Spring 1989, Vol.41 No. 1, pp. 42-53.

Mary Kay Kinberger:

Turning and returning to God require a journey from dissatisfaction through powerlessness and abandonment to new innocence and communual service.

Sr. Mary Kay Kinberger, M.S.C., holds masters degrees in nursing, spirituality, and religious studies. Having taught nursing and served as formation director for her congregation, she is now finishing doctoral studies at Gonzaga University, Spokane.

THERE is a theme in spiritual development which is as old as humankind. The stories of our ancestors in the Old Testament tell of their struggle to reform their lives and to grow in their relationship with Yahweh. That struggle remains as crucial and as mysterious to our spiritual journeys today as we approach the dawn of a new century.

Each of us is a complex creature of body, spirit, mind and emotion. With all our scientific achievements, we are the most studied and researched being in our environment and yet we remain the least understood of all forms of existence. We know ourselves best from our own experiences and what it means to live through those experiences. Moving through these events, we feel shadings of mood from moment to moment and the ebb and flow of the tide of our emotions. We experience moments where we are almost, but not quite ready, to do or to decide. There are also shadowy unknowns in the unconscious depths of our nature that impel or restrain us in a baffling interplay of conflicting tendencies. As St. Paul says, "I do, not the good I will to do, but the evil I do not intend" (Rom. 7:19).

As we wrestle with this mystery, we look at ourselves and question our own impulses -- should the impulses be followed or resisted? We may start to act and then hesitate. We may come to a standstill, ponder the situation and ask if it is better to do this or to do that. Out of these questions and contradictions come the possibility of human freedom and the necessity of making choices. As a matter of fact, our life is a series of forked-road situations in which choices are inescapable. If a person refuses to go either way, that too is a choice. Becoming a conscious person means developing a heightened awareness that I am making choices in response to the events of my world.(1) The more conscious I am, the more alternatives I confront, and the more decisions I have to make.

Every person must pass through such experiences in the process of self-realization. Out of such experiences we come to a heightened awareness of our own unique individuality. In discovering this individuality we discover our limitedness, our potential, and our sinfulness. As Christians in this experience, we know that we are incomplete, and yet we believe that we are not alone, for in the depths of anguish and the heights of aspiration we confront and are confronted by God -- a God who loves us, who calls us, and who desires a deeper relationship with us. As we journey toward further self-realization, this confrontation with our God is the experience of conversion.

Conversion is closely connected with repentance. One of the Greek words for "repentance" is "metanoia," which literally denotes a "change of mind." Also in the Greek "repentance" means "to turn." In the New Testament, repentance is almost always used in the religious sense of a turning from sin, repentance for sin. It denotes a new beginning in moral conduct.(2) The call to conversion in the gospels is the very purpose of Jesus' being sent (Luke 5:32) and is the message of his Kingdom: "The reign of God is at hand! Reform your lives and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). Thus, conversion is a concrete change to a new way of life. It is a turning in one's tracks and going in a new direction. The biblical emphasis is not upon a subjective, but an objective change in a person. This change is not simply to be achieved by outward deed because true turning to the Lord follows upon repentance and faith.(3)

Two elements are thus essential for conversion: faith and metanoia. In Matthew (cf. 8:10-13; 9:2; 9:29; 15:28), when Jesus sees even the preliminary signs of faith, he is moved to establish a deeper relationship with the person.(4) His powerful involvement in people's lives follows on their faith in him. Metanoia and faith, therefore, are not only essential for conversion, one affects the other. Metanoia leads to an increase in faith in Jesus and this faith is the basis for a new direction in life.


Conversion usually begins with a crisis point which reaches different depths of affectivity in a person. But it is basically a sense of dissatisfaction. Feelings arise that whatever value-system we have at a given point contradicts other tendencies in our life. These tendencies are not clear, but they are deeply experienced at the core of our being.

Conversion is only possible if, at the same time we experience dissatisfaction, we can also see alternatives or at least possibilities for new ways. These alternatives or possibilities may not be clear at this point, but we trust that clarity will evolve over time. This aspect will be discussed in more detail with regard to the stages of conversion. At this point in the conversion process, there is resistance in accepting dissatisfaction. The temptation is to deny it either by repression or sublimation. We submerge ourselves deeper in daily activities to numb ourselves against the unsettling experience or we repress the feelings altogether.

The refusal to deal with dissatisfaction is a refusal to accept the call to "go beyond" the experience and accept the call to conversion.(5) Consequently, in conversion there is a desperate conflict in which we are so involved that our whole meaning and destiny appear to be at stake in a life-or-death, all-or-nothing struggle. Unless we are aware of this conflict and are concerned enough to put our lives in the balance, we are not ready for conversion. If at such a moment of vulnerability we reach out to God in trust in the midst of mingling despair, the conversion process is underway.

Thus conversion encompasses both the decision to accept the call from God to change directions and also the participation of God in revealing which direction to take. We are, therefore, both passive and active in the conversion process,(6) passive in receiving what we cannot bring about, but active in seeing the need for a change of direction and accepting the gift of conversion from the Lord.

It is also essential to metanoia and the faith in God contained in conversion that some change take place which is beyond our power to effect. The gospel of Matthew (18:3) employs the image of a child to illustrate what Jesus means by this aspect of conversion. "To be converted" means to be a child, to be little, to need help, to be receptive. In becoming like a little child through conversion, we receive what we cannot give ourselves -- inner transformation. Thus, conversion transcends human will and consciousness while still remaining related to both. Unless we have the freedom to become aware of our separation from God and to repent, and unless we have the freedom to accept the inner transformation being offered, conversion does not make sense. Again, this emphasizes the active and passive components of the process.

Our faith is both active and passive in conversion. Faith is a gift from God and, in that sense, is passively received. But faith demands that we not be merely passive receivers of this gift. Faith places us in a dialogical relationship of creative fidelity with the Father, who reveals himself to us as love and compassion. This dialogue necessitates a response and calls us to acknowledge this faith relationship consciously. The more active we are in the manifestation of our faith in daily struggles, the stronger it becomes and the more effective it is in the process of conversion.

Another aspect of conversion closely associated with faith is the destruction of our false images. Faith prepares us to enter into this destruction. We have to believe enough in God to abandon our idols and images of God, for at the center of conversion is the realization that no image of God can ever be possessed. At the center of our conversion, we allow God to be God, the One "Whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways" (Is. 55:8).

This experience of God shatters our own inner security and idols of self. At the core of our being, we experience a poverty of spirit and a deep vulnerability which illuminates the poverty of all our human effort and our utter need and dependence on God. We experience death of an image of ourselves as well as the death of our image of God.

This vulnerability confronts us with our own powerlessness and the power of God's life and love within us. This shattering of our inner security is a double movement of self-acceptance and reaching beyond who we are now.(7) We have to recognize and accept who we are, to be able to let go and let God stretch us beyond our horizons, open us up to new realities, and invite us to new truth. Consequently, the process of conversion cannot be understood logically; it has neither harmony nor order. Just as life and death have no proportion in them, so it is with conversion. Our faith encourages us to accept this death, believing that in the process new life is emerging, for "Unless the grain of wheat fall to the ground and dies it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).


The stages of the dying process are discussed in depth by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying.(8) These stages pertain, as well, to the process of conversion and will assist in this discussion in the sense that the stages also apply to the phases of adaptation and healing. In conversion we experience death, but also healing and new life.

The first stage in the process of healing is shock and denial. We cannot yet accept the full impact of the insult to the body, mind, or emotions, so we deny. This is a protective function on the part of the physiological and psychological systems of our body. It marks a temporary phase; if prolonged it can become pathological and inhibiting to healing.

At this point temptation is to sublimate the uncomfortableness in activity or to repress the whole experience. One way is by assuming a false innocence. Rollo May distinguishes two kinds of innocence, pseudo-innocence and authentic innocence.(9) Authentic innocence is a quality of the imagination, the innocence of the poet or artist. It is the preservation of childlike clarity in the adult. To the adult's world this innocence brings freshness, purity, newness, and clarity. From it are born awe and wonder, which lead to spirituality and interiority. This type of genuine innocence will enable the person to progress through the stages of adaptation and healing.

Pseudo-innocence captitalizes on naiveté . It consists of a childhood that is never outgrown, a fixation in the past childishness as opposed to childlikeness. We close our eyes and persuade ourselves that we have escaped the harshness of reality. Pseudo-innocence does not make things bright and clear; it only makes things simple and easy in our minds. While it shields us from responsibility, it also thwarts our growth and fixates us in the first stage of healing. We remain rooted in shock and denial as our response to the call of conversion.

On the other hand, authentic innocence prepares us to assess the reality of the situation. The awe and wonder present in authentic innocence enable us to begin to relinquish the shock and denial. The response in this second stage is one of anger. This is one of the most difficult stages to recognize and accept because it is so difficult for us to express anger. We also experience guilt as a result of the anger which is directed toward God, perceived as having abandoned us. Anger is also a protective mechanism because the person is beginning to realize the depth of the dissatisfaction and would like not to have to bring it into full consciousness. Anger thus helps to defend the person against the full onslaught of the situation and allows time for the reality to make its presence known gradually. During this stage of the conversion process, it is helpful to recall the psalmist struggling and wrestling with the Lord who articulates in powerful language the feelings of anger that result from the impact of the situation and the perception of being abandoned by God.(10)

The expression and articulation of anger will lead to the third stage of healing: bargaining. During this stage we attempt to rationalize some solution for the crisis. All the bargaining is fruitless in changing the reality, but it serves to help us realize the concreteness of the situation and the fact that it simply will not go away on its own.

The experience of personal powerlessness and sinfulness is extremely painful during the bargaining phase. The realization of our own finitude, limitedness, and brokenness is profoundly acute. We may experience a new outbreak of anger or of depression at this point. Again the Psalms can help articulate the anger and depression. Expressing these intense feelings is a vital component of the process of conversion and healing.

Through the midst of this darkness and powerlessness, a new light begins to shine and the fourth stage of acceptance and change ensues. At this point the light is uncertain and weak. As it grows and begins to dispel the darkness, we are left not with loneliness, but with emptiness. This emptiness is the vulnerability which is so essential to conversion and marks the beginning acceptance of our powerlessness and the power of a loving God. We begin to let go of the idols of self and God which we have clung to, because new life and new possibilities are evolving. In this new life there is not greatness but littleness -- "Unless you change and become like little children you shall not enter the Kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3). As we accept our own powerlessness and childlikeness, we are able to receive the power of God's life and transforming love.

Conversion through these stages is a choice for life. Acceptance of death does not make sense if it is not the choice for a new life, one composed of challenges, of unknowns, of possible and real failures, of rejections and acceptances. These failures will come from within as well as from outside ourselves. Old support systems will no longer be relevant; friends and family will register perplexed responses; our own inner psyche will question new choices. But the belief in our transformed images of God and self can sustain us if we are willing to own both the consequences of our choices and the suffering which is inherent in this new life. Our option is to accept the struggle as we strive to be authentic in our choices. "See, I set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life that you and your descendants may live by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him" (Deut. 30:19-20).

It is most beneficial that a person journey through these stages of conversion with a wise spiritual director. The stages of conversion are extremely difficult and it is not advisable to make this sojourn without sound guidance. This is no easy challenge for the director who will need to encourage authentic innocence, to assist with the articulation of feelings, to support the person through the darkness, and to affirm the choices for death unto new life. In other words, the director must be willing to embrace the ups and downs inherent in the struggle of life, death, and new life which a person experiences in the conversion process.


The conversion process cannot be made into a purely private matter, as though it were only a concern of the individual and the ordering of a personal relationship with God. It is right to emphasize its personal singularity, but conversion is not an end in itself. When we journey through the conversion process, we cross the threshold of private existence and move into the open.(11) Our inner problems may be the most urgent, burning, and exciting issue for us, but we are not engaged in conversion if we confine ourselves to them. When we are transformed through the conversion process, in accepting our personal responsibility, we also accept a communal responsibility.

As a result of conversion the eyes of our heart are opened to a different reality. We apprehend differently, value differently, and relate differently because we are different. This difference is not so much an embrace of new values, but a transformation of old values. On all levels of living, we experience an interlocked series of changes -- what was not noticed before, becomes vivid and present; what was of no concern before, becomes a matter of extreme importance.(12) We are confronted, not only with the contradictions within our inner life, but also with the contradictions in our social life.

Consequently, our conversion to the Lord through an inner transformation of love necessitates that this love overflow to our neighbor through further conversion. It will mean experiencing, understanding, judging, deciding, and valuing for the neighbor in accordance with the will of the Beloved whose mission has to become the mission of the converted: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, to give sight to the blind, and to announce a year of favor from the Lord" (Luke 3:18).

Accepting this communal aspect of conversion will often put us into conflict within the community. Conversion and inner transformation imply a break. To desire to be converted without conflict is to deceive oneself and others: "Whoever loves father or mother, son or daughter, more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37).

Such conflict does not result from a pious attitude. The conversion process moves us outward. Thus we are affected by the socio-economic, political, cultural, and personal environments in which we live. Without an impact within these structures, there is no authentic conversion. Because of our "being in love" with the Lord, we have to break with our mental categories, with the way we relate to others, with our cultural milieu and with our social class. In other words, because the mission of Jesus has now become our own, we have to break with all that can stand in the way of a profound solidarity with those who suffer -- the poor, the sightless, the captive. Only through this rupture and new allegiance with the poor, and not through merely spiritual attitudes, will the "new person" arise from the "ashes of the old."(13)

Solidarity with those who suffer must be manifested in concrete and practical ways. It is not enough to verbalize and preach solidarity with others. Authentic conversion culminates in commitment to one or more concrete social or political causes.(14) The communal aspect of conversion makes claims on us and demands of us a quality of self-sacrifice which de-privatizes personal conversion; that is, it moves it out of the private realm and into the public arena of life. It consecrates us to the service of other people in ways that mere personal conversion does not.

The concrete form that will shape the communal aspect of our conversion must come from the call of the Lord within us and the cry of our sisters and brothers outside us. There are numerous ways today to change the unjust social structures of militarism, racism, sexism, and consumerism which plague our world. The issue is not so much "how" we respond, but "that" we respond, for such a commitment is constitutive of personal conversion.

In this commitment and solidarity with those who suffer, our conversion must also be permeated with gratitude. Communion with the Lord and with our neighbor is, in essence, a gift. The knowledge that God is at the root of our personal and community existence fills our life with gratitude. It allows us to see our encounters with others, with our society, with our political environment, with everything that happens in our life, as gift. Consequently, this communal aspect of conversion will intensify our relationship with the Lord. It will necessitate "returning" again and again to the Beloved for direction and guidance.

Through this ongoing "turning," the response to our sisters and brothers will be made ever more concrete and lucid. This "returning" to the Lord will be evident through a faithful prayer life. Our prayer, the time we waste with the Lord, will remind us that our God is beyond the categories of useful and useless. The Lord, though immersed in this world, is ultimately not of this world. And it is to this same tension that we are called. Our prayer in this tension will enflesh the communal reality of the conversion process. The deeper our relationship with the Lord, the more clearly we will see what is lacking within ourselves and our world, the more clearly we will embrace that authentic innocence which keeps us present to the struggle of being "in love" and totally dependent on our God who will accomplish in us and through us so much more than we could ever imagine!


Our ancestors traversed this road before us and taught us about the conversion process in language ever ancient and ever new The author of Psalm 73 clearly articulates the stages of conversion. The psalmist

As we approach the twenty-first century and pursue our journeys to continually "return" to our God, let us draw upon our sacred roots for the strength and nourishment that will encourage us in our ongoing process of conversion.

  1. Paul Johnson, "Conversion," Conversion. ed. by Walter Conn (New York: Alba, 1978), pp. 169-70.
  2. Gerhard Kittel (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. I. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), pp. 999-1001.
  3. George Buttrick, et. al., The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VIII (New York: Abingdon, 1962), p. 678.
  4. Leornard Doohan, Matthew: Spirituality for the 80s and 90s (Santa Fe: Bear and Co.,1985), pp. 104-5.
  5. Jacques Pasquier, "Experience and Conversion" Conversion, ed. cit., pp. 195-96.
  6. John Smith, "The Concept of Conversion," ibid., p. 60.
  7. Pasquier, art. cit., p. 191.
  8. Elizabeth K bler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan 1969).
  9. Rollo May, Power and Innocence (New York: Norton, 1969), pp. 48-49.
  10. See the following Psalms: 5, 6, 13, 31:10-19, 35:17-28, 38,51, 55, 69, 70, 77:1-13, 88, 102:1-12, 130, 143.
  11. Karl Barth, "The Awakening to Conversion," Conversion. op. cit., pp. 39-40.
  12. Bernard Lonergan, "Theology in its New Context," ibid., p. 13.
  13. Gustavo Gutierrez, "A Spirituality of Liberation," ibid., pp. 309-10.
  14. Donald Gelpi, S.J. "The Converting Jesuit," Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, 18:i (Jan. 1986):28.