The Three Stages of Conversion
The most Holy Trinity sent the Holy Spirit to tug at our souls. The curious are following the tug back to its source. Along the way, the curious are exploring the mystery, majesty and magnificence of God. They are participating in the quest to discover God. Yet, how few are the curious! How many are the strangers to the quest! Of those participating, how many are lukewarm, insincere or perfunctory! Life approaches perfection only when we are diligently engaged in the quest to discover God. Therefore, is it possible to stimulate interest in the quest?
Yes. There is a way. But, the approach cannot be scattershot. Throwing everything that's Catholic at them at the same time willy nilly in the hope that some of it sticks does not work. Settlers do not ripen into pilgrims simultaneously. Each passes through the stages of conversion according to his own, unique, idiosyncratic timetable. Therefore, the tools of conversion must be tailored to the stage. The tool that is appropriate for one stage is inappropriate for the next. For conversion to take place, the stage must first be ascertained and the tool appropriate for the stage applied. There are three tools of conversion: 1) the sledgehammer of truth, 2) the map of the escape route, and 3) the key of morality. Each tool is appropriate to a particular stage.
The goal of conversion is to transform settlers into pilgrims. Like trees, settlers have put down roots deep into the valley of tears. They are content to stand still even though the valley of tears is hostile territory. In hostile territory, movement is necessary for survival. Settlers standing still in the valley of tears must become pilgrims passing through it. Run, settlers, run. Do not stand still. Run from holy place to holy place. [If the exigency is not felt, the Church is not doing its job (Matthew 3:7).]
In the first stage of conversion, the illusions are shattered that hide from us the sweetness of paradise and the sourness of godlessness. The sledgehammer of truth shatters the illusions as the blow of a hammer shatters glass. The sledgehammer of truth is the tool appropriate to the first stage of conversion. Is all truth brought to bear on the illusions? No. Just the subset of truth that pertains to them. The illusions distort the landscape of reality (Isaiah 5:20).. Under the illusions, the world is topsy-turvey. The illusions deceive us into thinking that godlessness is sweet and paradise is sour. When the illusions are shattered, the truth becomes visible to us. The serpent's promise of deification in godlessness is exposed as a lie (Genesis 3:5). We see with our own eyes that paradise is sweet and that godlessness is sour. Rational creatures seek the sweetness of paradise and flee the sourness of godlessness. It is contrary to our self-interest to do otherwise. The truth motivates us. The truth sets us free. Settlers pick up the roots they have planted in the valley of tears and become pilgrims passing through it. Without pausing to pack our bags, we join the quest to discover God. The current of salvation sweeps us up off of our feet as it flows inexorably from the sourness of godlessness to the sweetness of paradise and carries us back to our home with God and his holy family in paradise (except the contrary who perversely swim against it).
Before the second stage of conversion can begin, however, the Church must wait for the signal. The Church must be patient and wait for the signal that heralds the second stage. After the illusions are shattered by the sledgehammer of truth, the curious start clamoring for directions: "How do we get there from here - from godlessness to paradise?". The plea for directions is the signal that the time is ripe for the Church to declare, "we have the map and know the way". [Sharing the map of the escape route with settlers still deceived by illusions who are not asking for directions bears no fruit (Matthew 7:6)] The map of the escape route is the tool appropriate to the second stage of conversion. God built an escape route through the valley of tears from godlessness to paradise (Isaiah 35:8), defined it with holy places, made a map of them, established a Church, entrusted the map to the Church and gave the Church the mission of serving the new exodus as the new Moses. The new exodus is making its escape on the escape route through the valley of tears from slavery under the yoke of Pharaoh to freedom with God and his holy family in the promised land (Exodus 3:8). The movement of the new exodus on the escape route forms the needle of the compass that always points to God. Only by moving from holy place to holy place can we be certain that we are heading in the right direction. The holy places that define the escape route are the jewels of a beautiful necklace that God established in, set against and in contrast to the hostile desert of godlessness. The beautiful necklace is a gift from the God who loves us - a token of his love.
In the second stage of conversion, the Church puts down the sledgehammer of truth, picks up the map of the escape route and becomes the tour guide who takes the curious to the holy places. At the holy places, the curious explore the mystery, majesty and magnificence of God. At a holy place, we include God in our lives and God includes us in theirs. Close encounters with the living God take place at the holy places. During a close encounter, a connection is made between earth and heaven. Through the connection, the light of paradise illuminates the darkness of godlessness. What does the light show the darkness? The light shows the darkness that the economy of paradise is based on the currency of love. With ordinary currency, the more we spend, the poorer we get. It is a paradox, but, we grow rich by spending the currency of love. The more we spend the richer we get (Matthew 13:12) Therefore, let us meet at a holy place where we can grow rich by spending the currency of love. No one walks away from a close encounter with the living God unchanged. No one walks away empty handed. A close encounter with the living God transforms us. At a holy place we keep one eye open to catch a glimpse of God in the moment. Examples of the holy places upon the earth at which close encounters with the living God take place are the Mass, Confession, the other sacraments, works of charity, acts of kindness, prayer especially the rosary, Eucharistic adoration, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, fasting, the gathering of two or more together in God's name, bible study, suffering (if we apply love to it), the hour of death, etc. The holy places are the life boats that God has provided to ferry us out of godlessness, through the valley of tears, to paradise. God occupies the life boats.
In the second stage of conversion, the Church is the usher who shows us to our seats so that God can put on the show. God, not the Church, is the star of the show. The Church is the servant of the escape not its master. God is the master of the escape. It is God's escape route that takes us from godlessness to paradise - not the Church's. The Church is the trustee of the escape route who owes a fiduciary duty to the pilgrims engaged in the escape and to the settlers not yet interested in the escape. The fiduciary duty of the Church is to help the children of Adam and Eve to discover God - all of the children of Adam and Eve, not just some - both saints and sinners, especially sinners (Matthew 9:11-13). Discovery takes place at the holy places.
God is not the king who rules us. He is the king who loves us. In place of rules, regulations, red tape and rigmarole, the means by which he governs us is love. In the kingdom of the king who loves us, the citizens govern themselves. We desire to please him. We trip all over ourselves in our eagerness to please him. The Church is wise to do likewise. The job of the Church is not to rule us. The Son of God did not pay us a visit to establish another government here on earth (John 18:36). The job of the Church is unique. The job of the Church is to facilitate our escape - not to frustrate it, not to filter it and not to foul it up. The escape from godlessness to paradise is primary. Nothing else matters. Everything else is secondary. Anything that interferes is suspect. Like UPS, the US Postal Service or Federal Express, the Church is all about logistics - getting us from here to there - from godlessness to paradise. "Abandon ship! Abandon ship!" is the cry of the Church. "Into the lifeboats! Into the lifeboats" the Church exclaims. Godlessness is a sinking ship (Mark 4:35-39). We are its passengers. The Church is its crew. God gave the Church a rescue mission. However, the rescue mission that God gave the Church is not to save the ship. The rescue mission that God gave the Church is to save the passengers. God is not interested in making godlessness into a better, more hospitable place for godless people to live. God wants us to exhume the corpse of godlessness that is poisoning us as it rots in our hearts. God wants the Church to get us out of the valley of tears, into the lifeboats and on our way to paradise.
The first two stages are the foundation of the process of building a Christian. They are the root from which a Christian sprouts. Everything else is built upon the foundation. Get the foundation right and everything else falls into place. Get the foundation wrong and everything else falls apart.
In the third stage (CL head sketches a Christianity beyond the culture wars" Crux, John Allen and Ines San Martin, June 22, 2017) the roof of morality is installed upon the foundation of conversion. Like the second stage, a signal heralds the start of the third stage. Morality is the key that unlocks the cages of sin in which we imprison ourselves. When we bang on the bars of our cages and beg for the key and demand our freedom, the signal that the third stage has begun is sounded. Trying to install the roof of morality on a settler without a foundation, however, is akin to giving what is holy to dogs or throwing your pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). Settlers view morality as the cage that imprisons them and not as the key that sets them free. Pilgrims, on the other hand, have an open mind about what is the cage and what is the key. Pilgrims are more willing than settlers to take the bit of morality into their mouths, the bridle of morality onto their heads and the reins of morality into their hands. Morality is the jeweled crown that pilgrims wear on their heads as we pass through the valley of tears.
The Church, however, has a surplus of roofers and a shortage of foundation workers. Everybody is a roofer with an opinion about how we ought to behave. Nobody is working on the foundation. As a result, the escape is sputtering and stalling. Fewer and fewer are going to Mass. None are going to Confession. Marriages are falling apart. Mothers are murdering their babies. The priesthood is going extinct (Pope Francis 1/28/2107 at the Congregation for the Institute for the Consecrated Life) (Summary of Bulletin). The trend is downward and accelerating. The only sacrament holding its own is the sacrament of extreme unction and this is so only because the dead have no choice. The thermometer that gauges the temperature of the body of Christ is the practice of Christianity. By this measure, the patient is dying.
God is not dead. Indeed, God is very much alive. However, the conversation about God is dead. Killing the conversation about God is tantamount to killing God. The enemies of the Church know this. The Church does not. God is the colossus who bestrides the universe. The Church trivializes him by excluding him from the conversation. By excluding God from the conversation, the Church has turned God into an inscrutable, aloof caricature of himself. The Church assumes we have an understanding of God. The assumption, however, is incorrect. God is a stranger to us and nobody follows a stranger (John 10:5).
It is time to stop squandering the conversation. It is time to change the ratio of the content of the conversation to more foundation and less roof. More pizzazz; less nitty-gritty. More Mary; less Martha. More revelation; less regulation. More God; less Church. No change in doctrine; just a change in emphasis - a tweak, nothing more.