge and skill often progress this way. If you stop “pouring,” it no longer increases, but neither does it shrink.
Becoming like Jesus more closely resembles a second type of growth: developmental. A child learning to walk may fall dozens of times and on each occasion not seem to make any progress. But one day she seems to figure it out, and away she goes. A superficial assessment of the process would see all the earlier attempts as wasted effort, when in fact, they helped to set up and prepare for the outcome. So it is with spiritual growth. While we don’t seem to experience significant change every minute or hour of the day, we can still continuously move forward in the process of conversion.
How does this work? Perhaps you become easily frustrated and angry when things don’t go your way. You snap at others and obsess over your injuries. One day you take it out on a co-worker who herself was having a bad day. She leaves the room crying and you feel a bit stunned. The truth about your behavior begins to strike home. The Holy Spirit helps you see the truth about your attitude and actions, convicting you of unkind and self-indulgent behavior. You seek out your co-worker, offering an apology and begging her forgiveness. Then you resolve to change.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if change happened just by making a decision? As time goes on, however, we see the same old emotional response and thought patterns reappear. The old habits don’t die that quickly. We pray and we reflect. The Holy Spirit helps us recognize our attachments and disordered thinking. When anger arises, we counter with a prayer of praise. When issues surface that trigger an emotional response, we deal with those directly rather than delivering a verbal lashing. We return good for evil. Months, or perhaps even years later, we realize we have fundamentally changed, becoming a new person in the way we deal with the irritations of life.
Coming to Christ is the beginning of a personal relationship. We become a new creation. We were lost, and now we’re found. We were dead but now made alive. As we can see in the above example, this second kind of conversion usually occurs in smaller increments and seems less dramatic. God does not force it upon us. It takes cooperation with the Spirit and fortitude to realize its fruit.
After my initial experience of conversion, I drew upon a well of emotional and spiritual energy that motivated me to keep growing. Going back to the example of child development, I was like the infant or small child whose instinctual drive keeps him trying over and over again, even when it didn’t seem to produce results. I believe God gives new disciples this kind of tenacity until they can learn the disciplines needed to overcome the more resistant and ingrained obstacles. And just as behavior changes come more slowly and become more complex as we age developmentally, so does our spiritual growth. Ongoing conversion for the spiritually immature comes through more “childish” means, while growth for mature disciples takes “adult” methods.
A variety of spiritual practices can help us advance spiritually, but we should not confuse these with actual growth. For example, while reading and study act as tools to aid us, we are misled if we believe that acquiring knowledge is equal to conversion. Living a moral life honors God, but we can become complacent thinking that our good actions meet the developmental challenges of one who seeks to be made into the image of Christ. For others, their good intentions or acts of devotion become sufficient in the spiritual life. Whole churches can adopt a culture of mediocrity and complacency.
Pursuing a life of continual conversion or metanoia is a great challenge. While the practice of spiritual disciplines is necessary for progress, it is my belief that they are not sufficient, and applying this understanding can have a profound effect on our growth both individually and as a parish. In the coming weeks, we’ll explore how we can make conversion not just a one-time event, but a way of life using the following four-part formula:
Self-knowledge, guided by Revelation, leads to understanding.
Understanding, inflamed by Love, leads to metanoia.
Metanoia applied, leads to action.
Action surrendered, leads to conversion.
Each week, we’ll be turning to a different saint to guide us as we take the next step.
Conversion 101: Conversion as a Way of Life is the second in a six-part Conversion 101 series about energizing your spiritual life through ongoing conversion.