Have you ever looked up a timeline of your favorite saint’s life—tried to figure out what age they were during the big moments of their life, or figured out how long certain phases of their life lasted? It can reveal some pretty surprising things: For example, 12 years passed from the time St. Ignatius was hit by a cannonball, beginning his conversion, to the time he and the first Jesuits took their vows. Another example: six years passed between Dorothy Day’s conversion to Catholicism and her starting the Catholic Worker.
I bring up these examples because they interrupt our usual way of telling these stories. Often, the story of St. Ignatius or Dorothy Day jumps straight from their conversion to the life-defining action that followed it. In reality, that journey often takes years.
This is something that’s useful to keep in mind as we hear today’s readings about the conversions of Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter. In each, the journey from feeling unworthy and unprepared to being called and taking on their mission happens with almost alarming speed! Isaiah says he is “a man of unclean lips” and an angel immediately comes and purifies his lips with an ember. The very next thing he says is in response to God’s question, “Whom shall I send?” and he says, “Here I am! Send me!” Likewise, Peter’s doubts about Jesus’ prediction that he will catch fish are short-lived: He lets this stranger into his boat and does as he says, and immediately, the prediction comes true; Simon’s doubt is dispelled. He says “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” but with one (admittedly cryptic) word of reassurance from Jesus— “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men”— Simon, James and John drop everything to uproot their lives and follow Jesus.
These narratives of one life-changing moment that immediately spurs one to action can seem highly improbable when we look at our own lives. And, in case we were worried that was a fault in us, we can also see that it’s unrealistic for the saints, too! But I think these stories do have some important lessons for us about how conversion happens.
The first is this. Concern about how quickly everything happens aside, these readings really highlight how important those first moments of encountering God are. For Paul, encountering the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus was shocking. It was the event that defined everything else, that he was still reflecting on years later as he wrote letters to the Christian communities he’d come to know. These readings invite us to look back at our own transformative experiences of encounter with Christ. Maybe you’ve had a few. Ponder that moment or those moments in your memory. What effect has it had on your life? Are its ripples still visible today? How, this week, can you honor that experience?
Here’s the second lesson. Like we see with the saints I mentioned, and even with these biblical figures whose conversions seemed so sudden, those first transformative encounters with God are only ever the beginning of an ongoing relationship, an ongoing conversion. For Isaiah, it was the beginning of a life of prophecy that would bring us some of the most beautiful predictions of the Messiah who was to come. For Paul, that conversion would spark his journey to become a leader of a community he once persecuted, and it would lead him to jail. For Peter, the stranger in the boat who he decided to follow would become one of his closest friends, someone he would lose, and who he would ultimately die for.
I’m currently writing a biography of the French poet, social worker, and Catholic mystic Madeleine Delbrêl. She’s sometimes nicknamed the “French Dorothy Day” because her life followed a similar trajectory from a free-thinking, Bohemian adolescence to an unexpected conversion to Catholicism, to a life of radical love, living among people who polite society had cast out: In her case, communist factory workers living outside Paris. Like the other saints I’ve mentioned, Madeleine is someone who had a definite conversion experience. Late in her life, she was still jotting down the date she identified as the day of her conversion on scraps of paper, to honor it. But it would be 10 years between that date and her moving to Ivry, the communist suburb where she ministered. She understood that conversion is an ongoing process. She liked to talk about it as a dance, breaking the word into its Latin roots: “con-” or “with,” and “vertere” or “turn.” “To turn with,” like dancing with a partner. God guides us in the dance, but as any good dance partner knows, following isn’t passive: You have to be super-present, attentive, free to move where your partner leads, but also sure enough in your abilities and your partner’s to take those steps decisively and confidently.
That brings me to my third point. Each of the conversion stories we heard today were preceded by doubt and a sense of unworthiness. Isaiah has “unclean lips,” Paul writes that he was the last one to see Christ, Simon Peter tells Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Each of these people, all towering figures in salvation history, need a word of encouragement to overcome their hesitancy and begin their work. So here’s a last question to reflect on: If we are to be Christ to one another, what can we do to encourage and empower the prophets of our day to speak, or the saints of our day to minister?
Colleen Dulle is a multimedia journalist covering Catholic and Vatican news.
In her current position as Associate Editor at America Media, Colleen writes and edits Vatican news and analysis pieces, along with hosting and producing the weekly news podcast Inside the Vatican. She creates Vatican explainer videos for America Media’s YouTube channel and contributes to Sacred Heart University’s “Go, Rebuild My House” blog.
Colleen has reported national and international news for Catholic News Service, The Associated Press, The Times-Picayune and the St. Louis Review in both print and video. Her wire service articles have appeared in publications around the world.
Colleen’s work has earned regional and national accolades from the Catholic Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Louisiana/Mississippi Associated Press Media Editors. She was the 2019 and 2021 Catholic Media Association Multimedia Journalist of the Year.
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