Since I’ve been on this road, I’ve been reluctant to use the term “conversion” in referring to my becoming Catholic, since in common parlance, “to convert” connotes a changing of form or character:

con·vert (kən-vûrt´) v. con·vert·ed, con·vert·ing, con·verts
1. To change (something) into another form, substance, state, or product; transform: convert water into ice.
2. To change (something) from one use, function, or purpose to another; adapt to a new or different purpose.
3. To persuade or induce to adopt a particular religion, faith, or belief.
. . .
[convert. (n.d.) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved October 9 2011 from]

And I’ve insisted that I’m not changing form or character, or even changing faiths; I am continuing as what I’ve been all along, a Christian. In many ways, though not formally initiated, I’ve been outwardly and inwardly a Catholic Christian for a while now. I’ve preferred to say that “I’m joining the Catholic Church” rather than “I’m converting to Catholicism.” “Conversion” is a scary word; somehow it feels that if I “convert,” I will no longer be what I was before.

Though the majority around me doesn’t think in such terms, I know, I have always seen through the English to the Latin root: converto — I turn around or turn towards a new direction. I want people to see that my conversion is not a change of character, but merely a reorientation.

Last night, I read at length in the Catechism about the sacraments of penance and reconciliation. I was surprised to read of a “second conversion” — the ongoing process of a baptized Christian in growing towards holiness and eternal life — something that I’ve never heard referred to in any Protestant circle. Sure, I’ve heard of “discipleship” and “maturing spiritually,” but generally the evangelical attitude seems to be, “Poof! You’re a Christian! Now live like a Christian!” My ongoing struggle with sin, even though I was supposed to be a Christian, has been a constant source of trouble and confusion in my life. The Cathechism:

Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] always follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” This endeavor of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a “contrite heart,” drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first. [Cathechism of the Catholic Church, 1428]

Another name of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation is the sacrament of conversion. It is the process not only by which sinners are reconciled to God and the Church, but through which we are inwardly healed and changed; through which we turn away from sin and toward God:

Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. [Catechism, 1431]

I want to be converted, in my whole being. Even more than converting — reorienting — toward the Catholic Church, I want to turn toward God.

The Catholic Church, through its sacrament of reconciliation, understands the need for this continuing conversion in Christians, and how it is effected. I know I have heard some Protestants, the wise ones, acknowledge that growing in Christ is a process; they surely recognize, by experience, what isn’t formally taught in evangelical churches, but should be. So much of my youth was spent in agony, needing to confess and be reconciled, but instead making the same mistakes again and again, never growing, never converting, until I became calloused and complacent.

Today at Mass, as if to confirm this was a lesson I needed to pay attention to and take to heart, Deacon Ted spoke about this ongoing conversion in his homily.

Climbing out of the pit

Today I had lunch with Audrey, and she offered some very helpful and reassuring answers to my questions about Purgatory. And Kristen gave me some very rich and valuable comments to my previous post about it. So tonight I have ample food for thought.

In a pitEven before I began this journey to Catholicism, I had been having vague, inchoate doubts about the Protestant conceptions of grace and salvation. As an evangelical, I always believed that all that was necessary for the forgiveness of sins was to confess them to God and repent. I struggled with the repentance part, but told myself that “everybody struggles; you’re human and carnal; Christ understands that and will forgive you.” I stopped feeling so wracked with guilt; I felt I was forgiven. I prayed and prayed for Him to set me free from my sins; to clean me and change me and help me stop doing what I was doing. But I was never getting any better. I seemed to be trapped; unable to rise above my fault. And I was miserable — not from guilt, but from the very temporal, practical wages of my sin. Something clearly was very flawed in what I was doing.

I think it was out of my longing for true repentance, even if that longing wasn’t fully realized, that brought me to attend my first Ash Wednesday Mass the Lent before last. It was the first time I’d been in a Catholic Church in five years (I had visited once with a friend out of curiosity, and to churches in Rome as a tourist) — the first time ever with an inquiring mind. I knew no one, had very little idea what was going on (I was taken aback by all the kneeling and genuflecting), and did my best to be inconspicuous. When I went forward to receive the ashes, the lay worker blessed me with the formula, “Turn from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.” For some reason — which I now realize to be the finger of the Holy Spirit — those words struck a very deep chord with me: I was shaken for several weeks. Turn from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel. You mean I can turn from sin? You mean I can be faithful? More than what I’m doing now?

Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday, the penitent receives a cross of ashes on his or her forehead, to symbolize the repentance of Lent.

My second Ash Wednesday, after I’d been attending Mass regularly here for about a month, had an even deeper impact. Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return. It wasn’t so much the experience of the ritual that struck me this time — it was what happened afterward; what I can only understand as God speaking to me. I remembered the words of the year before — and suddenly something clicked into place. Christ died for my sins. So I have an obligation to stand against them and to live for him. And I started taking that stand. Father Joe had said in his homily that for the Lenten fast, we should give up the thing that was most standing between us and God. And I did just that: I gave up my complacency in my sin. And Lent this year was a greater time of victory than I had ever before known.

Before, I wasn’t really “struggling”; I was rolling over and letting sin have me, since I believed it was my nature. All those years, I prayed and prayed, “Lord, I’m dying here. I can’t get out of this pit; I’m trapped; won’t you pull me out?” And I felt so frustrated and despondent that he never seemed to help me; that no matter what I did, I couldn’t get out. It was only recently that it occurred to me: all that time, he was saying to me, “I’m offering you a rope for you to climb out; why won’t you take it?”

ClimbingI’m not a theologian; so it’s only out of my practical, personal experience that I say that the Protestant conception of salvation by faith alone got me nowhere. I had faith in Christ, in his divinity and Resurrection; I had faith that he had saved me from my sins; and yet that faith was doing nothing to set me free. Maybe if I had died, I would have gone to Heaven (or at least to Purgatory); but more pressing, my daily struggle with sin was making my life a living hell. In that moment on Ash Wednesday, it hit me that having faith wasn’t enough; I had to do something. When Protestants pick at the Catholic position of salvation by faith and works, it’s usually presented as if Catholics believe, in a Pharisaical sense, that their “good works,” their observance of rituals, is going to get them into heaven. But that’s not it at all. The “works” just means that I had to do something; that I had to cooperate with Christ in my own salvation; that I had to work at it; that he wasn’t going to just zap me and make me a saint. Instead of just begging him to pull me out of the pit, I had to take the rope.