At times she finds herself
so crazed with love that words
fly from her mouth as ever they will
shattering the table of the world
I am yours, for you I was born.
The Conversion of St. Paul, the Holy Fool
On the road to Damascus to persecute Christians, Paul was suddenly struck by God’s blinding light. The Voice then directed him to seek out Ananias as his guide to baptize him, to help him reflect on this experience, and to discern his new vocation (Acts 9: 10, 22). Paul spent the next 13 years learning the faith, and during this time he often went into the Arabian desert to pray (Acts 11).
Although St. Paul was not an eyewitness to the Lord’s saving events, he shared a vision of faith based “not on having grasped (divine truth) but on having been grasped (by it)” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 134). This sudden revelation was to become the basic shape of his transformation in Christ, and he never ceased to proclaim this vision of God. He preached Christ crucified, his highest beauty:
How else can we understand the least thing about Paul if one did not first acknowledge the fact that in Damascus he had seen the highest beauty, just as the prophets had seen it in the visions that called them forth (Ibid., 33)?
Christ aroused in Paul, the holy fool, the fullness of pleasure and delight, but truth and goodness were also manifested and given to him.
Every person knows who, for the sake of beauty, gladly becomes a fool without giving it a second thought. . . . Both the person who is transported by the natural beauty and the one snatched up by the beauty of Christ must appear to the world to be fools, and the world will attempt to explain their state in terms of psychology or even physiological laws [as in the case of the supposed ‘inebriated’ apostles who preached on the first Pentecost]. But they know what they have seen, and they care not one farthing what people may say. (Ibid).
Slow, Gradual, and Difficult Conversions
Most conversions to Christ and to the Catholic faith happen less dramatically and more gradually than Paul’s. After the initial encounter with God’s grace, but prior to the act or assent of faith, one can experience skepticism and doubt. Some individuals have expressed their crises in various ways: "I felt that God was pulling me toward the truth, and I was trying to resist," "I didn’t want to become a Catholic, but I prayed for the grace to go where God wanted," "I was tempted to go in my own direction, but I felt pulled in another."
To help a prospective convert or one returning to the faith, guidance may take the form of systematic catechesis through instruction or the RCIA program. Lapsed, former, or so-called retired Catholics have returned to an active and lively faith through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
The conversion of St. Ignatius occurred as if by accident. This cradle Catholic fell under the spell of God’s grace, “God’s better beauty” (G.M. Hopkins), well into adulthood. Recuperating from a leg wound sustained in battle shattered his idyllic dream of a glorious military career. He asked for romantic literature but instead was given lives of the saints to read. Gradually, God’s grace struck at his heart. His interior was moved, his mind was illumined and his will was attracted to the good. What if he joined the army of Christ? Before the beautiful statue of the Black Madonna, located in the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat, Ignatius transformed the ancient ceremony for the making of a knight into the new soldier of Christ. In pilgrim’s garb and in keeping with the chivalric code, he kept an all-night vigil. He placed his sword before the statue, stood, knelt, sang and prayed with other pilgrims. Then, like St. Paul, Ignatius withdrew from the world. For almost a year at Manresa, he engaged in the battle from within. In the solitude of a primitive cave, he experienced terror and fear. There was no escape from self, no flight into distraction. Gradually chaos was transformed into calm, darkness into light, and despair into hope. God became his “school master.”
In 1816 at age 15, John Henry Newman experienced a spontaneous conversion to Christ. However his conversion to the Catholic Church some 30 years later was “slow, deliberate, and painful, but by no means half-hearted.” The Apologia Pro Sua Vita narrates Newman’s difficult journey from the Anglicanism to the Catholic Church.
The Jesuit, theologian and Cardinal of the Catholic Church, Avery Dulles sums up his own conversion in this way:
My path from this point (1937-38) while a student at Harvard University] to the Catholic Church was straight but long and steep. . . . Before I could make this final act of faith, a full year and a half were to elapse after I had accepted the divinity of Christ as probable. . . . Trained as I was in the habits of skepticism, the act of faith was for me a terrible stumbling block. In a sense, it seemed to be the surrender of that which I valued more than anything else: intellectual honesty (Dulles, A Testimonial to Grace, 60).