Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Conversion by Comfort or Conflagration-A Sinners Guide

Father John J. Lombardi

Liberals say: God loves you just the way you are. Meanwhile, Orthodox Catholics counter: And He loves you too much to leave you that way. We respond: both are true and It's a "Catholic thing". Translated: "Loving liberalism" counsels-rightly: We must deeply experience and know God's love for us individually, even before we do anything perfect ourselves or save the world-God "beats us to the punch" loving us wherever we are and even in our sloppiness, for: "God is Love" (I Jn4:6). Ergo/therefore: He cannot not love! That's true, but it's also true-as Catholic-Orthodox says: He doesn't want us to stay in lukewarmness or imperfection or sin and enslavements--so He gives us ways to embrace this.

In this Sunday's Gospel (Lk. 13:1-9 ) we read of Jesus calling the disciples -and us-to turn away from sin and turn to Him-the Lord God. On the one hand Jesus comforts disciples regarding conversion (and thereby we should nurture hope, longsuffering and God's Mercy); and on the other hand Christ stresses repentance and fruitfulness now ("or the fig tree will be cut down"-that's us): yikes! Sometimes we need to be comforted into conversion (a gentle push, a nudge, a reminder of God's Love and Purity: a confessor used to give me the beautiful image of the Crucified Jesus stretching His Sacred Arms down from the Cross to scoop sinners up); and other times we need a conflagration-you know, get a "wake up call" to break thru our density. We need both kinds of calls to conversion: comfort and conflagration-soft love and tough love.

Now, think of three of the most notorious sinners. St Paul was a murderer and he became saint. St Peter was a traitor and became the first Pope. St Augustine was an adulterer-pagan-practitioner who transformed into a brilliant expositor of the Trinity. While thinking of conversion, think of St Francis of Assisi who was a materialist-recalcitrant who later, after his conversion, got the stigmata (wound-marks of Christ on his body). Then there's Fidel Castro: he was apparently offered conversion but winced. Pope John Paul II, on his papal visit there years ago, musta' implicitly offered him life in the Lord and Church but, apparently to all external signs, Castro said/says, "No". This shows the power of evil-call it the dark designs of sin in this world-and sometimes in ourselves-and how difficult it is at times to overcome, get freed from--conversion: from sinner to saint.

Let's realize, as my Jesuit spiritual director just said to me on retreat: the saint is not one who does not sin but, rather, one who knows he is a loved sinner. A saint is one who knows that he/she is sinful but God still loves him anyway and is helping him to overcome sin and evil.

We discussed the Mystery of iniquity: that is, why for some people some sins and faults are so hard to overcome-why it is just darned hard to become perfect (Mt. 5:48) ) as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Just think, as my priest friend reminded me: The man Jesus picked - Peter, to become the first Pope and he, just after giving excellent testimony about Jesus' true identity, then rebelled against Jesus (Mt. 16:18ff)-and, even, Satan entered into Peter. And even after all Christ did for him, St Peter still later betrayed the Lord three times. This is only one case in the Mystery of Iniquity…This Jesuit certainly had wisdom, and "street smarts"-he realized the human condition-that sin and evil are with us, as a power working within us at times-as St Paul describes (Rm 7:23). Sometimes, no matter how hard some disciples try, no matter how many rosaries and novenas they say, they may still commit sin and fall short while trying in all sincerity to be holy. Upshot: herein we must realize, again: God loves us; He is merciful, Loving, and we must keep trying and re-realize that precisely because of the depths of darkness and our ineptitudes, it is then we more deeply realize we need a Savior: we can't do it alone.

As my new spiritual director said: This is the Good News, almost too good to be true, that even though we are still yet sinners (Rm 3) God loves us anyway. He takes us back; He forgives us no matter how much we may sin. The Good News is really Good because the world's kind of good and love is based on merit and perfectionism, whereas God's Love and relationship is unconditional. Our attitude, then, should be one of wonder and gratitude toward God.

I learned on this Ignatian retreat, St Ignatius' strategy (in "the Spiritual Exercises") is to recognize that we are in a battle, between the Kingdom of Jesus and the Kingdom of Satan, and we all need to be rescued. Remember: This "Savior business" is against our modernist-American-grain, counterintuitive, which dictates: I can do it; I am somebody; I can save myself on my own. To be saved and assisted by SomeOne else is against Americanism, meritocracy.

But just ask yourself the following questions: Why aren't you perfect yet? Why do you keep committing the same sins? Why are you so anxious? Why aren't you heroic like the saints? Why isn't the world getting better, younger, more beautiful? Answer to all: because of sin and evil in the world… "All creation is groaning for the redemption of God" (Rm. 8: 23). A Law of the Universe is: Things get worse, not better; things fall apart and corrupt. Ditto for humans if we don't watch out and cling to the King.

In contemplating Christ, conversion and Christianity, it's sobering to realize how much evil, hardship, sin is in the world: not just the culture of death and materialism and Shiite-Sunni madness, but also (news items I've just heard about): sexual offenders who have been released to halfway houses (instead of more prison time) and who then-even at age 70-abuse their caregivers; Islamicists who take over, and/or terrorize whole countries; tribal chieftains who slit girls and women's inner female organs; the rise of aberrational sexualities that enslave and de-dignify humans, and the young who are "harvested" for sex toys; drug addicts whose free wills are seemingly hijacked and keep abusing and hurting loved ones. Then, I think of penitents who sometimes say: I'm so embarrassed confessing the same things… My reply, three words: Keep coming back.

Alongside all this, in reading the new book "Why Good People Do Bad Things" by Jungian author James Hollis, a flawed but insightful tome, we may come to deeply learn the tremendous healing we all need in and from life and how "shadows" sometimes control us-the unconscious, archaic, unrecognized past coercing us toward harmful things. They are usually things we don't like about ourselves, dark secrets or unresolved nightmares, past abuses, rejections or neglect, all "re-playing" in the present in subtle or overt ways ("What we resist will persist," some twelve-steppers and Jungians say). Hollis is realistic about this subconscious darkness, all the while counseling that healing may come thru proper, healthy acknowledgement of past dark material and complexes which haunt and harms us and others. What Hollis misses (and Jungians can easily slide into their own form of a "religion" or spirituality) is, precisely, what we Catholics proclaim-- the "Higher Power"-God; also, we can be freed by the healing power of Confession-reconciliation; saintly models of overcoming and of holiness and wholeness may inspire us.

As part of my retreat and confronting obstacles, I made a chart for conversion--you can, too. On left side of paper list vertically your sins/faults/shadows. Then, across the top horizontally, list "examples" (with some of your "worst case scenarios" of the fault-- to remind-inspire you to change! Then list: "roots" or "unseen enemy" (which detail not symptoms but cause); and lastly, "solvents"-ways to change and work thru faults. I found this a helpful, enlightening, engrossing exercise. At the risk of self-help-ism and do-it-yourself-ism, it can explain a lot and help us keep focused and pragmatic instead of "pie in the sky" conversion without goals. St Ignatius, in his "Spiritual Exercises," counsels a form of this in "particular examen". …"Where sin abounds, grace abounds more (Rm. 5).

Looking at life, we may see how we have been striving for holiness and yet how enslaved we were in so many ways, in ignorance, and yet how God sent so many varied and voluble signs and people along the way. Isn't this the story of the Old Testament and the Jews replayed? Perhaps we could just not hear, see or understand the signs or put the "message-answers" into practice, so immersed in the world we might have been. We knew certain things on the head level back then, but maybe not in the heart or in practice: "For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want " (Rm 7: 19 ). Contrastingly, recently some teens preparing for confirmation came to confession. I was inspired and enlightened by their sincerity -how they wanted to change and grow holier. When asked, "Are you sorry for all your sins?" one response came with enthusiasm: Yes, definitely.. Do you have firm purpose of amendment of life? I firmly intend, with the Grace of God, to sin no more and to avoid whatever leads me to sin…"

In dealing with sin and evil in the world and in ourselves, let us keep on the path, like the man who was sent to death row for murdering several people. Then he killed more people on death row. A prison guard gave him a Bible and spoke to him of Jesus Christ. The murderer repented, changed his life, eventually got out of prison and is now a healing prison minister to death row inmates. Ponder Ted Haggert: he led a mega church in Colorado-and preached against illicit sexuality. Then he had some kind of experience with a male prostitute. Haggert resigned, and then went to therapy and experienced healing in his life. Talk about darkness and freedom. Think of our president, George Bush: he was an excessive drinker. Then he realized it, took a pledge and accepted Jesus as his favorite hero and help. These examples both illustrate the deep reality of sin and evil in our world (dark matter dwells not only in the universe as scientists tell us, but also within us), and they give us hope: souls can overcome sin and evil.

When we try to figure out the Mystery of Iniquity-why so much suffering and sin amidst God's Grandeur and Love-- we cannot: our brains are too small. It is not that God is dark but, rather, that our capacity to understand and "package" pat answers are lacking. This is the story of Job in the Old Testament. His friends tried to console him with answers according to the Book of Human Expectations, but, in the end, God basically instant messaged: My universe and Ways are far too complex and mysterious for you to totally understand and accept. Evil exists and injustice too-and this mixes with good in ever-mysterious ways humans can never figure out. Job was faithful in his humility and sufferings and was freed from false gods and expectations-- and restored to glory. Do you know and realize Job's story of worshipping the Mysterious God Beyond All Understanding?

As Catholics let's think of, and be thankful for all the various kinds of conversion: "liberalist helps" (doing good works; emphasizing mercy and God's patience; not neglecting or rejecting social justice; prophetic warnings; the Corporal works of mercy) and "Orthodox helps" (kicks in the butt; wake up calls; prophetic warnings; the Spiritual works of mercy). They work together to help us become saints. The ABC's of Faith are Always Being Converted. We must know there is a way of healing and salvation-thru Christ's Church--the sacraments, esp. thru confession which helps us to dump toxins in our human dumpsters we've collected; and the Eucharist medicinalizes us with Christ's Most Precious Blood. My spiritual director said, regarding the seriousness of sin and the Call to Holiness: Help accompany others on the pilgrimage: you can't do the job for them, you can't take over their lives-they might not even pay attention or be able to put some of it into practice; you can share wisdom, tips and most of all enthusiasm-give them hope, signs of assurance and that if you keep on keeping on, things will get better. This is what we got: welcome to the Valley of tears (he said with a slight smile). He was right.

Later after our meeting I took a walk and began reading "Jesus of Suburbia" and a chapter on mystery, where Mike Erre, the evangelical author, described how we modernist Christians sometimes want a nicely packaged God instantly solving things for us, and that our spirituality-- like ready-to-make, put together furniture-will make everything all nice and cozy if we follow the plan. People go to services to have religious issues-and God-explained to them-not to enter into, or embrace, paradox and Mystery. All these words from the book immediately strangely, comforted me.

Just after this I went to pray inside the chapel. There was another answer and sermon: men were kneeling, sitting and praying before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, beginning a retreat. Nothing spectacular, no, but it was, upon thinking: supernatural. Taking time to pray, make a retreat and be with the Lord-this was The Best Way to deal with sin and evil in the world. Simplicity. Not complicated. God was giving me, us The Answer. Many of the men were going to confession-: emptying the dumpster, overcoming faults--you don't necessarily need a psychiatrist; we have a Divine Healer who hears and heals our troubles. Then Mass began. Here, I believe God was speaking to me, us…ABC=Always Being Converted.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi