What St. Paul teaches us about constant conversion

“I don’t remember.”

These are the words that Jesus spoke to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque when she asked him the last sin that her spiritual director, St. Claude de la Colombiere, had confessed.

“I don’t remember.” St. Claude understood these words to be proof of the validity of St. Margaret Mary’s visions. He said that the devil would have wanted to flaunt St. Claude’s sins, whereas Jesus forgets them as soon as they are forgiven.

God forgives all of our sins. We know that. We know that even before the words come out of our mouths, God sees our hearts and embraces us when we turn to him asking for forgiveness. But do we forgive ourselves?

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Self-forgiveness is a crucial aspect of conversion. Being forgiven by God is most important, but our lives don’t change unless we are able to see ourselves anew and are able to see ourselves the way that God sees us. Otherwise, we will live our lives as though we have never received forgiveness, burdened by the sin from which we have already been freed.

A life lived without conversion is a life where a person is turned in on themselves, unable to accept the new life that God is calling him or her to live. Conversion is what leads us to love our neighbors and to love God above all-else. Conversion is what leads us to tell others about how the love of God has changed our lives.

Oftentimes when people think of conversion, they think of the one-time conversion that takes place at the Easter Vigil when someone goes from being not-Catholic to being Catholic. The daily aspects of conversion, of accepting God’s love and being changed by it, receive less press coverage.

Fortunately, the Church wants to help us understand the importance of conversion in a deeper way. On Jan. 25, the Church celebrates a conversion that literally changed the course of history: the conversion of St. Paul.

The story is somewhat dramatic, and to read the whole thing, you can turn to Acts 9 or Acts 22. But basically to summarize it: Paul (originally known as Saul) was persecuting Christians in a horrific way by having them arrested, which would lead to their martyrdom. On the road to Damascus, St. Paul was blinded by a light and heard the voice of Christ asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

Long story short, St. Paul was baptized, was given the mission of bringing the Gospel to non-Jewish people, wrote half of the New Testament and spread Christianity throughout the Mediterranean region. The Church would not be who she is today without St. Paul.

St. Paul did not become a saint simply because of his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, however. St. Paul easily could have encountered Jesus, asked for forgiveness, been baptized, and then gone and lived in private, mourning his sins every day of his life. He easily could have lived without a true conversion, without turning completely away from his old way of life.

However, that is not what St. Paul did. No, the same energy that St. Paul put into persecuting Christians he redirected into making new ones. He did a complete 180.

In fact, that is what “conversion” means. It comes from a Latin word that means “to turn around.” When we experience conversion, we turn from our old way of life, turning to a completely new way of life. We are changed. We are not the same.

Conversion is not something that we can ever bring about in ourselves; conversion is always a response to the love of God. It comes only and always from an encounter with the risen Lord.

The mistake that we can make, though, is thinking that encounters with the risen Lord are rare occasions. It’s easy to miss the ways that we encounter the Lord regularly in the sacraments, in our families, in our hearts as we see the news or scroll social media, in our prayer, in our workplaces, in nature.

In these moments when we encounter the risen Lord, we face an opportunity to respond like St. Paul: to be changed, to use energy that we previously spent on things that were not of God to instead build up his kingdom. Or we can go on with our lives as though nothing happened, which would be a great tragedy.

Throughout our days, God is constantly telling us that he loves us. The more we find ourselves saying, “I love you, too,” the more our hearts are converted and are turned toward him.

On the feast of the conversion of St. Paul, we remember that each of those moments of conversion has the power to bring about the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We remember that after meeting Christ, we cannot possibly be the same. That is the miracle of God’s grace.

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