ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.
Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.
Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)
We are each gifted with a personal identity in the image of God our Father. We are an icon of God.
We are marred by our human tendency to sin, our concupiscence.
We are each born with weaknesses and even as we grow up we may be marked with wounds and scars that further those weaknesses.
At the same time these wounds and scars make us stronger, prepare us for life with others, and help us grow in God’s image. In our weakness God’s grace can supply our needs.
These needs, also determine our susceptibility to temptations, those directions in which we can more easily fall.
All of these are human processes; we are fallen, but nothing prior to this can be called our fault or our choice. This is all the environment, and our pre-mature interactions.
We become what we learn, though.
Those weaknesses become the ways in which we might self-medicate, self-soothe, hide from things we don’t like, and defend ourselves from both abusive interactions and also troublesome but necessary ones.
At this point we start to make choices: do I lash out when I get threatened? Do I retreat into isolation and find ways to imagine revenge? Do I create an interesting cover story to make up for an absence? Do I obscure my intentions for my actions?
At this point, also, temptations begin: yes, you should lash out. Yes, you should break off interactions. Yes, you should tell that lie. Yes, you can do that… it’s easy. These ideas do not come from within you but from outside.
It is here the sword and shield of spiritual warfare must become involved.
The scars and wounds which allow one to be more susceptible to one kind of temptation than another are not our fault. The temptation itself is likewise not our fault. But the choice to act on it at all is a fault.
A demonic voice can only lie, telling you what is a wound is no wound, telling you what is a lie is actually “your truth”. The voice can obscure reality but cannot trigger action: this last step is yours.
We need spiritual warfare at every point here
Some sins lead us only away from God. Some sins draw us deeper into themselves. They become repeating patterns of their own. The demonic no longer needs to trigger these steps for you trigger them yourself. You no longer need to make choices, for the choice was made long ago and you are only continuing to follow it.
The deeper and more and meshed in the lie you become, the more it becomes your reality. You begin to think this is you, this unmade, continually repeating choice. Eventually you invest so much in this artificial reality that your own self gets lost.
You are alone. People no longer relate to you but rather relate to this lie, this artificial reality. You’re not relating to them anymore for they too are covered in artificial realities. The lie has isolated you.
When you come before God, if you do at all, you are convinced that even then you are this lie. Until you are not relating to him he struggles to relate to you. He loves you.
If it were possible you would cease to be you. Your identity as an icon of the Living God would be entirely lost. But that’s not possible. You’re still there. You may be covered by layers of repeated actions. You may be distorted by layers of lacquer and paint. These were not on the original icon and they’re not part of you. Removing them will feel painful.
Yet removing them is exactly what needs to be done. You cannot do this. You must submit to God to have this done. Only the original painter can restore his work.
The voices will tell you this really is you. The idea of pain will run through your head at every moment. Fear will make you stop. You must hear your inner heartbeat. You must see the glow that comes from the original image shining from beneath the lacquer. These things are not you.
You know this. You have always known this. The reality is being yourself is much more work than being this lie. You want to be yourself, but it’s a lot of work. This is where spiritual warfare is necessary.
At every turn cry out to your father. At every turn cry out to the Son and the Holy Spirit. At every turn cry out to our lady and all the Saints. At every turn cry out to Saint Michael the Archangel to defend you in battle. At every turn laugh at Satan. At every turn strive for Holiness. At every turn it is you resting in God never alone, never again.