To Convert, like Thérèse

I have friends, good Catholic friends, who seem to relish nothing more, especially after a couple of beers or in the case of our men’s group while chomping coffee and donuts, than to bemoan the pitiful state of contemporary culture. You know the litany. A conservative Catholic cultural critique can be merciless. (A liberal Catholic cultural critique is an oxymoron.)

I’m pretty sure now, after nearly three years a Catholic, that all such criticism is worthless.

The idea is that “the world”—the cold godless culture of death—is in sore need of conversion. This may be true; no doubt it is true. But there is little point, or honesty, in converting the world before I convert myself. Whether I’m a cradle Catholic, a convert, or a non-Catholic in discernment, what I have to do is to come myself to a conversion.

Conversion to me means turning myself completely and radically toward God, toward Jesus Christ. If I am a layperson, a husband and father, as I am, this does not mean turning away from my life commitments, from my vow of marriage, from my responsibility to provide for my family; it means to turn and open my heart continually, repeatedly, insistently to the love of God and to the presence of his Son, Jesus Christ, in my life. And to let that presence shine into my marriage, my family, my life of work.

Every serious Catholic must have a friend like my friend “Mike,” a born-Catholic guy who has turned himself away from the Church and therefore from the presence of Christ. Armed with “good reasons,” ready to take aim at every slightest failing of the Church, Mike has closed a door in his mind and will not give himself permission to open it again. What am I going to do with Mike?

My first impulse is to argue with him, to prove him wrong, to get Mike to come back, to convert. But to my continuing surprise I have found that my presence does not have the effect of, say,  St. John Vianney or Mother Teresa, and all of my frontal attacks on Mike gain nothing, except Mike’s resentment. Mike’s back, when up, is immovable.

And all the time I am assuming that there’s something wrong with Mike, that I must change Mike.

I must change myself.

I’m pretty sure that if I were St. John Vianney or Mother Teresa, Mike would melt. To be in the presence of either of these saintly people must have been like being in the company of Christ. In fact, that’s probably exactly what it was. How do you explain the conversion of much of the Mediterranean basin in the century after Christ’s death? A whole lot of souls on fire.

Why is my presence any different? Why am I lukewarm? Because I am seldom in Christ’s company. I seldom think of Him. I think of Mike, though, plenty, and how far he is from Christ.

At times like these, I find that nothing works for me better than reading the saints—turning to those men and women who turned themselves so wholly to Christ. And who better to turn to than St. Thérèse of Lisieux, known in her French religious life by the name  Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus de la Sainte Face—Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face—wow, what a name! (That’s her holy card at the top of this post.)

At the age of thirteen, already thirteen years baptized, Thérèse experienced what she called “a complete conversion.” 

God,” she wrote, “worked a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant.” Out of that conversion grew her “Little Way,” an endless rosary of little deeds of love and devotion, performed with her heart turned totally to God.

“I see that it is enough,” she wrote, ”to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself, like a child, into God’s arms.”

About the time of her “complete conversion,” at about age thirteen, she wrote:

“I didn’t have, as did the other students, any teacher with whom I was on friendly terms and could spend several hours. I was content, therefore, to greet the one in charge, and then go and work in silence until the end of the lesson. No one paid any attention to me, and I would go up to the choir of the chapel and remain before the Blessed Sacrament until the moment when Papa came to get me. This was my only consolation, for was not Jesus my only Friend? I knew how to speak only to Him; conversations with creatures, even pious conversations, fatigued my soul. I felt it was far more valuable to speak to God than to speak about Him, for there is so much self-love intermingled with spiritual conversations!”

With only one Friend, with only one Person with whom she could speak, Thérèse’s heart was turned totally toward Christ. I’m willing to bet that she would melt Mike if they met today. All I want to do is change him.

This post was written after some reflection on the introduction to “Living is the Memory of Me,” a recent talk by Fr. Julián Carrón to the Assembly of Responsibles of Communion and Liberation. You can find a link to it at the CL home page.

  • Lu Tongxin

    Thank you! Great reflection on continuous conversion.

  • Frank

    Aye,So then, my beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.—Philippians 2:12

  • Jan

    One thing I'm convinced of is that most people must undergo a conversion of the heart – experience something that tells them that it's all real, it's all true. I'm not talking about the warm fuzzies you get at certain times that make you feel good about your faith or your church. I'm talking about a visceral response to some inner-stimuli that imprints itself in your very being. I had one such moment myself many years ago…and the result of that is, I've managed to achieve "lukewarm." If I have the blessing of a long life, maybe I'll eventually achieve being on fire – I certainly won't stop trying to get there.As for those Catholics who steel themselves against the Church – and we all know a few! – all one can do is strive to follow the likes of the Little Flower and set an example of love.

  • Athos

    for God is at work in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure(!) - Philippians 2:13Don't forget the happy aspect of co-operating with grace to perfect nature, Frank! :O)

  • Frank

    @Athos, Yes! Like the Little Flower said,My special favorites in Heaven are those who, so to speak, stole it, such as the Holy Innocents and the Good Thief. There are great Saints who won it by their works. I want to be like the thieves and to win it by stratagem–a stratagem of love which will open its gates to me and to other poor sinners.

  • Fan of Schall

    Any student of history is led back to the Tiber, re: Frank's post- re: Portugal, Spain, North Africa. On this point, we did not give ourselves the knowing capacity, it is a gift. One cannot want to make someone to know something as this presupposes what we as human beings are capable of knowing. I thank God often to be engaged in the supernatural here on earth with His bride, the Catholic Church. Quite frankly, the secular humanists are missing out on the greatest party ever held!

  • NRIGirl

    Hi! Glad to stop by. Thank you for the inspiring post.When you have a moment please stop by for some Cofee with Jesus.~NRIGirl

  • Anonymous

    Oh Frank… how very true… Another thing I have found helpful and comforting while praying for the conversion of someone else is to enlist the help of his/her patron saint. So then we're a team praying for this person … Me and St.Thomas Aquinas praying for Tom, Me and St. Joseph for Joe, Me and St.Philomena for Philomena….It helps me stay calm.Rose

  • Anonymous

    Mixing politics or religion with close friends can be very damaging to a friendship. Mike has left the Church, but has he left God? Is he decent, moral, loving, nurturing, caring, giving, etc.? Does he live a Christ-like life, other than not attending Mass?"… all of my frontal attacks on Mike gain nothing, except Mike’s resentment. Mike’s back, when up, is immovable." Frontal attacks on anyone about anything prompt resentment. At that point the wall goes up and NOTHING will change their minds.Webster, try concentrating on how close you are to God, not how far away Mike is. (For all you know, he may actually be closer than you think.) Try being more like Therese and St. John Vianney. Change yourself, not your friend. By doing so, perhaps someday Mike will "melt" in your presence. Good luck!- Angel

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Angel. Good advice! Webster

  • Anonymous

    Oh dear… I'm sorry Webster… I made that mistake again… :(Rose