Conversion

November 14th, 2019

“The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.”
― Saint Oscar A. Romero,  from “The Violence of Love”

All right, so what is “conversion”? What does it mean to be “converted”. Father José spoke about that topic at our meeting in the cathedral in Tuesday evening. He said that our five-day trip to the Mexican border has to be a conversion experience for us. He has been there twice, and it has definitely been a conversion experience for him. So, what does that really mean to anyone else?

Almost all religious traditions talk about conversion. In Judaism it is “t’shuvah” (תשובה), which roughly translates to “repentance” or “turning back”. In my ten year experience as an unofficial member of an Orthodox Jewish congregation, t’shuvah seems to mean much more than that. It means self-transformation. T’shuvah is about radical change. It means becoming a new person.

I also have experience with Zen Buddhism. In that group, there is very seldom any talk about conversion in a religious sense, probably because Zen isn’t really a religion. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not a religion. In any case, in Zen there is the idea of change and enlightenment. A person can change, through meditation, and see the world more clearly. The Buddha was, by definition, a person who became awake. Zen has no gods. Zen only talks about recovering our inherent Buddha nature, which just means waking up and becoming who we really are.

Conversion, in its roughest form, just means “getting your shit together”.

This is hard.

We do not have many good models for conversion. In Christianity, the most obvious example of conversion is that of Paul on his way to Damascus. That example is almost useless. Conversion seldom happens that way. It is unlikely that any individual will be struck down in the road by a brilliant light, and then have God speak directly to them.

Conversion happens in slow and subtle ways. A Buddhist once told me that I would never recognize a change in myself, but other people would. I found this to be true. Conversion is not often apparent to the person being changed. However, other people notice.

Sometimes, in Christianity, people are eager to tell about their conversion experiences. This can be less than useful. I have heard, from at least one person, a story of how he found Jesus, and it was clear to me that his new-found connection with Jesus did not affect his lifestyle in any way at all. He was still an asshole. Conversion means more than just kneeling at the foot of the cross. It means a fundamental change. 

Conversion is not something that can be forced. People cannot be truly converted by the sword or by the threat of torture. Conversion has to come from within the person, and even that cannot be forced. I cannot say to myself, “Today, I will change my life.” Conversion does not happen through the force of will. It is more of a letting go of things.

In the Heart Sutra of the Buddhists, it says, “No attainment and nothing to attain”. We do not strive for conversion. We collapse, and we sit down in ashes and sackcloth, and we accept conversion.  We just let it happen. It comes to us.

Have I been converted by our trip to El Paso/Ciudad Juarez? I have no idea. Maybe. I guess I will find out later.

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