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Prayer and conversion

PUBLISHED 23 November 2021

‘Conversion is at the heart of all authentic religious experience,’ writes Fr Laurence Freeman, Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation. Here he reflects on what it means to be truly converted, to conform oneself to ‘the true nature of one’s soul—to oneself as a child of God, not merely as a product of our culture’—and on the vital role of prayer and contemplation in this process.

'May your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed.'

—Romans 12:2 

Conversion is at the heart of all authentic religious experience. Inauthentic religious experience denotes a use of religion—Scripture, ritual, belief or collective identity—that effectively blocks the transformation process that is initiated when consciousness opens to God as source and ground of being. Instead of transformation, the misapplication of religious experience, which is often politically or psychologically driven, produces stagnation or rigidity and consolidates the ego’s fearful resistance to change. Prayer, which is also at the heart of all religion, can therefore be more—or less —authentic, and the test of prayer will be whether it leads to an ongoing conversion or to a progressive paralysis of the self.

A prisoner in an Australian penitentiary put this to me very memorably once at a meditation group I was visiting in the prison when she said, ‘I was really in prison before I came to this place.’ Under the most inauspicious of conditions and in the most dehumanising of social contexts, the miracle of conversion, a pure religious experience, had happened in her, and this was made possible because she had learned there for the first time what prayer really involves.

Before we explore further this connection between prayer and conversion, it would be helpful to explain in what sense I am not using the word conversion. After centuries of missionary effort, the word has acquired a flavour that is repugnant to many. In India, for example, it is forbidden by law to try to convert others to a different religion. This is not meant as a restriction on religious liberty but as a defence of the vulnerable poor from the influence of powerful religious lobbies. Conversion, then, can mean simply the redefinition of one’s religious identity (‘I am becoming a Catholic’ or ‘I have switched to Buddhism’). Religion—or its absence—is an important aspect of one’s personal identity, of course, and to some degree we have the freedom and power to change it at will. More insidious is the use of force or other undue influence, such as the material bribery often used by some evangelical groups, to make people convert. The Dalai Lama advises his huge Western audiences not to change their religion but to rediscover their own, although he adds that people have the right to move into another tradition should they so choose. His point is that people often underestimate the depth and ramifications of using that right. He puts it succinctly when he says that to change your religion is at least as far-reaching a decision as changing your language.

In an age of cultural pluralism, and with the progressive weakening of Christian institutional authority in Western society, religious identity has been reformulated for many as a choice affecting lifestyle and personal identity. Even those who defend a less liberal religious position that challenges this element of ‘freedom’ in determining one’s faith have themselves chosen the position they defend. The Church may protest at ‘buffet Catholics’—people who pick and choose what they want from the tradition—but the nature of religious authority and identity has indisputably shifted. When a right-wing Catholic accuses a liberal Catholic of not being a ‘good’ or ‘true’ Catholic, the liberal is likely to respond, in true liberal fashion, ‘Well that’s your opinion and you're entitled to it but I am not going away.’ Conflicting identities have, as St Benedict understood, to find ways of coexisting in the same house. The solution to this problem will be in deepening the conversion process, not in trying to reverse it.

Conversion is, in other words, about identity. But identity is a more subtle and interesting question today than it has ever been before. People have received an unprecedented infusion of new personal authority to claim an identity that could have been denied them or removed from them before. As a result of this, the revolution in the nature of religious authority in society has highlighted the deeper significance of conversion. The missionaries’ role is now understood to be to preach the Word but to leave the ‘work of conversion’ to the Holy Spirit. This represents an immense enlargement of freedom in missionary endeavour, even though it inevitably causes confusion of identity and purpose for many in the process of transition. In other words, those who were once confident that their job was to convert others have been propelled, themselves, into a conversion experience that is at least as radical and revolutionary as that of Saul of Tarsus.

Christians are increasingly accepting of the idea that conversion is not just about changing your religion or about external conformity within it. If conformity is important—as it is to some extent—then it is, to begin with, about conforming oneself to the true nature of one’s soul—to oneself as a child of God, not merely as a product of our culture. The ‘crisis of religion’, the pluralism of society and the relativisation of personal identity in an age of cyber-intimacy have not surprisingly led to a new flowering of the contemplative dimension of religion. Authenticity of religious experience—realising personal identity in a culture that constantly threatens to absorb, refashion and mass-produce it—and handling the burden of choice in a pluralist world have made prayer an issue of central importance to the future of religion, and even to the environmental survival of the planet.

The woman prisoner I mentioned above experienced the reprocessing of her identity that prisons and other total institutions can do so well. What she lost, however, was an identity that needed to be lost: a dysfunctional, anguished, violent self that was in continuous conflict with her true identity. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul describes this as the old self living according to the flesh. It would be wrong to interpret this as referring to self-indulgence and decadence. Sin in this letter is described in terms of self-division and alienation, not just doing what you want. Indeed, Paul specifically describes it as not doing what you want and instead doing what you don’t want to do. Sin is better illustrated by the model of addiction, therefore, than by that of sexual indulgence. Even St Augustine said that most sins are committed in pain and grief of soul.

In this perspective, conversion is not dependent on a process arising from the institutionalisation of sin that was one of the consequences of the Church’s establishment as a centralised religious authority. Quite the reverse, it is the process of healing the primal wound of division and duality in the self—original sin. Authentic religious awakening transcends the guilt built into the legalised conception of sin and allows us to recognise the abundant flow of grace in our lives and in the cosmos. The circumstances that bring about this awakening are many and mysterious and involve spontaneous timing and apparent chance as much as individual will and effort. But whatever initiates the process of conversion, a new understanding and experience of prayer will inevitably result. Maybe a person feels a vague impulse to ‘go deeper’ in their spiritual life. Maybe she feels the need to assert her personal identity within a context that has suppressed it for her. Maybe what is good and holy in another tradition awakens a religious experience of love hitherto unknown in one’s own faith. Maybe a major loss or mere ageing brings on a crisis of personal meaning. However it happens, the conversion process is triggered and the action of grace begins to get established in a person’s inner and outer worlds. It can be terribly inconvenient and profoundly disturbing. But it has to be accepted just as it is. We do not lightly tell the doctor what treatment to prescribe. We do not control the timetable of our deeper development in self-knowledge. Each case and each chapter in the case history is unique. Such is the fecundity of God’s creation. ‘There is no law dealing with such things as these,’ says St Paul (Galatians 5.23).

Conversion, then, is the ultimately personal experience, and yet it reformulates our sense of identity in belonging to community. The bridge-experience is prayer. When conversion—the metanoia of a total change of mind, not just taking on a new label—has been accepted, the contemplative dimension has also been awakened. This is now happening to more individuals than ever before, and it accounts for the phenomenon of the mystical awakening in the Church in our troubled times. Conversion and contemplation are inseparable, and this simple conjunction defines authentic religious experience and the whole message and tone of the New Testament.

Prayer, as Jesus, explicitly taught, therefore belongs to and happens in the ‘heart’, the deepest identity of the person, not in externals. It is not limited to petition, because God ‘knows our needs before we ask’. It requires the laying aside of anxiety. It demands mindfulness and attention. Prayer is about living fully in the present. This new experience and understanding of prayer is initiated by the process of conversion that is simply the unpredictable and uncontrollable effect of God’s grace in each life. Because conversion never ends, as St Benedict understood when he made the monk take a vow to ongoing ‘conversion of life’, the Church’s great and ancient teaching that contemplation is the goal of human life makes perfect and illuminating sense. 

Rev. Laurence Freeman OSB is the Director, World Community for Christian Meditation, an ecumenical, contemplative community dedicated to teaching meditation.

This article was first published in The Summit in 2006.

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