The Way of Conversion

The emblematic conversion stories have traditionally emphasized drama. As Saul approached Damascus, intending to bring any who belonged to the Way to Jerusalem for judgment by the chief priests, “suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city and you will be told what to do’” (Acts 9:3-6). Saul arose blinded and for three days was unable to see or eat or drink. Then Ananias, instructed by the Lord that Saul was His chosen instrument, came to him and said that the Lord Jesus had sent him that Saul might regain his sight “and be filled with the Holy Spirit. And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight” (Acts 9:17-18).

Thus in virtually one flash, Saul was converted from the foremost persecutor of Christians to Jesus’ foremost Apostle, the premier converter of the Gentiles, who would ultimately earn a martyr’s death and crown. So central does St. Paul’s conversion remain to Catholicism that it is commemorated as a feast on January 25.

Today, we are less likely to see conversion as a clap of thunder or flash of lightning—as a single moment of complete transformation. If anything, it has become rather fashionable to depict conversion as a never-ending journey that requires continuing renewal. The image of the life of faith as a journey—and even as a continuing struggle—is an old one and unquestionably appropriate to the experience of the convert, who inevitably faces a long road fraught with twists, turns, potholes, crossroads, mountains, rivers, and threatening forests. Flannery O’Connor often found herself repeating the words of the centurion: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” And she was a cradle Catholic, not a convert.

The core of conversion lies in the certainty of being chosen—what nonbelievers would see as the certainty of choice—of having been touched by the grace of the Holy Spirit. But however strong and sustaining that certainty and however deep and lasting the joy of that first reception of the Eucharist, the convert is also embarking on a lifetime of continuing education and struggle—and all the more if, as seems so often to be the case, the convert is an intellectual.

The conversion of St. Augustine differs markedly from that of St. Paul, yet ranks as no less exemplary and may well speak more directly to the condition of modern converts. St. Augustine came to intellectual certainty about the truth of Christianity before he embraced it in faith. “What I now longed for,” he wrote in his Confessions, “was not greater certainty about you, but a more steadfast abiding in you.” The obstacles lay not in his mind but in his heart, “which needed to be cleansed of the old leaven. I was attracted to the Way, which is our Savior himself, but the narrowness of the path daunted me and I still could not walk in it.”

St. Augustine depicts himself as enchained by the obstacles to his wholehearted conversion, specifically his lustful habits and his enslavement to the lure of the flesh. The real obstacle, however, lay not so much in the flesh per se as in the wrongheaded will that bound him to it: “For it was no iron chain imposed by anyone else that fettered me, but the iron of my own will.”

Not content with the easy explanation that indulgence in lust results from being driven or possessed by natural instincts, St. Augustine insists that “disordered lust springs from a perverted will; when lust is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion.” St. Augustine understands that what he calls the chain that bound him was formed from the interlocking rings of obeisance to disordered lust. He could not profit from his delight in the law of Christ “when a different law in my bodily members was warring against the law of my mind, imprisoning me under the law of sin which held sway in my lower self. For the law of sin is that brute force of habit whereby the mind is dragged along and held fast against its will, and deservedly so because it slipped into the habit willingly.”

Repeatedly, St. Augustine returns to the role of the will in conversion, gradually coming to understand that his own difficulties derive not from two wills but from a will divided against itself. “When I was making up my mind to serve the Lord my God at last, as I had long since purposed, I was the one who wanted to follow that course, and I was the one who wanted not to. I was the only one involved. I neither wanted it wholeheartedly nor turned from it wholeheartedly. I was at odds with myself and fragmenting myself,” Augustine writes in the Confessions. His certainty in this regard assuredly owes something to his war against the Manichees after his conversion, for he is firmly rejecting their belief in dualism, an inherent conflict between mind and body, between the forces of good and the forces of evil—God and Satan. But it also testifies to his growing understanding of the challenge of entering into a binding covenant with God. Pondering upon the challenge, St. Augustine turns to the metaphor of the journey—a journey “not to be undertaken by ship or carriage or on foot…for to travel—and more, to reach journey’s end—was nothing else but to want to go there, but to want it valiantly and with all my heart, not to whirl and toss this way and that a will half crippled by the struggle, as part of it rose up to walk while part sank down.”

St. Augustine’s account of his conversion remains surprisingly fresh and compelling in large part because his concerns and struggles resonate so strikingly with the challenges to Christians in our own time. The pleasures of the flesh and worldly ambitions that pulled St. Augustine away from a wholehearted commitment to follow Christ exercise as great—if not greater—a sway in our own day as in his. Augustine was living through the fall of the Roman Empire, powerfully chronicled in his The City of God.

Most of us do not like to view our own society through that lens, but we should be willfully blind to brush aside all the signs of decadence that surround us, even when we also enjoy the progress in material well-being that accompanies them. St. Augustine never flinched from the truth that discipleship to Christ required forsaking lust, wealth, worldly ambition, and even family, but we do not all match his courage. At the height of St. Augustine’s mental anguish, he turned to his friend, Alypius, and asked, “What is happening to us?… The untaught are rising up and taking heaven by storm, while we with all our dreary teachings are still groveling in this world of flesh and blood! Are we ashamed to follow, just because they have taken the lead, yet not ashamed of lacking the courage even to follow?” (Confessions).

I once had occasion to hear a brilliant and compassionate doctor testify that it is incomparably more difficult to rehabilitate intellectuals from drug addiction or alcoholism than it is to rehabilitate less intelligent or less educated people. The group before which he was testifying, composed entirely of intellectuals and professionals, let out a gasp of mingled horror and disbelief. “Oh yes,” he insisted, smiling gently, “and my certainty derives from personal experience as well as from my treatment of others.”

The problem, he explained, is that intellectuals and professionals, with their brains and their training, cannot help but think that they know better than those who are proposing to treat them. They are sure that they will be able to handle the problem themselves, sure that they know the difference between addiction and simply engaging in a pleasurable activity that they can drop at any time. They are the experts on themselves, and they alone can say if they are addicted. Less-advantaged folks may allow drugs or alcohol to control their lives, we say, but not people like us.

A serious Christian should have no difficulty in recognizing the sin of pride that fuels such pronouncements, and St. Augustine assuredly had it in mind when he worried that he and his drearily learned friends might think themselves too good to drop everything to follow Christ. Yet the Synoptic Gospels all depict the first disciples as doing precisely that. Walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus caught sight of the brothers Simon, called Peter, and Andrew, and he called to them, “‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Similarly, he called to James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were mending nets with their father. “Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him” (Matthew 4:18-22).

Poor fishermen are one thing; highly educated intellectuals and professional people are quite another. Much of the protracted anguish of St. Augustine’s conversion derived from his difficulty in relinquishing not merely the pleasures of the flesh but his sense of his own standing in the world. Knowing as we do that following his conversion—and arguably because of it—he has enjoyed an uncontested status as one of the towering figures of Western culture, we may find it difficult to credit his pre-conversion fears. But we should be well-advised to take them seriously since they encapsulate so many of the challenges that continue to confront converts to Catholicism—as they confront all orthodox Christians.

Living roughly 1,600 years after St. Augustine and two millennia after the first disciples and St. Paul, we may readily believe that our circumstances vary so dramatically from theirs as to make their experience at best only dimly relevant to our own. Such a belief nonetheless strikes me as misguided, if only because it tacitly assumes that the nature and terms of fidelity to Christ have changed and that it is for us to determine them. When St. Augustine finally vanquished his divided will and entered into his covenant with Christ, he did so on hearing a voice from an adjacent house: “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read.” Although the voice was probably that of a neighbor’s child, it struck him as if from God, and he turned to the gospel where his finger fell on the following passage from Romans 13:13-14: “Not in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires.” By the time he had reached the end of the verse, he had no need to read further, for “the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away.”

St. Augustine’s conversion remains exemplary in countless ways, not least because of the power of the larger account of his life, Confessions, in which it is embedded. Significantly, for our understanding of conversion in general—perhaps, as in my case, our own, perhaps those of others—the account of his conversion falls almost dead center in the middle of the story of his life. It is hard not to think of the opening of Dante’s Inferno, which actually begins with his standing in the middle of the roadway of his life. The real significance, however, lies in the sense of conversion as a turning point in the road or the journey. For St. Augustine, conversion resulted from long preparation, not just intellectual training but also the spiritual influence of his mother, Monica; and it led to a renewed life of pastoral service, theological disputation, and intellectual production. The point at the center constitutes the moment of knowledge—knowledge that this is who I have been chosen to be even if I do not yet know what having been chosen will mean. But the being chosen, in contrast to our modern emphasis on choosing—the quasi-sanctity of individual choice and the right to choose—lies at the heart of the matter. For that unity of will contains within itself the promise of the renunciation of pride.

My own moment, which occurred some eight years ago, lacked the drama of St. Paul’s and even the struggles that preceded St. Augustine’s, although I now feel a kinship with his account of a moment of certainty in the midst of a longer journey. For like St. Augustine, I benefited from considerable intellectual preparation, and like him, I could not escape the recognition that the true challenge lay not in rational acquiescence but in the actual living of faith. It is hard not to suspect that most of us who are converts do not initially grasp the magnitude of what we are being chosen for. We all know that from the days of Jesus’ public ministry, Christianity was profoundly countercultural, if not positively disruptive, but we may not always foresee how profoundly countercultural it remains today. Those of us who teach have much to learn from our students, if only they speak out and we listen. For Christian students, especially in graduate programs and especially in the humanities, encounter a daily and merciless bigotry that too many of us may not even suspect. Suffice it to say that it is easier to come out as gay, lesbian, or transsexual than it is to come out as pro-life.

The network of issues concerning the sanctity of human life played an important role in my own conversion, not least by vastly heightening my sensitivity to the true dangers of the sin of pride. We live, after all, in an environment in which a measure—sometimes an inordinate measure—of intellectual pride normally counts as a valuable asset, and a large number of academics lust after it as St. Augustine claims to have lusted after the pleasures of the flesh. Christian intellectuals face an exquisitely delicate problem: How can we do the best possible work, defend our beliefs in the most compelling terms, and yet not succumb to the temptations of personal pride? St. Augustine once wrote, echoing St. John (8:44) and St. Paul in Romans (3:4):

Let us go on, O Lord my God, to explain the meaning which the next verse of your Scripture holds for me. I shall speak without fear, for if you inspire me to give the meaning which you have willed me to see in these words, what I say will be the truth. If any other than you were to inspire me, I do not believe that my words would be true, for you are the Truth, whereas every man is a liar, and for this reason he who utters falsehood is only uttering what is natural to him, what is his alone. If, then, I am to speak the truth, let me utter not what is mine, but what is yours. [Confessions, emphasis added]

I should be the last to pretend that any of us can easily live up to that standard. I do, however, believe that we have more opportunities to try than we may seize. St. Jean Vianney once wrote that the great challenge is not so much to resist temptation, hard though that may be, but to recognize it in the first place. How often in the environment of the contemporary university do we avoid open statements about the dangers of abortion? How often do we gently try to tell our students that there is something preposterous in the notion that any of us has an absolute right to our own body, much less an absolute right to freedom of choice on any issue we please—especially when the issue in question is the survival of another human life? None of us needs instruction in the horrors of the Holocaust, but how many of us have ever asked colleagues, much less students, to explain how the Holocaust is anything more than an extreme affirmation of one individual’s right to decide whether another individual should live?

Forgive me for leaving these questions open-ended, but it would be presumptuous to tell others how to act in an essentially unfriendly terrain. What I believe I can say with some confidence, but without pride, is that conversion never stops. Each day, each of us faces fresh challenges to live and act and speak in fidelity to the gospel, and none of them is easy. But of this we may be sure: If we back away from all of them and retreat into the comfort of the prevailing consensus, we will lose the substance of our conversion. It is common to see the convert as the prodigal son of Jesus’ parable and, I suspect, no less common for faithful Catholics, including converts, to identify with the older son, for whom no fatted calf is killed. In slipping into that view of ourselves as having been converted—having attained a status—we lose sight of the parable’s deeper meaning: namely, that we always remain the prodigal son and always remain in need of the Father’s unqualified welcome.


  • Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

    Elizabeth Fox-Genovese was the Eleonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities at Emory University and author of several books, including Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life. She passed away on January 2, 2007.

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