Knowledge and comprehension alone will not produce change. Some people even consider such “enlightenment” as an end goal, where it is only the first movement. Today, we’re going to focus on the next step: metanoia.
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.
St. Augustine in the Garden
In his best known and loved book, The Confessions, St. Augustine writes about his life and struggles leading up to and following his conversion to Christ. Well-educated and a teacher of rhetoric, he had a sharp and inquiring mind. But, as he would say, he lacked restraint and was engulfed in sin, particularly lust. He was intent on pleasing himself and winning the favor of others. For a number of years, he avoided the Catholic faith and followed a religious cult known as Manichaeism.
Still, Augustine had a burning desire to find the truth, and with some help from Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, he eventually recognized errors within Manichaeism and other philosophies. As he continued to search, he found his beliefs aligning more and more with the teachings of the Catholic Church. In spite of this, he still refused to become a Christian.
After two independent meetings with wise, Christian men, Augustine realized that while he no longer had any doctrinal objections to the Catholic faith, he resisted embracing the Christian faith because of his pride and an unwillingness to give up a carnal relationship with a woman. Finally, his struggle came to an agonizing climax as he tried to decide between the two options: to refuse Christ and reject what he had come to believe or to let go of his pride and carnal way of life. Three things happened that tipped the scales.
First, he saw Continence (control of his lust and the reservation of sexual union for marriage alone) as a healthy and viable option. He saw that God was trustworthy and that He would not let him fall but would heal him. Second, he felt the weight of his sin, dissatisfaction with himself and his life, and shame for his reluctance to commit while others had taken the lead. A desire for release and healing brought a flood of tears. Third, he followed the instructions of an angel’s voice directing him to take the scriptures and read. Opening to a passage that directly spoke to his situation, he lost all doubt and accepted Christ. He had come to an experience of metanoia — a profound change in heart and will.
In the months before my conversion, I came to see the value and attraction of living a life of radical discipleship. Like Augustine, I gradually discarded all my intellectual objections. But I resisted because I was not sure I was ready to face the consequences of following Christ. While holding my position seemed safe, it also felt empty and rife with despair. But fear of the unknown kept me from leaving my old life behind. It was as though I had come to the edge of a chasm. Where I stood was not a good place, but a miserable and empty life at least appeared more secure.
It was during a weekend retreat that I came to see the promise and freedom of God’s love. It was Love that carried me over the chasm, just as it did for St. Augustine.
Here’s the lesson. Through self-knowledge we come to comprehend the wretchedness of a life that clings so tenaciously to selfishness, pride, pleasure, and those things that are not only without lasting value but lead to destruction. While that understanding can bring us to the edge of the conversion chasm, it takes the fire of Love to get us to the other side.
Disciples face conversion chasms all the time, and I see three common responses. The first approach, born out of ignorance and avoidance, is no response at all. A non-responder rarely recognizes a chasm when he sees one, and if it’s forced upon him, he’ll find a way to deny it. The second group, slow or reluctant responders, may have some recognition of a need for change, but not always with full comprehension. A host of obstacles (we’ll discuss this in a future blog) generates resistance. Coupled with a weakened or distorted perception of God’s love, they often fail to cross the chasm. To appreciate the third group, the rapid responders, let’s look at the example of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
St. Thérése of Lisieux: A Model of Metanoia
When reading St. Thérèse ’s autobiography, A Story of a Soul, one doesn’t encounter much agonizing over acts of devotion or love. She assesses her situation rapidly and seems to immediately recognize her carnal inclination. Here are some examples:
- The temptation to be wrapped up in herself.
- Feeling the injustice of harsh treatment when first coming to the Carmelites.
- The vanity of wanting the pretty little jug instead of the larger, chipped one.
- The imperfection of her love for the other nuns.
- How she would be tempted to misuse recognition of faults in the other nuns.
- Feeling the urge to compete with one of the sisters for a desirable task.
- Wanting to avoid a nun who irritated with her.
- Feeling put out by nuns who claim something Thérèse had said as if it was their creation.
- Reluctance to care for an invalid sister.
Thérèse responds by letting go of the faulty desire and then acting opposite to the temptation. She seems to do this so rapidly and without fanfare that you can easily overlook the significance of the act. St. Thérèse leaps over conversion chasms like an Olympian running a steeplechase. How does she do it?
First, her self-knowledge and understanding is tuned by humility and the aid of the Holy Spirit. Second, she makes no provision for the flesh. Letting go has become a reflex. Third, her love for Jesus is so clear that she doesn’t waste effort or time trying to decide what to do. She has already given herself entirely to Jesus, so whenever facing a chasm, she trusts her Lord to carry her across.
Crossing Your Chasms
What should we do when we face a conversion chasm? The quick answer is to imitate St. Thérèse. Somehow, it just doesn’t work that smoothly for me. I’m still a work in progress, and until coming to completion, I will try to follow these four steps:
- Pray for the Spirit to open my eyes.
- Reflect frequently, and learn to develop a sensitivity to the quiet movements of the Spirit.
- Immediately let go of any attraction of the flesh that leads me away from God’s best.
- Keep my eyes on Jesus and move in his direction.
Join me next week as we look to St. Francis of Assisi for help with the next step in the process:
Metanoia applied, leads to action.
Conversion 101: Metanoia is the fourth in a six-part Conversion 101 series about energizing your spiritual life through ongoing conversion.