Conversion

I write this on the feast of St. Paul’s conversion, January 25. And what a conversion was that!

It’s my opinion, produced by experience, that I am repeatedly called to conversion. For me, there was one very big one, so big that I remember the date, place and hour. It was October 4, 1998, in Santa Fe (Holy Faith) at the noon Mass being celebrated at the Diocesan cathedral of Saint Francis. It was the fourth centenary of the Franciscans in the New World. The large number of Latinos at this Mass guaranteed that the liturgy’s music would indeed be celebratory. The contagious joy and enthusiasm of the parishioners acted upon me like Paul’s blinding light: powerfully and instantly converting me, bringing me back to the Faith that I had abandoned 21 years earlier.

Let me say it again: we are repeatedly called to conversion — not necessarily in a grand fashion, but in small doses, mini lights that invite us to make Gospel decisions.

  • Shall I respond harshly to this person to let her know I don’t appreciate her criticism of me?
  • Shall I turn a punishing frown at the guy who practically knocks me over with his shopping cart?
  • Shall I get out of bed for weekday Mass, tired as I am from staying up late to watch a movie?
  • Shall I give in to the “sadness of the noonday devil,”* or will I accept the call to bravery in performing those uninspiring tasks that wait for no one but me to finish?

These are the little conversions, the tiny steps that follow at a great distance from the footsteps of Christ. These are the mustard seeds, the tiniest available, that I’m invited to plant and tend carefully and steadily until they explode into trees, housing flocks of birds.

The Gospel call of the Apostles has always intrigued me. I used to lament that I was not around to be called to discipleship (not that as a woman I’d have been called anyway). There was a kind of magnificence to being called, to being lifted out of the drab dullness of daily drudgery to follow this great healer, preacher, teacher; to view the wonderment of the crowds and to be so intimately connected with the greatness of this man! For me, discipleship represented the best kind of greatness.

Before his call, Saul too had a kind of greatness. He was a leader in the gradual but persistent elimination of heretics who arrogantly claimed fellowship with a blasphemous criminal (as if this were something to be proud of!). Saul’s task: bring them back in chains, let them imitate their master, even to submitting to the same end and manner of execution.

Given his powerful personality, this saint-in-the-making required a proportionately powerful show of God’s great mercy. A mere hint or two wouldn’t be enough. Saul needed a blinding light, a certitude that would impel him to undertake the most trying conditions. In spite of all his sufferings – he recounts shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings – he considered them as nothing, and himself as the least of the Apostles. Indeed, his new name – Paul – means poor and small. Only in his acceptance of this smallness and the cross could he find true glory.

No wonder “little” Thérèse’s doctrine set the world on fire. Goodness, even holiness, was now presented to the hoi polloi as readily available even to the least of us. This young woman, formally educated only to the sixth-grade level, was named a Doctor of the Church for having taught this humble approach to God. Her longing to be a missionary, even to be a priest, was far beyond the possibilities of her circumstances. She recognized that all God wanted of her was fidelity to what was right in front of her: undramatic daily chores; crabby people; simple prayer which she often slept through. Each choice brought her one step closer to the One she loved “madly!”

How simple are my choices! Not easy, and certainly no longer grandiose as I grow slowly but surely into the reality of insignificance. All that remains is to be totally focused on the desire for the one thing necessary and a dogged determination to live the Gospel.


acedia.jpg* The “sadness of the noonday devil,” a spiritual condition called acedia is a gloomy combination of weariness, sadness, and a lack of purposefulness. It robs a person of his capacity for joy and leaves him feeling empty, or void of meaning.

“Copy Cat”

I’m the youngest of six siblings. I vividly remember one of my brothers, five years my senior, being seriously annoyed that I was copying his every activity. He would be constructing a house of cards, for example, and I’d attempt to do likewise. He would sing a particular song, and I’d soon be humming it too. He’d disdainfully chant, “Copy cat, copy cat!” My mother tried to convince him that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but he’d have none of it.

I can also remember imitating my mother: how she walked with a dignified step; the hat and gloves she wore to go downtown; how she composed her features in a ladylike way.

Other family habits and traits also influenced me – some, indeed, that I needed to shed later on, but others stood me in good stead: how the older sibs would retreat to their rooms after supper to spend a couple of hours on their homework. They never had to be sent there either. No wonder they did so well at school!

Copying others is how all of us learn, right from infancy. Our babbling baby talk is our elementary effort that ultimately leads (we hope) to conversations of substance.

If we were blessed to have constant good example, it was natural and even easy to copy it. Of course, the same thing is true for those subjected daily to bad examples.

And so it is in our spiritual life.

We who were blessed with a parochial school upbringing, were routinely presented with the examples of saints of every personality and walk of life. I can remember being very excited hearing about their lives: such remarkable people! If the story told of a missionary, I wanted to become a missionary too. If it was about a founder of a teaching order, I wanted to join. Even learning about a cloistered contemplative like Thérèse moved me to desire that life, though I had no idea what “contemplative” meant.

Sometimes I think that the best way to teach youngsters about our faith is not through the various dogmas and beliefs (head), but first through the passionate idealism of saints (heart). The rest could follow as necessary.

Jesus drew people to himself by teaching them about his Father’s attributes, especially his infinite love and forgiveness. Imitating these gives us happiness and entry into the Kingdom of God.

Look, this is what your Father does: when one of his children goes off course, leaves home, squanders his youth and fortune on prostitutes and drunken companions, the father simply watches for him every day, patiently waiting to welcome him home with a party and new clothes to replace his rags.

Look, this is what your Father does: if a stranger or even an enemy is injured, he picks him up, tends his wounds, and sees him through to a total recovery.

Look, this is what your Father does: he doesn’t hate those who hate and disrespect him, but loves them no matter what; he loves sinners into holiness.

“For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?”

Ultimately, Christ pointed to himself for us to imitate:

Love one another as I have loved you . . .

By copying Jesus, we grow into his very likeness and show ourselves to be true children of the Father, as he is.

“. . . I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good. So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5)

And twice blessed are we if we’re given a human face of goodness to see, study, love and imitate.

 

Two Saints: a Perfect Blend

September 4 is the feast day of my patron saint, Rosalia. Not too many people in this country have that name and even fewer know her as a saint. Because she was also somewhat connected to the Benedictines, I thought I should tell you something about her.

Sources tell us that Rosalia was born in Sicily of Norman nobility and was perhaps a descendant of Charlemagne. In spite of this aristocratic background, she was drawn to live as a hermit and spent most of her life in a cave on Mount Pellegrino, a short distance from Palermo. Benedictines in a nearby monastery witnessed and admired Rosalia’s life of prayer, solitude and penance. Along with these monastics, many local people climbed the mountain to come close to Rosalia, attracted by her reputation for holiness. Rosalia died in 1160 at the age of 35.

A few hundred years later Palermo was threatened by the plague. Ardent prayers to Rosalia were believed to have spared the city and gave birth to an enduring devotion to the  “Dear Little Saint,” or “La Santuzza,” as she was affectionately called in the dialect.

Bringing Rosalia closer to home, my eldest brother’s birthday falls on her feast day. His age this year: 92! Following the tradition of being named after the paternal grandmother, two of my cousins were also named Rosalie; one of them (my favorite) lived to be 93. It doesn’t hurt to be connected to such longevity!

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, when I became a Benedictine Oblate I chose Mary Magdalene for my second patron. She is known as the Apostle to the Apostles because Jesus commissioned her to tell the other apostles of his Resurrection. We don’t know anything about her apostolic activities after that, though legend has it that she spent time evangelizing in France. Last year, Pope Francis elevated her feast day to the same level as the Twelve.

Rosalia and Magdalene together add up to give me a perfect model for my spiritual life: solitary prayer and spreading the word of Christ. St. Ignatius refers to these combined traits as being a “contemplative in action.” This is such a sound teaching, compared to the divided concept of being either a Martha or a Mary. Quiet prayer inspires us to serve Christ and then it supports us in that service.

Traditions eventually do change. Not too many children today are named “after” anyone in their family or even in the family of saints. I guess the theory is they must make their own glory.

As happens so often with young children, I didn’t care much for my given name. As I recall, the main reason was that the capital “R” was difficult to write in script! The other reason was that it was so “different.” There were not very many children of my ethnicity in my school. Instead, I was surrounded by Mary Pats, Susans, JoAnnes, etc. Back then, I didn’t know anything about La Santuzza, and certainly nothing about Mary Magdalene except for her wrongful association with the Gospel’s women of ill repute.

Once I began to learn more about these wonderful women, I came to appreciate the power of their example. Before I even knew that St. Rosalia had been a hermit, it seems that some of her spiritual genes had been passed on to me in my fascination with the eremitic life. And I deeply loved the passionate devotion of Mary Magdalene as she stood by the cross and later clung to Jesus in her joy and relief at seeing him after the Resurrection.

I often pray to these saints and would be happy to imitate them in their love and devotion to Christ. Through this brief post at the very least, I hope to bring honor to their names.

St. Paul: Conversion and Transformation

This past week we celebrated the feast of St. Paul’s conversion. This was truly an astonishing event which ultimately led to the conversion of uncountable numbers of people over the last 2000 years. We honor and thank St. Paul for his responding to God’s great gift to him that opened the path of holiness to nations outside of Israel.

Maybe you and I wonder why God would choose this man for such an extraordinary mission. For this same man, first known as Saul, not only witnessed but approved of the execution of St. Stephen, ardent follower and defendant of the “Nazarene”, and celebrated as the first Christian martyr: Now Saul was consenting to [Stephen’s] execution. (Acts 8:1)

Furthermore, Saul was a ruthless man who breathed murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1). He was on his way to Damascus to ferret out men and women of “The Way” and bring them back in chains to be immediately dispatched. What could possibly change the heart of this merciless man? Such a radical turnaround leaves us gaping with astonishment.

Now, I’m not surprised that God can do all things, even to the point of converting this bloodthirsty man, but why would he choose an outspoken enemy of Christ for a mission totally different from his cruel ways? Why didn’t he choose someone like gentle Stephen who was so good, and who taught Christ with such staunch devotion?

In short, why doesn’t God do things the way I would do them???

Here’s my theory. God, who knows us through and through, knew very well the temperament he gave Paul. Ruthless? Yes. But once touched by the divine hand, once he literally saw the light, that ruthlessness was transformed into a relentless zeal. To be apostle to the gentiles, to face and persuade total strangers, required this kind of radical and unstoppable ardor. In one direction, it was used for intolerance and cruelty. In the other, it was used for conversion to a Way of love.

This is at the crux of how God creates. He gives us by birth and culture exactly what he wants us to have. He then subtly but persistently draws us to opportunities where, in our free will, we can use those gifts either to come closer to him, or to ignore his invitations and use our talents for worthless – even evil – purposes. We are given many enticements to good in the course of our life but only hear them if we’re open and willing to listen.

I often hear people bemoan some aspects of their temperament. I’m too this; I’m not enough that. As if God is a shoddy workman! It’s not a case of our too-muchness or not-enoughness, but rather that we haven’t yet learned to use our unique gifts for the love of God and service to his people, our neighbor.

conversion-of-pauThat brilliantly blinding flash of light Paul experienced was Christ’s irresistible invitation. Christ spoke to Paul not cursing or condemning him, but asking him what he was about, and why. Ironically, Paul’s spiritual blindness had preceded his physical blindness. All it took was one personal experience with Christ to wake him up to a different, loving, and dedicated way of life.

Paul’s letters overflow with his passionate love for Christ: how Christ is truly within us, how he rescues us from a life of selfishness. Paul became all things to all men, recognizing that  gentiles needed and would welcome the Christian Way, even though they had lived so differently from the chosen people. His new powers of vision saw how the love of Christ extends over all kinds of people, and how ripe was the harvest. Without Paul’s “ruthless” persistence enduring shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings, and disgrace, we would not be writing or reading of his miraculous conversion today.

Because of St. Paul’s conversion we know that even our most seemingly unlovable traits can be transformed into a loving service to Christ. All we need to do is listen.

Seven Blessings

In the Spirit of St. Francis of Assisi

Blessed are you, brother clouds,
Who cover our modest sister sky —-

clouds

Blessed are you, wind,
Who gently carries leaf and snow to visit me far away —-

Blessed are you, sweet creatures of air and earth,
Who people our lonely places —-

Saint-Francis-preaching-to-the-animals-Hans-StubenrauchTwice blessed are you, furry creatures,

Who companion us in our solitude —-

Blessed are you animate creatures
Who sacrifice your life to feed our hunger:
You are our little Christs who nurture us,
Bringing us strength and life —-

Blessed are you grasses and fruits,
Whose colors entice us, whose sweetness gladdens us —-
grass and fruit

Blessed are you, water and wine, slaking our thirst,

Transforming us for the wedding
of our Soul with Love.

Spiritual union