By Fr. Drew Kirschman, SJ
Ponder the human heart. An ingenious layering of tissues and valves that enable four chambers to oxygenate and circulate blood to the entire body day-in and day-out, hour by hour, minute by minute, moment by moment. Incredibly durable, your heart will beat two billion+ times over the course of your life. Incredibly delicate, we know how easy the heart can falter and fail, let alone break, get bruised, be scorned. Durable and delicate all in one!
While function can fascinate, that the heart can turn speaks of something more than human. This is the nature of conversion. In Latin, conversio means “to turn around”; in Greek, metanoia – a “change of heart” urging toward repentance to re-turn to one’s true self.
What initiates the “turning” and “changing” tends to originate beyond us. Think of the blinding light that de-saddles St. Paul, or the cannonball that shatters St. Ignatius.
What are your “knocked off your horse” moments? In a COVID-19 world, I bet we all have many. For me: Friday, March 13, 2020. Jesuits from the four corners of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province gathered in St. Louis for a meeting of community leaders (superiors). Alerted to a virus-gripped world, the precautionary kneejerk reaction was “shut it down.”
Like a cannonball, COVID crashed into our consciousness and demanded drastic measures. As novice director, I had novices on pilgrimage. In Jesuit parlance, this means novices on a journey, placing their necessities (i.e., food, shelter, transportation) concretely in God’s hands. The unknowns of the virus and unpredictability of novices wandering the highways and byways in a world grappling with how to care for the most vulnerable demanded a reaction: “shut it down.”
And so, I prayed like hell! The world changed, with new ways of thinking required, new ways of praying sought. The pandemic cannonball forced a rethinking, reconsidering, re-discerning, re-praying.
Moments of disruption like this invite a return to God, to consider God’s plan as my plan, God’s dream as my dream, God’s will to become more and more my way of proceeding.
God’s Way of Proceeding
Return to the original Garden. Adam and Eve witness the need for conversion from the get-go. You know the story: God comes each day in the cool of the afternoon to walk with this first couple, to share the day, to deepen the friendship. When Adam and Eve get self-absorbed in seeking ill-fated nourishment from the “tree of knowledge,” God comes with a tender question: “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:8-11) This foundational conversion question beckons them back to right relationship.
So, too, with us. Knowing that God desires to walk with us in the cool afternoons of life, who told us that we are not enough? Who told us that our nakedness – fully being who God created us to be – needs to be hidden? God’s way constantly invites us to turn back.
This is the thing about conversion. Turning is hard. Maybe the natural process of aging is to calcify – to be less flexible to new things, less open, less receptive. It is easy to dig heels in with what is comfortable, known and familiar. Conversion demands an openness to see with new eyes, feel with a fresh heart and step into a new horizon. At every age in the faith life, we are invited back to a “heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26-27; 2 Corinthians 3:2-3), one that beats a billion+ times and is susceptible to being broken.
Jesus shows us how to do this. At every stage of his ministry, Jesus models a heart eager to discern his Father’s will. Notice Jesus’ freedom to expand his ministry from his own tribe to the world, including foreigners. (Matthew 28:18-20) Note his agility to pick up and move to the next town despite the pleading to stay local. (Mark 1:32-39) Notice Jesus’ intimate grappling in a different Garden as he surrendered to the cup his Father offered. (Matthew 26:36-46) The ongoing conversion of his heart began to reveal that the salvific plan of his Father was beyond his understanding. A turn was demanded, a turn toward the cross.
Jesus’ surrender to his Father’s will, so vividly seen from the cross, never moves toward bitterness. That is the temptation though, is it not? It is easy to let our hearts harden, even grow bitter when we are pushed out of what is comfortable and preferred. Suffering tempts recalcitrance, and yet invites a response of Divine Love.
Jesus chose self-emptying love. We enter this Lenten season acutely aware that in all of Jesus’ sacrifice and surrender, his way to the cross was to be gracious (where brutality did not deter him from seeking out the women of Jerusalem for comfort), to be generous (where suffering opened him to solidarity with thieves rather than the despair lurking at the cross), and to be grateful (where love for mother and closest of friends initiated a new community). No bitterness, only love!
St. Ignatius found a way to help make self-emptying love a bit more accessible. Through the Spiritual Exercises he offers tools for discernment to help make Jesus’ way our way. Challenges and suffering are part of life; might we choose graciousness, generosity and gratitude? A cannonball opened the door for Ignatius, breaking him so these virtues might thrive. So, too, with us.
As an Ignatian community we pray for conversion to reveal ever more clearly the Father’s way in our world today. We pray to re-turn to the “cries of the world”: cries from young people seeking a hope-filled future, cries from marginalized people seeking justice and fullness, cries from creation seeking jubilee stewardship and care. Conversion replants us, time and again, in God’s horizon.
What, then, does it take for our hearts to turn? A foreboding voice message with lab results? A tender glance from across the room? The time-suspending sound of breaking metal and glass? The hand of a newborn searching to lock hold of a finger? God has an opinion on the direction our hearts turn, which means we listen, we slow down enough to notice, we cultivate curiosity and wonder so that conversion might visit us, regularly.
Father Drew Kirschman, SJ, is novice director and a consultor to the provincial for the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province.