In our gospel we hear of a man who had a change of heart, he changes his mind, he had a conversion. St. Augustine is my go to Saint when talking about a conversion of heart. St. Augustine was born in Africa in the year 354. His young adulthood was a stormy period and it included fathering a child out of wedlock with the family’s maid. In his twenties, Augustine moved to Milan, Italy, where he became a professor of rhetoric. His personal life, however, continued to be stormy and wayward. While in Milan, two things happened to him. First, he became increasingly unhappy with his personal life and second, he became attracted to Christianity. It was in this frame of mind that he sat down one day and began to think about his life. And this made him cry, he wasn’t happy with the direction of his life, he began to cry out to God saying, “And you Lord! How long will you be angry with me? Forever? Why not at this very hour put an end to my evil life?”
Augustine said later: “I was crying out like this when, suddenly I heard the voice of a child say, “Take and read, Take and read!!” “I stood up” he said, “because it seemed like a command from God for me to read the Bible. I got a Bible and opened it up.” “The first words my eyes fell upon were from the letter of Paul to the Romans. He read: “Throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light: let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies, and drunkenness… not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
When Augustine read this, he stopped. There was no need to go on. He says: “My heart was suddenly flooded with a light that erased all my doubts. And my soul was filled with a deep peace.” That episode triggered Augustine’s’ conversion to Christianity.
This change of heart that Augustine experienced is the same kind of change of heart that Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel. The young man at first says no to his father but he later repents saying yes instead to the father’s will. It’s also the same kind of change of heart that Ezekiel talks about in today’s first reading. This might make us ask ourselves a question: What causes a person to undergo a change of heart? What causes a person to undergo a conversion?
A political activist once outlined the steps for bringing about a political revolution in a country. He said the first step was to create a psychology of discontent among the people of the country. Unless people are discontented with their existing political situation, they will never seek to change it. The same is true of us. Unless we are discontented with our life, we will never seek to change it.
The case of St. Augustine illustrates this. He was so discontented with his personal life that he sat down and cried. And so the first step in the conversion process is dissatisfaction with one’s personal life or some aspect of it. What has God’s grace brought to light in our life that causes dissatisfaction and a want of change for the better? The second step is called the trigger step. It’s some episode that lights a fire under us, or triggers us to do something about our personal life. It’s a grace that we respond to. In Augustine’s case this was the experience of opening the Bible and reading Paul’s letter to the Roman’s. And then finally the third step in the conversion process is making the all-important first move in the direction of a new life. It’s doing something practical and concrete about changing our present life, and at the same time always supported by God’s grace.
Again, we see this in the life of St. Augustine. After reading Paul’s words to the Romans about throwing off the works of darkness, he took an immediate and concrete step toward changing his life. He became a catechumen, he studied the Catholic faith. And so the conversion process involves three steps. First, involves being discontented with our personal life. Second involves having something trigger us to do something to change our life, a grace of some sort. Third, involves taking a concrete first step in the direction of a new life.
So what about us? How content are we with our present life? Is there a “No” to God’s will somewhere in my life that needs to become a “Yes?” Am I dissatisfied with my present relationship with God? Do I want a closer relationship with Jesus? Do I want to be more loving toward others? If the answer to these questions is yes, then today’s Scripture readings could be that trigger or that spark of grace that prompts you to do something.
And if it is, what first step might we take to do something about these things? Maybe that step is simply to present ourselves more frequently at the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Maybe it’s to begin tonight to spend a few more minutes in prayer before going to bed. Maybe it’s to begin reading more scripture/spiritual books. Maybe it’s a resolution to come to Mass every Sunday. Maybe it’s to become more generous and patient with the people in my life.
God has a plan for each of us, a plan for our good. And sometimes that plan is only made clear after a conversion of heart. Let us continually strive to be open to God’s grace of changing our “no” to his will, no matter how small into a “yes.”
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley