By Corinne Winter
Lenten Scripture readings include numerous calls to conversion. The words we heard as we received ashes to mark the beginning of the season called us to turn away from sin and toward the salvation offered in Christ. After years of hearing those words, of celebrating Lent year after year, we may feel excited or we may be tempted to discouragement at the thought of starting again. What shall I undertake this year? Is it meaningful or effective to make the same resolution I made other years? Will I change at all? Have I grown better through past efforts?
When we think of conversion, we may be tempted to picture an intense one-time event like St. Paul being blinded by a sudden light. Some people apparently do experience an emotional moment of insight that turns them in a dramatic new direction. But for most of us, conversion is a life-long road with lots of ups and downs, twists and turns. We have been instructed in the faith. We have been raised in communities and within families where we saw the good example of people who believed in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We have tried to follow those examples — with a certain degree of success most days.
So, how do we think about our call to conversion? Perhaps one way to think of it is as a call to perseverance, to try again even if past experiences seem less than impressive. We might also think of it as a call to be open to new ideas, to share our thoughts with others and to hear what they have found helpful. Communal support is always vital as we strive to live our faith more deeply.
The sacraments of the church are especially important nourishment for the journey. The Eucharist unites us with Christ and with one another in Christ so that we never travel alone or depend only on our own inner resources. The sacrament of reconciliation, too, reminds us of the unfailing mercy of God.
St. John Vianney (Bettendorf) parishioners are getting ready to present the musical Godspell on the first weekend of March. As someone who was a young adult in the early ‘70s, I have fond memories of the film version, have owned the record (the old vinyl one) and have seen several productions. One of my favorite refrains is “Day by day, O dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly.” That, to me, describes the process of on-going conversion: slow, sometimes imperceptible, quiet striving to grow as a disciple. And the disciples are portrayed in the musical as being a lot like me. They are sometimes eager, sometimes reluctant in listening and following Christ. They sometimes get it right but often make mistakes. They need to be instructed over and over. But they keep coming back, and Jesus keeps calling them back.
I also love the fact that the refrain is a prayer for fidelity. It seems to amount to an acknowledgment that while discipleship and conversion certainly require effort on our part, they are at the same time more basically gifts of divine grace.
As Catholics, we believe that our efforts matter, that we really do cooperate with the grace of God, that the capacity to do so is an aspect of God’s gift to us. We also believe that God offers those gifts constantly and freely, prior to any merit on our part. We do not need to earn God’s love; we need only accept it.
Perhaps Lent calls us to greater dependence on God and on the community of faith. May whatever we decide to do as a special form of prayer and penance this Lent draw us in the direction to which God is calling us.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emeritus of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)