Conversion for the Unconverted

By Rebecca Lynne Fullan

photo courtesy of whatsername? via C.C. License at FlickrRed is my favorite color.  As far as I know, the first time anyone ever asked me what my favorite color is, I said red, as I have said every time thereafter.  When I have to choose from a selection of multi-colored things, it gives me a moment of cognitive dissonance not to pick the red one, even if at that moment I might prefer orange or green.  Since I am a person whose favorite color is red, might I, if I choose not-red, become not-quite-me?

I do, in fact, have many things that are not red, and I don't go about creepily dressed in red from head to toe at all times.  Nonetheless, I think that my loyalty to red points to a twinning of self-definition and loyalty in many people's experiences.  Who has not searched desperately for some small memento or piece of jewelry because it somehow does not just represent you, your relationship to someone, your memory of some place, but maybe, in some illogical way, contains you, your relationship, or your memory? 

The sometimes seductive, but always frightening, shock of conversion, then, is its promise of whole-cloth newness -- step out of one life, one frame, one self, and wrap up in another.  Who would I be, really, if tomorrow I didn't have a little heart-smile for every red thing I saw, but instead lit up for blue or green?  Who would I be if I were not Catholic, or Christian, if I did not believe in God at all?  I am not sure I want to discover these answers; I sometimes suspect my composite parts do hold together a self that is quite vulnerable to sudden dissolution.

At the same time, it is the promise of capital-C-Change that can make the Christian story itself so exciting.  You can be a prostitute, a stooge of the empire, a wacked-out revolutionary, a boring old fisherman one day, and Jesus' prophesying, preaching, travel buddy the next.  Start out collecting cloaks to help stone Christians, and end up collecting addresses to advise them on both sides of an ocean.   On the other side of things, you could be going along as a bosom buddy of the Lord, and finish out a traitor at the end of your own rope.  There's nothing steady here, and nothing safe, but there is something compelling about it.  No matter who or how you are, you might get pulled in for the change. 

I entertain this sort of idea when I am reading a tract someone pressed into my hand on my way to the subway, that perhaps this time I will say the prayer on the back and write to the address provided and tell them I have been saved. Is it possible I couldone day look back on my life now and say then I was lost, but now I am found?  Embrace biblical fundamentalism and heavy-duty atonement and seriously regimented sexuality and all that jazz?

I wonder in the other direction, too -- about simply giving into the tempting current of the idea that all religiousness is invented and nonsensical, a voluntary blindness to the actual parameters of life and death and experience.  Could I nod along with irreligious friends and mean it?  Is it possible to unspiral the layers of God-thoughts that surround me, like a clever-handed woman with the peel of an orange?

Of course, both are possible.  That is what conversion means... right?  That what you have been, and what you will be can be as different as you imagine.

But perhaps that is a fantasy, of fear and desire, because I think we can all perceive that is not often how it works.  No matter how it appears on the outside, change comes slowly, a turtle poking its head out of its shell and testing the air.  Even in the most dramatic transformations, there have been many small pressures and pieces of change that lead to the final outcome.  I say, "I am a Catholic," or "I am a woman," or "I am bisexual," or "I am a person who likes red."  But in each case there are literally thousands of tiny experiences, pressing in and brushing against (or slamming into) my mind and my memory -- sensory experiences like choosing a red balloon as a child or taking the Eucharist on my tongue, mental experiences like puzzling out what the various surges of my tides of desire could really mean, mysteries like knowing that this body I have has been a foot long and weighed two pounds, and is now so many, many times larger and so dramatically altered. 

And a rich variety of emotions attends these experiences: curiosity, excitement, terror, affection, shame, fury, delight.  Each feeling helps me evaluate that moment, automatically pulling it closer or thrusting it away, bringing me closer to "I am this" or "I am not that."