This morning (June 11: the feast of St. Barnabas), I was thinking about the story of Barnabas of Antioch, the Christian apostle and companion of Paul of Tarsus, and how the two of them went around preaching and converting people to Christianity just a handful of years after the events of the crucifixion of Jesus. I thought about the concept of “conversion” and the sorts of proselytizing that continues to go on all around us, a couple of millenia since then. I’m reminded of the line from the movie, Princess Bride, where Inigo Montoya says, “I do not think that means what you think it means.”
Convert (the verb) comes from the Latin, convertere: ‘to turn around’ or ‘to change direction.’ The Greek word carrying a similar meaning is metanoia: a ‘change of mind’ or ‘change of heart.’ In either case, the central concept in “conversion” is change.
In the so-called Serenity Prayer popularized by the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, I pray to gain the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Wisdom is the result of good judgment, but, as Will Rogers once said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Experience teaches me that I cannot change anyone or anything outside of myself. I am fundamentally powerless over people, places, and things. They are what they are, and they will be what they will be. Fundamentally, then, “conversion” has nothing to do with anything outside of myself. Conversion is an entirely inside job.
There are two lessons I can learn from this: 1) conversion happens when I allow myself to undergo a paradigm shift; and 2) prayer is the means by which that paradigm shift happens within me.
Each of us views her/his world through the lens of experience and lessons learned. As the Course in Miracles teaches, “I do not know what anything means.” I never perceive people, places, and things as they are, but always and only in the light of what I understand them to be. I see a collection of pieces of wood that form a flat surface supported by posts. I determine whether I see a “table” or a “stool.” When I expand that insight to the entire universe of my perception, I begin to understand just how powerful a meaning-giver I am. Is it a cup or a bowl? Is she a sinner or a saint? Do I love him or hate him? Is this a positive experience or a painful one? Just appreciating that meaning exists only in me and not in persons, places, and things is the fundamental paradigm shift: I suddenly see my world differently. I have had a conversion, as I allow my universe to be what it is, and to reveal itself to me without my intervention.
Prayer is the engine that drives conversion. None of us can appreciate that ineffable Power greater than ourselves per se. We cannot perceive anything sub specie aeternitatis.1 We live a temporal, before-during-and-after existence. Not so, the Divine. We can neither understand nor appreciate the impact that the temporal may (or may not) have on the eternal. Although we can’t personally experience what it means, we can say that whatever is eternal (beyond the space-time continuum — having no “where” or “when”) is changeless. So prayer is powerless to influence God. That doesn’t mean that prayer doesn’t change anything. What prayer changes is us, the pray-ers. When we put ourselves into conscious contact with God — however we understand God — and focus our conscious and unconscious minds (awareness, memory, thoughts, feelings, imagination, etc.) on that God for a time, we change. Our perspectives change. Our attitudes and judgments change. Our thoughts and feelings change. We take a little step closer to allowing our universe to be what it is without our prejudices getting in the way. And that, I firmly believe, is conversion.
So, back to Paul and Barnabas going around proselytizing. Were they “converting” people to their beliefs by teaching and arguing and all those annoying things that people do to try to change other people’s minds? Oh, they probably were. Were their methods effective? Well, they thought they were, and the people who judged their actions thought they were. But I don’t think so. People can’t be convinced to have a paradigm shift. What Paul and Barnabas did — almost unconsciously — was to share their experience, strength, and hope with others in such a powerful way that others were able to identify their own failures, struggles, and desires with what those two men had experienced. The change (the conversion) that Paul and Barnabas had experienced in their relationship with God and their universe was so powerful and compelling that it influenced those who met them to undergo their own conversion.
Each of us is a spatio-temporal being. We are locked — at least for our lifetimes — into the continuum. That is why conversion is never a once-and-for-all event. Conversion is a process, fueled by prayer, that is available to us every waking hour of every day. It is the result of the natural functioning of a healthy spiritual condition. When we are spiritually aware, we will begin to see our universe differently on a daily basis, because we are learning little-by-little to suspend our judgment as to what that universe means to us. It therefore looks new to us every day.
Do we need to proselytize others so that they can share in our metanoia? No. Trying to convince others of anything will needlessly create the opposite results. Our own conversion and the way we enter into an ever more intimate relationship with our world will be the most effective and compelling way to invite conversion in others. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.