+CONVERSION AS ONGOING GROWTH LCG Presentation 24 Feb. 2021
In this first presentation I am drawing heavily on reflections by Fr Michael Casey in first chapter his book called GRACE which is a thorough analysis of what he calls “the grace of discontinuity.” Having listened to Casey’s book being read in the monastic refectory, I knew I needed to read it on my own and this is what gave me the inspiration to give a Chapter talk on this topic my community. Here I am enlarging on that talk after reading through his chapter a couple more times titled “The Grace of Discontinuity.”
If you want to make good use of the Lenten season I would encourage to spend time of your own reading through this first chapter of Casey’s book. He touches on a wide variety of ways to perceive and enter into the conversion process. It is a process that is constantly unfolding in each of our lives. It may have more intense moments but it is a journeysthat is never finished in a lifetime and God knows what will continue after our lives on earth, in the life to come. As Casey brings out, each one of our lives has a wonderful potential built into it so that if we allow this potential to become activated by divine grace, we move into a new dimension of human life we hardly thought possible.
I know from my own experience on joining an enclosed community, that I never expected to move from a monastery in Virginia to that of Gethsemani in Kentucky where I would be exposed to the writings of Thomas Merton fresh from his pen or typewriter the last years of his life. Along with this, I received formation under a junior master and psychiatrist, Fr John Eudes Bamberger for five years. I didn’t expect to be asked if I wanted to study in Rome for the priesthood and then be asked to help with formation of our younger monks for many years. Then came work in the fudge department, and being asked to serve as prior. All this to say that each of our lives has a gradual and long unfolding, never knowing where it might take us if we allowed God’s grace to guide us along our journeys.
One of the first things that struck me as I reread Michael Casey’s chapter on the “grace of discontinuity” is how much what I have said applies not only to monks, or religious as many have thought in the past. This is true of each of your own lives, of every Christian, called by reason is her or his baptism. Casey writes:
“It is true that a vocation is more visible in those who adopt a specifically religious lifestyle, but the fact remains that all Christians have a vocation to holiness that is both a gift and a summons.
Today the old delivery system no longer functions. Instead of a lifelong continuance of the religious conventions of childhood, living a serious Christian life more and more seems like a fairly radical reversal both at the level of values and regarding lifestyle. Making a personal commitment to live a spiritual life demands a positive choice, and usually it depends on some kind of spiritual experience that calls a person to a more fervent practice. Vocation is now more visibly a prime example of what I may call ‘the grace of discontinuity.’”
From my experience of all of you associated with Gethsemani as Lay Cistercians over the years, I have had a deep sense your thirst for a greater commitment to your Christian faith. This thirst comes out of your own abiding desire for a more authentic expression of your faith. As Casey indicates in the quote I have just shared, this has meant some real change in your values and lifestyle through a clear choice and this is admirable.
Monks too must keep looking at their value system and way of living the life. The call to conversion never ends in this life. I became all the more aware of this as I began reading my Lenten book last Friday evening. It is called What I Am Living For: lessons from the life and writings of Thomas Merton. There are a number of contributors and it is edited by Jon M. Sweeney. As I got into the first chapter done by James Martin, SJ, I was almost taken aback by the fact that it was all about his own conversion from the false self to the true, a theme running all through Merton’s own life and writings. I highly recommend the book for anyone seeking to explore the topic of this conference.
Today the importance of this topic was further brought home me as one elderly monk told me of an article by a religious woman he has recently read, who highly recommended taking just one of the Gospels for our Lenten reading and spending the whole of this season with it. Plumbing the depths of just one of the Gospels will allow it to have its full impact and address just about every aspect of our lives, whether they faithfully reflect our baptismal promises. Whether a Gospel or any book of tested wisdom, lectio divina is a wonderful means for making this season a fruitful one if you exercise the discipline it demands.
The grace of conversion in each of our lives is what gives them their real meaning. It enables us to find the satisfaction in our Christian lives that opens up to nothing less than sharing in the eternal life that is promised us as we strive to be faithful to the gift of our calling. There may be varied sources of divine inspiration that got us started on the path you are pursuing as many of you have pointed out to me and the group with whom you have shared your search. You may have been “touched by God” in an unexpected moment early on or later in life, or what St Aelred called “a surge of energy that enables us to take the step so long imagined and so long postponed.” Or you may have been moved by some person’s example that prompted you to see clearly where you wanted your own lives to move. Or you may have had a spiritual advisor whom you trusted, who gave you an insight into your own deepest longings you knew to be authentic. Or there may have been some disaster in your lives that awakened you: bereavement, family breakup, illness or an accident that shuck you out of our complacency. In any case there was a spiritual awakening for which you cannot be grateful enough.
“To bring about such a dramatic change [ Casey reminds us] the experience must have generated a certain energy in the ones called, in order to overcome the inertia that we all experience at the prospect of taking up a challenge.”
Once conversion is underway, it goes through different stages, taking us ever closer to our true destiny as children of God. As Casey tells us, conversion “is most often not just a lightning flash; it is more like the slow dawning of light that begins faintly but gradually permeates the whole of existence.” Few of us will ever have had anything like what St Paul went through but nonetheless, it will be
“a lifelong process by which we allow ourselves to be continually challenged to move out from what is familiar and potentially stale into zones of growth that are not necessarily of our own choosing. It introduces a permanent element of discontinuity into our lives that undermines our usual reluctance to do much more than we are doing at present”
There is something in the grace of conversion that is destabilizing and yet, at the very same time, it takes us ever closer to what gives lasting joy to the whole of our existence.
There are three turning points most of us experience along the way. As the early monastic writer John Cassian tells us in one of his conferences, we are first led to take up some form of serious discipleship as followers of Christ. Then “we have to eliminate the inconsistences of our behavior so that our religion is lived from the heart and not from external restraints.” Then we are led “to submit to radical self-transcendence to allow ourselves to be divinized.”(Grace, p. 12)
Initially, we are awakened to a new way of living that is clearly different from what we’re used to. It is accompanied by a certain enthusiasm and energy that helps us to overcome any reluctance. But this is only a point of departure. The second stage, often occurring in our middle or older years, takes us beyond many of our internalized rules, the superego and even an image of God we have acquired. We no longer play a role. Casey says that during this time: “We feel the need to stop being ‘good’ and, instead, to be ourselves, without any clear vision of what this involves. We make a preferential option for the unknown.” (Grace, p.14) This can easily be misunderstood in the context or our ordinary lives, where there may be some who tell us: “You used to be nice!” But this is clearly a step toward greater authenticity.
At this stage, the self becomes ever more transparent. This is “because God is ever more present to the person, since there is no intervening barrier—or to express this in another way, the person is more present to, more mindful of God.” (Grace, p. 14) The very positive result of this transition is that the person becomes more and more “a channel of God’s presence and action to others.”
There is nothing that can give us greater joy than to know that we are reflecting God’s presence and action to those we care for and love. And this tends to spread to more than our immediate acquaintances, even to those with whom we may have only a casual encounter. I suspect there is little that is more pleasing to God than to see us being authentic witnesses of his Son’s own merciful love and compassion. Christ seeks to live in and through us not only when we are praying or engaged in some charitable work but by the whole of our lives. One of the greatest graces of living in a family or community is the way we constantly interact with one another in a way is that life-giving or mutually enriching. By this very reason, it is also what makes our family life or community life so painful at times, though also the means of purification, when this closeness is mixed with fear or disdain. We all have continual occasion for allowing grace to permeate the whole of our lives.
To do so, Casey tell us is to:
“become citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). The normal laws of cause and effect no longer apply. A higher and more mysterious causality operates: the first are made last, the lowly are exalted and the rich are sent empty away. We are in the awkward position of never quite understanding what is happening in and around us. We are drawn into a cloud of unknowing or—to use flashier language—we become involved in a process of self-transcendence that involves our coming forth from our comfort zone and entering on a lifelong journey through unknown regions. The first imperative of such a life is that we yield control. We stop trying to masterplan everything and allow ourselves to go forward guided by the hand of divine providence.” (Grace, pp. 11-12)
Here he is touching on something both delicate and imperative, yielding control of our lives and those of others. We are so inclined to want to masterplan rather than yield to the loving hand of divine providence, something we cannot do without an abiding trust in God’s loving care for us. All this is about letting go and letting God. I know in the Eucharist celebration this morning, Fr Lawrence who was the principal celebrant reminded the community here that our Lenten efforts will only be as valuable as we allow them to be grounded in divine grace.
This whole season of Lent is really a continual invitation to become more and more attuned to the work of grace in the whole of our lives. Whatever we do of lasting value must be the fruit of Christ’s presence in whatever we undertake as persons of faith, hope and love. Conversion is all about allowing these theological virtues to take hold of the whole of our lives.