St. Benedict in his words about Lent invites the monastic to do something ‘extra’ during Lent, something that we offer God of our own free will and something that is offered in ‘the joy of the Holy Spirit’. And whatever ‘extra’ we offer is to help our hearts open up a bit more, that is, open up to grace, to the gift of God’s life that God holds out to each one of us daily. It is striking that the first reading of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, begins with the voice of the prophet Joel proclaiming: ‘Rend your hearts and not your garments’…’Let your hearts be broken’. What is this telling us? What moves God is the offering of a heart broken open, that is, a heart ready to change its ways and to become a vessel of God’s life, compassion, mercy, and hope.
It seems to me then that as we ponder what is the ‘extra’ that we will offer to God this Lent, that our The process of conversion (which is the main and essential element of our vow of conversatio) is not one that is depressing, or one that pulls us down. On the contrary, once we enter it grace begins to flow…it helps us see ourselves and one another in a different light…in fact we begin to see more as God sees. Conversion is a ‘turning from’ and ‘a turning toward’. There are two movements in the conversion process and one movement precipitates the next. As I turn from my harsh judgment I turn in prayer towards the mercy of God. As I turn from my selfish, poor me attitude, I turn towards the heart of Christ, and my heart begins to expand, shaking off its self-preoccupation and becoming more like his heart, more open and supple inside and out. When we begin to turn away from something that we know oppresses us, grace is already working. Conversion removes the ‘veil’ covering our heart, making us available for transformation and for becoming more like Christ in mind and heart. ‘extra’ offering somehow relate to or involve the heart…And I can think of no other process that helps the heart to open and change then ‘conversion’.
Self-knowledge is pivotal to conversion; it brings awareness of how we are inside: to whom or towards what is my heart turned? Is my heart one of stone or is it one of flesh? Conversion according to The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality is a ‘turning’: “a turning away from alienation and sin,” and “a turning towards the living God” (p. 231). Its fruit is realized in the larger community and in our personal lives where we know we have been re-created, enlightened by the Divine life and in wisdom. Conversion turns us from our present horizon towards a new horizon, a larger, newer view of life, of God, our selves and one another. Fr. Bernard Lonergan, SJ explains conversion “as a set of judgments and decisions that move the human person from an established horizon into a new horizon of knowing, valuing, and acting” (p.234). Imagine: an expanded horizon in our interior life and in our outer lives where we truly see and apprehend with a new, re-created heart, such is the fruit of conversion.
Right after Jesus’ temptations in the desert, as he begins his ministry, his proclamation is two-fold: “The time is now” and “Be changed at the level of heart and mind” (Fully Human Fully Divine, p.49). Michael Casey writes: “Jesus offers a new meaning for metanoia: it is a matter of trusting the Good News that God and sinful humanity are reconciled” (p.49). Conversion is about transformation: God is waiting our return…this is underscored by Jesus in the gospel story of the father, who waits with unconditional love the return of his prodigal son. It is this turning of the human person that so moves the heart of God…unconditionally.
William of St. Thierry prays: “You the Beginning, to who we are returning, the Pattern we are following, the Grace by which we are reconciled” (quoted In the School of Love, p.30). This is a beautiful Trinitarian prayer: and the ‘Pattern’ we are following, the ‘Pattern’ stamped upon our hearts? Sr. Maria Boulding writes: “In that brokenness he (Jesus) became the place where the glory of God is revealed…where the meaning of love is disclosed, the love that holds nothing back” (Gateway To Resurrection, p.14). This is whom we are following and, as his disciples, our lives must do as he did: as our hearts are broken open a little more during this Lent indeed the glory of God will be revealed and we will rise with Jesus into new life, into new horizons.