Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Common Mistake of Converts

I am loving listening to Jesus: A Pilgrimage by Father James Martin, narrated by the author. I just finished chapter 5, on the interim between Jesus’s hidden life (age 0–30) and His public ministry. Two key events occur: Jesus’s baptism and His temptation in the wilderness.

Martin: “God is at work at all times.”

I am in awe of the many threads woven by Martin in this single chapter. He shows remarkable control of varied material. Chapter 5 includes, among other elements, a personal confession of venial sin during Martin’s visit to the Jordan (every chapter is part travelogue); a helpful explanation of original sin; and the principle of embarrassment in scriptural analysis.

This principle argues that you can be confident of a Gospel event’s historicity if reporting that event would have embarrassed those reporting it, in this case first-century Christians. Jesus’s baptism seems to imply that He needed cleansing, but then how could he be God, as the earliest Christians believed? Why would God need to be baptized? This embarrassing question convinces us that Jesus’s baptism must have happened. No one trying to make a case for Jesus’s divinity would have thought to invent it.

What moved me most about the chapter, however, is yet another element: Martin’s reflection on conversion. This passage will influence how I finish up and edit my own memoir of conversion, now in its third and (hopefully) final draft.

While arguing that knowing Jesus as a boy, adolescent, and young adult is important to our understanding of Him later, as a man and preacher, Martin jumps to the before and after for any convert, like myself. He says it is common for a convert to “denigrate” what came before conversion, to “set aside, downplay, or reject one’s past.” Martin notes that even so great a writer as Thomas Merton made this mistake in The Seven-Storey Mountain.

Now Martin comes to his main point: “There is no post-conversion and pre-conversion person. There is one person in a variety of times, the past forming and informing the present. God is at work at all times. . . .

“The temptation for anyone who has changed, grown, or moved on from what seemed like a less satisfying part of life is to think of the old person as dead. . . . It took me years to realize how limiting this approach can be, because it closes us off from seeing grace in our past.”

Martin confesses that he himself made this mistake after entering the Jesuit novitiate. “I had undergone a conversion,” he writes, “and . . . I felt no need for the past and sought to find God only in the present and the future. In doing so, I was negating all the good that God had done for me in the past.”

This is the point, and a point that those in recovery might consider as closely as the convert. God has been at work in my life at all times. Even in the darkest years of my past, God was doing good for me.

I must be careful when editing my memoir not to denigrate my own past, or particularly to criticize those people or agents in my life who—perhaps in spite of themselves—were part of the path that led me to the doorstep of the Catholic Church.

God was beside all of us us all the time.

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