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What Is Conversion? 

March 7, 2016
Here is a thought-provoking devotion for Lent from Father Richard Rohr. The accompanying painting is a detail from The Conversion of Saint Paul by the Italian artist Caravaggio.

“Suddenly, while he was traveling to Damascus and just before he reached the city, there came a light from heaven all around him. He fell to the ground and then he heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ he asked, and the voice answered, ‘I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me.'” –Acts 9:3-5, Jerusalem Bible

I believe that almost all of the great themes of Paul’s teaching emerged pivotally around his conversion experience. Something happened to this man that utterly redefined his life. Like all true converts (con-vertere means to turn around) there was a clear before and after. Unless you understand that the world was utterly realigned and redefined for Paul, you cannot appreciate the radicalism of his new vision.

Jesus’ choice of words, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) is key. Later, during Paul’s retreat in Arabia, he must surely have pondered this question: “Why does he say I was persecuting him, when I was persecuting others?” Paul gradually came to his great doctrine of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12ff.). For him, there was a complete, organic, and even ontological union between Christ and those who are loved by him, which Paul eventually realizes is everyone. This is why Paul is called “the apostle to the nations” (or “gentiles”). This enlightening experience taught Paul non-dual consciousness, which is the same mystical mind that had allowed Jesus to say things like “Whatever you do to the least, you do to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Until grace achieves that victory in your mind and heart, you cannot comprehend most of Jesus and Paul. Before conversion you tend to think of God as almost entirely “out there.” After transformation you don’t look out at reality as if it is hidden in the distance. You look out from reality! You’re in the middle of it now. You’re a part of it. Your life is participating in God’s Life. Paul is almost obsessed by this idea. It underwrites absolutely everything he says. Paul is the great announcer of what is happening everywhere all the time. You’re not writing the story; you’re a character inside of a story that is already being written through you. Paul’s code word for consciously living within this reality, used numerous times throughout all his letters, is en Christo, or living inside the Christ Mystery.

We all bear the mystery of the suffering of God, the sad woundedness that Jesus visibly shares with humanity. We simultaneously bear the conscious glory of God and even “share in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). We carry both at the same time. This requires non-dual consciousness. You are another wonderful instance of both the agony and ecstasy of God, and all you can do is say yes to both of them. This realization becomes more than enough to fill your life with meaning, vitality, purpose, and wondrous direction. This is what true conversion looks like.

Conversion is not a moral achievement accomplished by good behavior or New Year’s resolutions (Paul knew he was a hateful murderer). Conversion is a mystical, unitive knowing that usually comes to people who need it intensely, who realize that only holding one side of life’s equation–the glory or the agony–has gotten them nowhere. Holding everything together becomes enlightenment itself.

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