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May 09 2012

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On turning 40 and my conversion

I have just now reached that strange, magic number in my age that recurs through ancient mythology as a symbol of completeness, achievement, or a long path: 40. It took me this long to walk from my birthplace in atheistic Humanism—through my Jewish roots and history, through the marshes of exploration of Sri Aurobindo yoga and the practice of Zen Buddhism, through the hot winds of the study of Islam and biblical exegesis, over snowy mountains of theodicy, through changing cultures and professions, carrying with me the increasingly heavy cargo of experience, reflection, and resentment—to lay it all down eventually at the feet of God who is man. At the feet of the crucified Jesus.

On Easter Vigil, 2011, I was baptized into the Catholic Church because after a lifetime of atheism, two and a half years ago on the floor of my little apartment on the fifth floor of the tallest building of my small town, I found the meaning of existence in the quietest, simplest, most ecstatic moment of my life—a still, small voice. A smile. And a hand on my head. And a series of answers to my questions. At 40 years old, I know I’ve never been alone. I have fallen in love.

As I waited for the day of my baptism, I tried to tell a friend and another about what was happening in my life, feeling unaccustomedly inadequate with words and embarrassed as if revealing a truth too innermost to be made public, but the word began to spread. Some congratulated me, others were surprised, still others dismayed, but almost all used a single turn of phrase to describe it: “You are converting.” People who meet me today do it as well.

Converting… Converted… It grates on my ear. For a reason uncertain, it seems to diminish and denigrate every part of the event I cannot ever fully explain to my friends—partly for lack of language, partly because it is not a thing that can be understood unless experienced. But, perhaps, one reason I dislike this phrase so is that if I were to refer to anything that’s happened to me as a “conversion experience,” it would not be to the day of my Church baptism. It would be to that moment which stilled the echoing mayhem of despair in my mind and filled and steeped my whole being in the warm light of Love personified. It would be to the day I understood enough to understand that I would never understand. To that soundless voice which whispered into the center of my soul the answers, one after another, to the questions that had tormented and haunted me all my life—the whisper so intimate and familiar that it brought me my first day of peace.

My conversion… It would be those days through which I walked in a haze, lightheaded, inebriated to the bone, to the last drop of blood by the overwhelming, overflowing, unbearable Love—not to be contained, permeating this enormous world through and through and every fiber of my being and every thread that ran through me and into every little thing of His Creation from His sacred, living hand beyond time and space.

God is present to me now in many things, many places, sensations. Thoughts. He is present to me in the sound of the wind bothering the branches outside my window and in the beauty of the sky infinitely changing in its fluidity and infinitely enduring in its constant presence—a touching, subtle play of hues so inimitable that its poignancy boils tears in my eyes. And in the personal stories of those who find love, peace, or sacrifice—everything that is noblest and best in the human spirit. He is intimately present in the cooling calm of churches and chapels, tinted ever so slightly by the colors of stained glass, permeated by the spirit of prayer, reigned over by the symbol most dear, the reminder of sadness and hope, the image of my one Love—the crucifix. And in the midst of everyday things, everyday worries, He is present in my own sudden gasp of joy, a moment of unexpected wonder, unprompted, it seems, by anything but His passing touch upon my heart.

My conversion, if there is such a thing, began two years ago and is still happening. Or it happened two years ago, when He opened my ears and closed my mouth just long enough to listen. Or, perhaps, it began long before, as I searched for answers—frantic, enraged, and suicidal—throwing up rhetorical demands to the heavens in my mind cruel or indifferent, from which I expected no reply. Or, just as likely, there is no conversion. There is only a path for each of us, the right path, though it is so convoluted at times and looped back in on itself and over icy ridges and covered by the thicket that, when it finally leads us to the meadow, into the wavy grasses and caresses of the sunrays, we cannot believe we haven’t been turned around, that it is still the same path. I wonder if there isn’t only one path for each of us, the one that leads to God.

To that which I call “God.”

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4 comments

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  1. zakiya

    So true!

  2. RitW

    hmmm…..

    poetically, poignantly presented personal precis

  3. Terry

    A wonderful reflection, Maria!
    Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, this morning, as we shared here at the Farm….the narrow gate, the narrow path…as you wrote : “only one path for each of us, that leads to God”. Yes, and God keeps after each of us until we find peace on that -my one path! Still, after 54 years of professed vowed life, I sometimes have to hunt around for the next step on my path!

    1. River Adams

      I understand. And I often have to remind myself that discernment is an ongoing pavement under our feet, from the first to the last day of our lives, and will probably never become easier. But it helps to know that God’s presence will never leave us, even if our assuredness of it may waver at times of desolation, as Ignatius puts it. And it helps to see you — the Sisters so far ahead of me on the road — and to make out your silhouettes to follow against the bright light toward which we are walking.
      Thank you, Terry.

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