Thursday, May 19, 2016

Meaningful change

Sometimes pop culture and religion come together in strange ways. Sometimes it is even good.

I noticed on the Facebook that Jesuit Father James Martin posted a photograph of a woman standing next to another priest with the comment “Yesterday my friend Fr. John Duffell met a graduate of the Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York.” The graduate was Lady Gaga, and the big news was that “Lady Gaga went to Mass!”

Given that she grew up Catholic, went to Catholic school, and routinely finds sneaky ways to insert scripture and Catholic references into her music, what’s the big deal?

Well, apparently some people are suspicious of Lady Gaga’s motives
According to Crux, Becky Roach from Catholic-Link, wrote a post complaining that Lady Gaga went to Mass, posted that fact on Instagram, while still continuing to live as a Hollywood celebrity with all the trappings. I guess that to these folks that if Lady Gaga doesn’t suddenly become Amy Grant or the Medical Mission Sisters, then she is somehow not Catholic enough.

The Catholic world is not alone in this. When I was a teen-aged Baptist, and listened to a lot of Christian pop music, I remember similar things happening in the evangelical world when a big movie star or pop star would announce that they were “born-again.” It was cool to have a celebrity on “our team”…but when they didn’t start cutting Christian pop but did the music they always did, or continued to take parts in films that they had always taken, we were told that they had “fallen away.” Often they would misquote Mark 4:3-20, they had fallen on shallow soil. They weren’t somehow Christian enough.

Make no mistake, Christianity is a religion of conversion! But it is not a light switch. It takes time, and might follow a path we do not expect.

The rule of Saint Benedict has something to say about this.  In the rule, he talks about “Conversatio morum’” or (very) roughly translated “Conversion of Life.” When a monk takes on the vow of “conversion of life”, it is a promise to live a life of a continuous change of heart. It is promise to be open to a daily reshaping of the mind and heart according to God’s plan for us. 

We have often learned this concept exactly backwards, so it’s important to stop and listen.

We often think of repentance as a turning from something to something. Typically we think of this kind of change as, the Prayer Book says, “turning from the old life of sin into new and everlasting life.” Converatio morum is instead a turning with something. It is aligning our heart, mind, and spirit with God the Holy Spirit and turning with Him, toward Him, and beside Him. For Benedict, conversion of life is a radical re-orientation towards God in all things.

Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, says:

Benedict did not demand of his followers great feats of prayer and mysticism based on an asceticism of perfection. He asked monastics to set out on a path to change their hearts. This conversatio morum, which is the profession we have made, relies on valuing community and connectedness in a world that prizes individualism and independence. We have the opportunity to demonstrate to the postmodern world that happiness is found in God and God is found in relationship with others—community.

Oddly enough, the Instagram post that Lady Gaga posted hits the mark. She says: “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but the food that God gives us.” In short, she riffs a saying dating back to the Apostolic era that the Eucharist is medicine for sinners.

When we come to Christ, we don’t just wake up one day and find ourselves changed, perfect, and sinless. If that were the case, then all the babies we’ve ever baptized would be never be crabby, always patient; never self-centered but fully self-aware. No, instead, we baptize people knowing full well that the change Christ will bring takes time, practice, and patience. It will mean that God leaves room for us to try and fail—or even to not try and still fail!—and that eventually we will go the next step in our spiritual pilgrimage building on what we have learned before.

Br. David Vryhof of the Society of St. John the Evangelist writes:

Only God can transform us; only God can convert us.  Resolutions of our own making and determined attempts at self-discipline are not enough.  Strong desire and determination can help, but they won’t necessarily get us there.  Learning and believing the right beliefs will not transform our lives.  We cannot convert ourselves by our own doing; it is the work of the Spirit.

But we can open ourselves to the process by becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.

This is what spiritual practice is all about. This is why we pray and fast and study. This is why we go to Church and partake of the sacraments and join ourselves to the Body of Christ.

We are already in relationship with God, but we grow in that relationship by being intentional about it and by paying attention to it.  And as we give ourselves over to this process of transformation, conversion happens.

What’s happening is not simply a halt to bad behavior but a gradual-yet-radical reorientation of our lives towards God. A conversion of the heart; a conversion of our living. So while this change is gradual, and often very subtle, it is not accidental. Like stability, the decision to stand still and be present; conversion of life is a decision to be open to change. These decisions may appear to be contradictory—do we stay or do we go?—they in fact represent the living breathing heart of the Christian life that the Rule of St. Benedict describes.

Change is at the heart of the Christian life. Christianity is all about conversion, but while at least some of us might start at the moment of conversion (variously described as being “born-again,” “baptized by the Holy Spirit,” or simply as “a-ha!”) it is in fact a life-long process. Since God is infinite in love, majesty, grace, and power, and since we are so limited, it makes sense that conversion of life is a continual, on-going, and intentional re-orientation towards God.

We wish for instant results, instant transformation, instant holiness, but what God seeks is a heart tuned towards God and that takes time. 

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