Sunday, June 12, 2016

Why is Conversion so Hard?

The hardest part of my day, every day, is the efforts made to be a better man and better priest than I was yesterday.  Some days I succeed, most days I feel like Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll back down to the base.  In my version, I am flatten like Wile E Coyote on a desert road.  Why is conversion so hard?  Why is sin so easy?

I will start with the second question first. Sin is easy because being selfish is easy.  Whether it is ease, pleasure, wealth, power, or whatever else is craved, selfishness requires little mental effort.  Accruing what we desire might be a bit more of a challenge, but to give into the desire for such things is easy.  It requires no love, no altruism, and no compassion.  It requires the upkeep of a perpetual infantile stage.  Conversion, however is much harder and presents a  much bigger challenge.  This is what Jesus is speaking of in the Parable of the Sower and Seed in Matthew 13:1-23.  The seed falls on four types of ground: the path way, rocky ground, thorny ground, and fertile ground.  The first three represent why conversion is so difficult.

Some of the seed hits the path and is immediately snatched up by the birds.  Jesus explains that these are those who hear the word without understanding it and the devil snatches it away.  Some of the seed hits rocky ground, it spouts but withers quickly.  Jesus explains these are those who hear it , receive it, but once a trail comes along, they wither.  Some of the seed hits thorny ground.  These hear the word, but the worries of the world choke it off.   These lead to further reflection as to why conversion is so hard.

The Devil Hates Conversion

The devil hates losing ground he has conquered. His loathing of God provokes him to destroy what God loves, especially humanity.  The devil does not want you to change.  He has fashioned your shackles for eternity and wants you weighed down by them. He will never call them shackles nor call you enslaved.  Instead he will call you free.  Anything that threatens his hold on the person, he will try to stop.

The early Church understood the concept of spiritual warfare.  They knew that if the devil was bold enough to believe he could tempt Jesus away from the Father's will, he would see humanity as a much softer target.  In the modern age, we reduced the devil to a myth, a parlor game, a macabre  figure for horror movies, and even a sympathetic character.  Whatever the devil was, he wasn't real.  Even within the Church, in blessings, the idea of exorcisms fell off.  It was to our detriment.  As the French poet Baudelaire once wrote, "the devil's best trick is to persuade you he doesn't exist."  You cannot fight a enemy you do not believe to be there.  We drop our guard and he will swoop in and prevent conversion at a moment's notice.

If he cannot keep it away, he will make the person undergoing conversion  run hot then run cold.  He will convince the person that the conversion was premature, unnecessary, or unwarranted.  If this fails, he will choke us with the concerns and worries of life to make us back off; to rely on old methods to solve problems.  I have seen this so many times in people who convert only to fall away rather quickly.   Each of us has an enemy that wants conversion stymied.  We need to understand this.

Conversion Means Change

Conversion entails we change how we do things.  It challenges priorities.  It makes us toss our idols.  The more the conversion, the harder it becomes.  The people of Israel dabbled in syncretism. This is the participation in more than one religion. They would go to the temple mount and make their prayers and sacrifices to God, then would go into the Valley of Hinnom (in Hebrew 'Ge Hinnom', in Arabic Gahenna) and worship idols, even sacrificing children to these pagan idols. The devil, if cannot persuade us to abandon faith, will tempt us to syncretism.  Eventually, the person sees the futility in this and chooses a side.

The choosing, though, comes at a cost.  Choosing to convert means leaving behind one's favorite sins.  This is hard.  Anyone who has tried to break an addiction knows this.  The addiction is a coping mechanism or a compensatory behavior.  Now the person must move beyond this.  The danger of the rocky ground is that conversion can be short lived.  "You mean, I have to give up....?"  "Wait, how am I supposed to get by now that I can't...?"  Purgation can be very difficult and can lead to abandonment of conversion.  The devil will try to convince us we just simply cannot live without our favorite sin.  Forgive people?  What if they hurt me again?  What if they aren't sorry?  I have to give up gossip?  The list goes on.

A person embracing conversion must move past these ingrained vices (bad habits).  That is hard.  Vices, like virtues, are built one decision at a time.  A lifetime of embracing a vice will not be undone easily.  The devil will use this to his advantage.  Doubt that? Try to give up something you really don't need. Hooked on porn?  Try giving it up!  Hooked on painkillers?  Just try to give it up!  Your body and neural pathways are conditioned.  Think the devil won't tell you you simply aren't strong enough? Try forgiving a person you have been long angry with.  Try going back to church after a long absence.  All of this is hard.

The person who falls is the person who tries to do this on their own.  The shallow soil  is the person who believes that they can do this on their own.  However, the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) need God's grace to grow.  If the devil can isolate you from the sacraments, he erodes the soil you'll need to grow.  The more connected we get with God's grace, the more we have the armaments to combat the devil.

What Will My Friends Think?

If the devil cannot get you to fail internally, he will use externals.  This is his wheelhouse.  It always has been.  One of the most powerful tools he has is worry.  People can be pack animals even when we claim to be individuals.  We conform to societal standards.  Conformation brings the ultimate drug: acceptance.  This is true even if the acceptance comes from the small subgroup we identify with.  So often youth will rebel by conforming with a group other than their parents.

The world loves to shift the definition of normal.  It loves to isolate those who won't follow along.  This is particularly true now, where we have seen the defeat of objective truth.  Self-identification is going to a place where it need no empirical evidence to back it up.  Conversion will bring a very uncomfortable circumstance: sticking out.  Society punishes this with ridicule, persecution, and bullying.  The person starts to become afraid that they look like the caricature so widely ridiculed.  Will they now be passed over for a job, for a date, for a position, for popularity, or some other craved for prize if they take this conversion thing too seriously?

The harsh answer is yes, it is entirely possible that you won't be liked.  Why?  Because if you or I am able to convert why cannot they?   Many people do not like being challenged...and seeing a fellow slave break their chains can be very disquieting.   Better for them to be back in chains than for me to face my chains.    There are very few people who like being disliked.  That fear of ridicule is powerful and can lead a person to abandon conversion and go back to where they were.  Breaking away from this is hard and cannot be done without that attachment to God, especially through the sacraments. 

The Harsh Truth:  We are Never a Finished Product

This is hard to see.  We are not a finished product while in this life.  The great spiritual teachers referred to conversion as stages of growth in relationship with God: the purgative, illuminative, and unitive.  The more free we actually become the more freedom we want and the more we realize sin weighs us down.  The closer we get, the more intense the temptation to fall away and backslide. If we are not humble, if we do not recognize our constant need for God's help, if we do not see our needs growth and truth, we will become lost.

Some sins might be ever present problems or sources of temptation.  This especially true for anything we had cultivated as a vice.  While the harsh truth is we are never a finished product here, the tremendous blessing is that God will give us all the grace we need all along the way if we will trust him.  The Church recognizes that we struggle and fall; it is why Christ instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation on the day of the Resurrection itself.  The ultimate triumph of the Cross is the forgiveness of sin and the newfound reconciliation/ restoration of sanctifying grace now available through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

However, we must be set for a life long battle.  The devil cannot beat us unless we allow him. He can tempt, not force.  He will strike us where we are weak. That is why perseverance and grace are so needed.  Yes, conversion is hard, but very doable. We can get weary of our own failures.  Heaven knows I do on a regular basis.  However the battle is not decided until we die.  We cannot succumb to pride, fear, worry, or rebellion and expect heaven.  We will have to embrace conversion, as hard as it is,   and not abandon hope.  Dante writes in the Divine Comedy "Inferno" that the following words are written over the gates of hell, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."  We are not there yet, so hope we must...and do battle with the devil and his minions we must.  Conversion is indeed hard, but if we are to expect heaven, we must heed God's call to ongoing conversion and use His grace to get there.