By Fr David ORourke

Ideas on Conversion

July 15, 2020
Column: Point of View

Tied to my garden by a number of convalescing’s that have ganged up on me, I have been thinking of some words that we chew over a lot in religious settings. Words we use to pinpoint events, or human experiences. And one of them is conversion.

Sounds very special—something that does not go in, in the life of normal people. And I suspect that’s because it usually gets used only in the lives of people who are different from the mainstream. Well, that mainstream has decided to toss us into any number of uncharted currents and dead pools. Leaving us to figure out where, and what direction, and even if, we go from here.

Crisis and conversion are somewhat the same, other than the roots.

I want to talk about it because what it means happens in our lives all the time. But just a moment on the word itself.

It began with the Greek word ‘crisis,’ a turning point. Gets used medically. Can mean someone at a point where things could go anyway—good, bad, get well, not make it. Always worrisome. And I suspect that we’ve either been there ourselves, or know someone who has.

OK—from Greek to Latin. Crisis to conversion. Conversion is not a medical term. Not even religious. What it refers to are those times when we realize that, wherever we are, we are stuck and know it. Things can’t keep going on the way they are and something has got to give.  It’s like reaching a ‘t’ at the end of a road. You’ve got to go right or left, but you can’t keep going straight because there is no straight on.

That happens, as many of us know.

It happens maybe any number of times in our lives. We realize that things can’t keep going the way they are, you’ve got to make a decision. No more one-night stands. Get married or get out. Or equally common, maybe more so, “we” get married or “you” get out! 

The choices we’re forced into can be very concrete, nothing fancy, but basic. Example. “I have been facing those two-hour commutes, morning and night, for 8 years. No more!”

The times of conversion are usually real and even tough. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t push us so hard.

And those times of conversion in our lives, even if they sneak up on us, are usually somehow important.

“I’can’t keep going this way. Something has to give. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but no more of this.” A killer commute, or a killer working situation, or relationships that are really painful are common examples where something has to give.

That commute example, by the way, is for real. I had to face one for only a few years—living in Berkeley and teaching in San Francisco, but I was willing to give that Bay Bridge back and forth only a few years. And then I was out.

Religious conversion can be different. It is often noisy. Religious converts themselves can often want every friend, relative, grocery clerk, telephone pole to know—often in detail—how whatever all of a sudden became so great in their life.

St. Paul was like that. He had one of those experiences on the road to Damascus. No longer was he going to be a killer in God’s name. Then he spent the next six months or so going around preaching non-stop to every Greek, man, palm tree, camel, whatever, about what God had done for him.  

But then it ended.

And then the really important change began. He went off for seven years. Went back to his old work. We know next to nothing of those years. But apparently, he spent the years making sense of what had happened to him. The St. Paul we know, the apostle, came out of those quiet, unrecorded, years apparently making sense of his life.

Another conversion. Probably the most important in the modern world, or at least our side of the modern world. A guy whose life had fallen apart during World War I. Frustration, bitterness, self-doubt, resentment. But then he had a real conversion.

Broke out of all those doubts. Began fighting back, very openly.

Rounded up like-minded guys and really went public. Got busted. Went to jail for real. And in jail he wrote a book about himself and his struggle. Called the book ‘Mein Kampf’, My Struggle. Name was Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf is a conversion story. A real classical conversion. In his case it was a conversion to evil. But still a very classical conversion.

And conversion is not good or bad, not holy or evil. It is a human experience, which some of us explain best to ourselves as a psychological experience. And it gets its moral quality from what it is you are converted to. Hitler was converted to violence and evil.

There are millions of Americans who, seemingly, are telling themselves and others that things in their corners of the country can’t keep going the way they are.

People on different sides of political and living issues run deep.

But, whatever their starting point, they know that something with them has to give—and soon. Social conflict has fewer sources for violence than the rumblings of conviction that something has to give—now.

There is another useful look at conversion in the gospel.

Jesus at one point is talking to people who are stuck. He uses the image of the living tree locked into dead wood. And he says “don’t stay there. Move on. Change. Cut away all the dead wood”. Cut away the dead wood so that the real-life locked inside, your life, can come out.

He lets it go at that. It is very gentle. But it is not puzzling talk.

I think we all have our dead wood we’ve been dragging along with us—our own dead wood; maybe other people’s dead wood that very generously they’ve tossed onto our shoulders.

This old man believes that we could probably be better off, more alive, if we cut it loose, left it behind. He and his followers did not ask us to turn ourselves into museum keepers of dead wood—our own or others. Trying to stitch all these fragments of dead morsels together, and there really is a lot of it.  

This need to catch up and renew that we are facing these days can be really good times for dead wood dumping. And that is one outlet that is very much within the Christian tradition and with the possibility of being healthy.


Fr. David O’Rourke, OP, is pastor at the historic Our Lady of Mercy parish in Point Richmond, an accomplished artist, gardener, translator, author, family counselor and retired professor.  Donations to the small, beautiful parish church that needs so much repair are always appreciated and may be made here:

Fr. David O’Rourke, OP, is pastor at the historic Our Lady of Mercy parish in Point Richmond, an accomplished artist, gardener, translator, author, lecturer, family counselor... MORE »

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