What Is Conversion?

Augustine was born in 354 in Tagaste, now modern day Algeria. His mother Monica attempted to raise him in the Christian faith yet Augustine quickly rejected what he called a juvenile belief. He spent much of his youth dissolutely wallowing in the pleasures of the flesh. He became a father at nineteen years old through a younger woman he considered his concubine. He tells his story “warts and all” in his work Confessions in which he doesn’t withhold the most embarrassing detail. Augustine was ambitious in his endeavor for worldly rewards. Most pressing was his insatiable quench for wisdom as Augustine knew that knowledge would bring him worldly power. He had a brilliant academic career studying in Carthage, Rome, and eventually became a renowned professor in Milan. While he studied from the brightest minds of the world, he held a snobbish contempt of religion as lacking the insight he had in academia. However, this all came crashing down when he began to listen to the theologically rich teachings of St. Ambrose. As Ambrose’s teaching simmered into Augustine’s soul, Augustine became drawn to what he earlier deemed as an immature way of thinking. During a profound personal crisis, he heard a voice telling him, “Take and read.” He opened the Bible to a letter by St. Paul. “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:13-14). What he read changed him forever. He then gave up his pursuit of worldly success and chose to dedicate himself completely to God. He was consequently baptized and was eventually ordained a priest and in 395 he became the Bishop of Hippo. Today, he is known as one of the most cherished saints and doctors of the Church.

There are countless stories of dramatic conversions in which a person does a 180 on their life. To witness sinners becoming saints and desolate figures re-hauling their life towards God unveils the need for human transformation.

Consumer research continuously reveals people’s interest in a product or solution that is shown to be an enhancement from the older version of it. This motto of “new and improved” is a prominent play in marketing campaigns but also dips into what lies in the depths of the human person. Whether it be one’s personality or physical appearance, people are continuously thriving to enter into a better version of themselves. The fitness, cosmetic, and self-help industries confirm that deep down we are all constantly attempting to tweak our physical and psychological “look.” Conversely, to merely exist in the same state, with little or no improvement show’s you’re caught in a rut. Here, one lives a benign, boring life that arouses no excitement or interest. Therefore, to move, to change, to better one’s self into the full flowering of one’s potential is engrained in the human psyche and attractive for all to see.

Within this human re-branding campaign we must ask – what about the soul? What about a reform of the deepest avenue that makes us human – our inner thoughts? In the spiritual realm, the process of your soul going through a “new and improved” version is called a conversion. A conversion necessarily draws out a move in an opposite direction. Here, one makes an about-face on their current trajectory and flips paths towards a better destination. With a transformation of a soul, the person needs to make a break from one governing philosophy to an alternative one. Because of the dramatic switch, at first, a conversion may seem unpleasant – akin to an overweight person attempting to go through a strenuous workout program. But, as one continues on their path towards conversion the gains become manifested and the initial struggle turns into a joyful experience.

Given that a conversion requires a break from one philosophy to another, a transformation of the soul must involve parting ways from the prevailing message of the world. Here, we must assert that the popular teachings of the world stand in stark contrast to the teachings of God. Whereas the presiding mantra of the world is to pursue self-pleasure and power, in the Christian realm the opposite surfaces – that happiness comes from self-sacrifice and humility. The notion to move in the opposite direction of the world is laid out quite clearly in the writings of the saints and the prophets. St. Paul said, “the wisdom of the world is folly to God” (1 Cor. 3:19) and reminded early Christians, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2, see also James 1:27, 4:4, Hebrews 9:14, Col. 3:1-2,5, Eph. 1:1-3, 1 John 2: 14-17, 5:19).

As well, Jesus made a sharp distinction between him, his followers, and the ideas of the world by his following statements:

“I have given them your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. They are not of this world even as I am not of it”(John 17: 14-16).

“You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world” (John 15:19, cf John 2:15).

“My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

The clear contrast of the Church and the world can be seen by understanding who is ruling over them and what they represent. Simple logic will help clarify. If the devil is the “ruler of the world” (John 12:31, 1 John 5:19, Eph. 2: 1-3, 6: 11-13, Rev. 12:12, Matthew 4: 8-9) and the devil is “the father of lies” (John 8:43-45), then it follows that the prevailing teachings of the world are a moral fraud. Similarly, if Jesus is “not of this world” (John 18:36) and described Himself as “the truth” (John 14:6, 18:37, 8: 31-32) then the unpopular messages that the world rejects (i.e. the teachings of the Church) is the truth we need.

Therefore, under the Catholic perspective, you don’t need to sheepishly nod in approval of all the vague, emotionally-hyped messages of the world. Rather, because the world is fallen, you listen to its message with a skeptical lens and do what the apostle John advises in “testing every spirit” (1 John 4:1) to make sure its origin is not from a demonic source. (1 Tim.4:1) In short, the Catholic view cautions us to not put too much stock in the popular mantra of the world. Instead, we are called to put the brakes on from the world’s ways and fix our eyes to God’s ways.

Augustine detailed his personal break in his writings, “For my own part I was irked by the secular business I was conducting, for no longer was I fired by ambition, and prepared on that account to endure such heavy servitude in the hope of reputation and wealth, as had formerly been the case. . . I was trapped in that foolishness no longer, for I had left if behind by hearkening to the concerted witness of your whole creation.”

As theologians are fond of saying, whether we know it or not, as humans we hold dual citizenship. Our current home is the church Jesus established on earth. It exists as a temporary home all the while prepping us for our ultimate home in heaven. Given this, we need not abandon our authentic home for some counterfeit that the world presents to us. Therefore, we should be more inclined to listen to the Gospel, the magisterium, the church fathers, and not the various pundits of society.

Because the philosophy of the world is in a constant nose dive, those that seek an authentic transformation realize they can’t operate by the playbook of the world for doing so they become morally compromised. As the apostle James put it bluntly “keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). The Church remains a “sign that will be opposed” (Lk 2:34) by the modern world because she proclaims the hard truth, not the soft, easy, pleasure-seeking message of the world. As Pope Benedict XVI comments, “We do not have to make the Church acceptable according to the world’s criteria. We have to purify her so that she presents to the world the cross in all its nakedness.”

Therefore, to truly move into a spiritual reform one is going to eventually have to part ways with the ideas, teachings, and overall governing philosophy of the world and begin to move closer to the teachings of God. To be sure, to go through such a drastic reboot of one’s life may seem like a scary proposition. As God tears out the former you and makes a new you, at first, it can provoke a distressing experience. However, this Divine renovation eventually ushers in a pleasant calming, freeing experience for a person.

Since we’ve become so accustomed to the ways of the world, shedding its influence on us is going to take time – often metamorphosizing over years. Augustine’s conversion was years in the making. He wrote, in the Confessions, “Your hand, O God, guided me to him unaware so I would be guided, aware, by him to You.”  

In his book, Cardinal Sarah outlines how faith pulls you into conversion. “Faith is therefore a yes to God. It requires a person to leave his gods, his culture, all human assurances and riches in order to enter the land, the culture, and the inheritance of God. Faith consists of letting oneself be guided by God.”

What’s more, is that a conversion needs to be rooted deeply in the person. Despite popular notions, faith cannot be reducible to a subjective, private experience that doesn’t affect the totality of the person. The spiritual reform exists with vigor. It must orient itself into the person’s intellect, will, and passions. Not allowing this expansion will lead one back to their state of original despair. Cardinal Sarah comments on this. “Refusing to let God into all aspects of human life amounts to condemning man to solitude. He is no longer anything but an isolated individual without origin or destiny. He finds himself condemned to wander through the world like a nomadic barbarian, without knowing that he is the son and heir of a Father who created him through love and calls him to share his eternal happiness.”  In this sad picture, man without God is like a dog who’s run away and eaten his collar. He is lost, doesn’t know who he is, and has chewed off his identity of who he belongs to.

For this conversion doesn’t call one to merely dabble in the faith, but to head deep into it. The move from the intellect (knowing the change) to the will (doing the change) is typically where a deep conversion of the soul stalls. Fear, sin, and weakness attempt to put the brakes on this transformation. As Cardinal Sarah reflects on; “Often struck by God’s hand for its adulteries and infidelities, Israel thought that it could find its return to grace and its deliverance in a repentance with no tomorrow and without deep roots. The prophets vigorously rejected such superficial, sentiment with no real break with sin, without a true abandonment of one’s state of sin and of the idols that have monopolized one’s heart. Only repentance that comes from the depths of the heart can obtain God’s forgiveness and mercy.”

Envisioning such a drastic change, we then ask, how can we convert? How can we walk away from the wants and whims of the culture and give ourselves entirely to God? There appears to be a conundrum taking place – we know we need to reform our souls, but can’t do it. However, in his wisdom, God foresaw the preeminent solution to this problem by delivering us the Sacrament of Confirmation. Too weak to move on our own confirmation infuses us with the Holy Spirit, which, in turn, blazes a trail towards conversion for us. After all, it was the coming of the Holy Spirit that turned the disciples from a bunch of uneducated, frightened, timid preachers who knew little about the faith into wise, prophetic men who preached with courage and boldness.

As parents can attest – teenagers are easily gobbled up by the doctrines of the pop culture which makes them dread living out the faith. Yes, a teenager’s conversion to the faith is humanly impossible given that they necessarily need to remove themselves from the ways of the world. This is precisely why God gives them the Sacrament of Confirmation – so they can do what seems humanly impossible and pivot from the world’s message towards God.

At this point, a brief word of caution arises as one starts on their road to conversion. Because you are removing yourself from the predominant ways of the world, those around you will think you’ve gone off the rails. In most people’s conversion stories they emphasize how they received negative pushback from those around them from this change of direction (I can affirm this from my own experience). But, while the pressure to conform to the world’s ways results in people thinking you’ve become weird, the Holy Spirit’s guidance will give you a “who cares what others think” disposition much like the early apostles had. In fact, I suspect others will inwardly be somewhat envious that you’ve broken away from the superficial messages of the world and have instead worked to reform your soul – as instinctively you are doing what they know they should do but haven’t yet.  

The current social and political landscape continuously reveals that the world is one big dumpster fire. Knowing this now makes the opportune time to fix our eyes gazed to the heavenly reality and move our soul into a new and improved look. Yes, it’s difficult to move away from the message of the world solely by our flawed self, but God has given us the avenue to do this through the Sacrament of Confirmation. Of course, it’s up to the person to allow the sacrament to change them – and this may play out quickly or over decades. As Jesus said about the Holy Spirit’s work, “The wind blows where it wills. You hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8).

Whether you were confirmed fifty years ago or confirmed yesterday, this sacrament will assure the change takes place – assuming you let it.

Here, one now comes to the fork in the road to make a decision. Perplexed and torn on whether to take the hard route or easy route one undoubtedly finds himself overwhelmed by his looming choice. Jesus presented the Holy Spirit to his followers as their ultimate guide on their upcoming journey (see Acts 1:7-8). Confirmation transforms a person from a weak, raw, childlike phase into a mature, ripe, soldier for Christ. The Holy Spirit is the instrument that makes this unique transformation possible. Much like the disciples went from willing yet uncertain, scared followers of Christ to then wise, courageous apostles who went out into the world with a urgent mission, we too experience this dramatic renovation in the soul at confirmation. The question is are we going to tap into this sacrament so we too can experience a conversion?

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