The Latin origin of the word “conversion” can provide insight into how we should view the task of conversion. While etymology does not limit the current meaning of words, the origin of terms can show how they came to be and how they were intended to be used in the time they take on their Christian meaning. Conversion comes from the Latin conversio, which means “turned around.” The Latin verb this arises from is convertere(to turn around), which itself is comprised of the prefix com- (with, together with) and vertere(to turn). In other words, conversion means to turn around, but it also gives us the sense of turning with something or someone.
Christian conversion follows this origin of the term in that it is both a turning around from following our fallen inclinations, and at the same time, it is turning together with Christ, both toward Him and His Father. This turning together with Christ, is important to emphasize. Our conversion is not a matter of our initiative, nor can we do by ourselves. Conversion is our responding to God’s initiative, through the power of the Holy Spirit, by surrendering ourselves actively to Christ’s will. It is Christ who helps us turn, but only with our willing it. It is Jesus Christ who also leads us, by the hand, back to the Father with our willing cooperation.
In order to surrender ourselves to the Father and to conform our wills with His will, we must nurture a constant attitude of humility and a poverty of spirit. We have discussed the importance of humility for the virtues. It is even more essential to conversion with Christ. Humility is the opposite of the sin of pride. Pride can most easily be defined as consent to Satan’s temptation to try to be God without Him. It promotes a desire to place ourselves and our egos at the center of everything. Such desire is contrary to human nature and so pride is destructive of our personal fulfilment and it interferes with our ability to experience joy.
Humility is recognizing that we are created in the image of God and that we have an inherent dignity. However, it also recognizes that we fulfill our calling only when we look like Christ; when we know Him deeply and always choose according to His will, which is always the Father’s will. Like Christ, we must empty ourselves, giving ourselves completely and fully back to the Father. In other words, humility is understanding and internalizing that we only find ourselves by giving ourselves fully away to Christ.
Humility requires a constant attitude of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving recognizes that all we have is already a gift from God. Nothing good in us originates with us or our egos; the origin of all good is God. We all have many good “gifts” that help to make us who we are and for which we must be thankful. But the main point is that they are gifts, given to us by God for the service of others.
The fact that we exist is our first, irreplaceable gift. That we are able to arise each morning, that we have air to breath, water to drink, food to eat, and clothes to wear are all gifts for which we must be thankful. Another great gift is comprised of our family and friends without whom we could not be the persons we wish to become. The fact that God continually offers to us the gift of His merciful love regardless of how many times we have rejected it, a gift which was purchased by His Son through an unspeakable price, is the most ineffable of the gifts about which we have to be thankful.
Thankfulness is written into the order of creation because it reflects the Son’s relationship to the Father. The Son eternally returns Himself to His Father in an act of eternal thanksgiving. This is the pattern for creation. It is also the pattern for salvation history and the pattern for the Mass, which we call the Eucharist. It is no surprise then, that we call the action of the Mass the Eucharist, which comes from the Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” The Son, the cosmos, human nature, salvation history, and the liturgical life are all Eucharistic.
This means that there is nothing that can happen to us, even those events we might not at first see as gifts or whose purpose we cannot begin to understand, that cannot and should not be responded to with thanksgiving. Much of the misery we experience in our lives begins with the presumption that all we have is our due, and what we are missing but wish to have is also due to us. The habit of giving thanks to God for absolutely everything will help to inoculate us from such temptations, and to the temptations to be presumptive and prideful that are sure to follow.
Humility and thanksgiving are the prerequisites to our ongoing surrender of ourselves, in faith and in love, to Jesus Christ and to His providence. This surrender must walk the middle path between two opposing, extreme poles which we can call Pelagianism and Quietism. Pelagianism is a heresy originated by a monk (probably of British origin) in the early 5thcentury who taught that we did not need grace for salvation. He said that we can save ourselves. This is clearly Satan’s temptation to humanity.
The truth is that we cannot only notsave ourselves, we cannot even resist temptations by ourselves. Satan knows that if we attempt to fight his temptations alone, it is not a fair fight. He will win every time. If we are not willing to follow his temptations into sinful activities, then he is going to try to get us to fight his temptations by ourselves. He knows that this fight will end in failure and despair so that we will probably give up. This is where he wants us.
He wants to tire us into Quietism. Quietism is a heresy that says we cannot do anything at all to save ourselves. That we must be completely passive so as to make God move us. It says we have no part to play in our salvation and so we must let Him even choose for us, without us. But this makes no sense when we understand that holiness is perfection in love and love is an act of the will. If we are to love, it has to include our act of the will.
The only one who wishes us to be completely passive is Satan. He knows that we are made to surrender and that all he needs to do is to tire us out so that we will then be inclined to surrender, but he will make sure that we surrender to him and his sinful temptations. You see, we must surrender, but it must be an active surrender to Jesus Christ. We must continually, actively choose to conform our wills to His will. In our attempts to surrender ourselves to Christ, we must continually be on guard against falling into either of the temptations to Pelagianism or Quietism.
This surrender to Christ is for the sake of becoming like Him. Jesus Christ reveals to us the love of His Father. Every act He did on earth was an act of love. If we are to be conformed to Him and to be His disciples, we must not only say no to our selfish, sinful inclinations. We must also say yes to Him and His invitations to love Him with our whole selves and to love our brothers as ourselves. The way we experience God’s love is primarily in the experience of mercy. St. John Paul II calls mercy, “love’s second name.” Mercy is the love which God continues to offer to man as a human family, and to offer to each and every one of us even while we reject his previous offers. Mercy is the overflowing offer of love to those who do not deserve it. If God shows us His mercy, we must also be instruments of His mercy to others.
The tradition suggests two categories in the way Christ’s disciples are to show mercy to our neighbors. The first category is comprised of the corporal works of mercy. They are feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead, and giving alms to the poor (CCC 2447). This reflects the fact that God’s love and mercy are an integral mercy, given to human persons which are unity of body-soul. One cannot simply say that we are concerned about someone’s soul but not his bodily needs. St. James says that to ignore the bodily needs of one’s brother while calling ourselves Christ’s disciples is an expression of demonic faith (see Jas 2:13-19). But of course, there is a hierarchy of goods.
The salvation of the soul must take precedence if there comes a conflict between saving the body and saving the soul (hence, the tradition of martyrdom). Nevertheless, the spiritual works of mercy form a unity with the corporal works of mercy. The spiritual works of mercy are identified by the tradition as instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, consoling the afflicted, comforting the sorrowful, lovingly correcting sinners, forgiving others’ transgressions against us, bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for both the living and the dead (see CCC 2447). Of course, these actions are not the only acts of mercy. Any acts which are directed toward the integral good of others, especially for those who cannot do so for themselves, are acts of merciful love, which we also call charity. There is one more important element we will mention here.
An intense prayer life that is oriented toward contemplation is necessary. Communication is a form of intimate communion. Communion with Christ comes in many forms. The Sacraments and especially the Eucharist, are encounters of communion in which we are, by Christ’s promise, made partakers of the divine nature (see 2 Peter1:4). We can have encounters of communion with Him in reading His revelation to us in Scripture. However, communion through speaking with and listening to God is another essential manner of encounter. This form of communion is prayer, which begins with words and eventually should reach a level of intimacy which surpasses words. This latter level of intimacy is called contemplative prayer.
The amount of time we allow ourselves to respond to the Holy Spirit’s invitation to prayer, and the depths to which we allow Him to draw us are important indicators of where we are in our spiritual lives. This, I believe, is what St. Alphonsus Liguori meant when he said, “those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned” (see CCC 2744). We will devote our second section of this chapter to some important aspects of a Christian’s prayer life. Before turning to that, let’s look at some suggestions for discerning where one is in his Christian maturity, for identifying times of temptation, and for overcoming the temptations when they come.