About 40 years ago I came across the work of a Carmelite Scholar, Sr. Rose Page. In an article in the Fall 1979 edition of Contemplative Review, she laid out the stages of conversion which describe the process of discipleship. I periodically go over her 8 stages to help us understand what it means to be on this road of being a disciple of Jesus. Here are her “8 Stages of Conversion.”(“Direction in the Various Stages of Spiritual Development,” Contemplative Review Fall 1979 p.12ff)
The first stage:
- Awakening. Sr. Rose writes: “It is more than intellectual acceptance of truth. It seems to encompass…emotions of joy and consolation or fear and dread.” You have an in-depth awareness that “I’m not in this all by myself.” You are prompted to look for something more.
2. Investigation. You start paying attention to the homilies, you do some reading, you try your hand at Bible study and prayer. You listen to CDs. You go to classes and maybe even a retreat. You ask more questions, you talk to your spouse, you talk to your co-workers. You talk to a priest, you talk to your friends; the nudge seems to be prompting you to be more pro-active. Although you are unsure, even wary, the nudge gets the better of you and you want to explore the things of faith.
3. Commitment. This is the moment of truth. This is the moment of conversion. This is generally tied in with an event. It may be at a sacrament: your baptism or the baptism of your child or grandchild, it may happen at confirmation. If you’re a long time Catholic, maybe there’s an unexpected experience of holiness at Mass as you receive the precious Body and Blood of our Lord. Christ may make himself known to you in a moment of prayer that really shakes you. Sr. Rose writes: “[It] is a leap into the indefinite, the infinite realm of meaning. Commitment is the decision to take the leap. For many, this stage is a time of vacillation and anxiety. For some this stems from a need for intellectual certainty, for others, from a kind of faint-heartedness in facing the implications…”
And when you make this commitment there is a sense of relief and joy and peace. As an example, I read recently of the conversion of the poet Sally Read. Raised an atheist, she recounts that when living in Italy she got into the habit of stopping by a small Carmelite Church and sitting in front of an Icon of Jesus. One day, she was having some difficulty so she relates “I spoke aloud to the face and asked for help. There was no visual or aural hallucination, or anything, as a poet, I can use as a metaphor to tell what happened. The nearest I can come to describing it is to say that it felt like I was an amnesiac in a fit of quiet panic, and suddenly someone walked into the room that I recognized.” She entered the Catholic Church in December of 2010. (First Things p.70 Feb. 2013)
This stage is about committing your life to Jesus, of establishing a relationship and not just about getting your needs met.
- Conscious integration. This is a time of getting your act together. This is a time of making sure that your conduct is in tune with your newly formed beliefs. You avoid situations and places that compromise your newly found faithfulness. You strive to have what you believe and profess to be in accord with your behavior. You watch your language. You quit fudging on your taxes, you’re more patient when you drive. You become less critical. Your countenance is sweeter.
You also realize that your faith is personal, but it most certainly is not supposed to be private; it is meant to be shared. It’s essential to go to Mass for example and receive Christ’s precious body and blood with other people. An added aspect of conscious integration is that you become more deeply aware of folks in need and you feel prompted to help out. There are social justice issues that have to be addressed. It’s an expanded understanding of what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.
In this stage there is also an increased understanding of the role of the saints in your life. Petitions to the Blessed Mother for example get more fervent.
- Fidelity. This is a time of dryness. Sr. Rose writes: “When we first turn to God we experience emotional satisfaction in our religious practices… [Now] the emotional fervor dries up. Prayer, meditation, attentive participation takes so much effort.” And she continues—“Also the nastier side of our character, which we thought we had conquered seems to re-emerge.”
You become more easily annoyed and hassled. You get grumpy and grouchy, deep-seated resentment comes to the surface; you succumb to being irritable and defensive; you get really critical of others; you don’t feel like saying your prayers one morning and the next thing you know, it’s been a week since you prayed and you’d quit largely because your prayers seemed to have been bouncing off the ceiling.
Worldly things seem to dominate your life. You get overwhelmed by all the natural disasters. The idea of a whole family of youngsters being grievously mistreated by their parents makes you resentful of God. You become very critical of Church leaders, especially clergy and even the Pope. You make excuses to skip Mass. The everyday hassles are really getting to you. A lot of people leave the faith when going through this.
But if you make the conscious decision to hang in there instead of tossing in the towel, you force yourself to at least read your prayers, go to confession and keep faithful at Mass, you get through it.
That leads to the next step:
- Absorption. The decision to ‘hang in there’ pays off. Your prayers are being answered. Prayer is a joy instead of a burden. You are becoming more mature in your faith. There’s a fresh awareness of the presence of Christ in all aspects of your life, especially in your relationships with others. You become less critical and resentful. You develop a deeper appreciation of the words of Jesus when he says, “For when two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) You find yourself needing to be in the company of other faithful Catholics. You become well-grounded in Christ and you get a deeper appreciation of the concept that ours is a communal faith—that we need to operate in community if we are to function truly as disciples of Jesus. The saints in heaven become more real to you and their companionship is something that sustains you. You become content.
- Penetration: All hell breaks loose…literally. Things start to go wrong in your life—really wrong. You get hammered and tempted in ways you couldn’t have imagined. Your kids do stupid things. Your parents do stupid things. The priest does stupid things. You do stupid things. Jobs are lost. A spouse gets ill. You get ill. Your marriage is in trouble. A loved one dies. Crises abound. It’s as if you are the target of an attack, and it’s probably true. The devil does not want you to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. And in the midst of all this, God penetrates to the very core of your being. All pretense is stripped away, and you become aware that God is present in even the darkest, most hidden, the most vulgar and shameful places of your life. It’s a time when a lot of folks fall away. But if you withstand this onslaught and don’t fall away, you become truly seasoned in your faith— and your relationship with Jesus has become mature.
- Transformation. You become one with Christ, and He with you and you develop an even deeper understanding of the importance of community. You have an intuitive appreciation of what Jesus means in the 17th chapter of St. John’s Gospel when He prays: “Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”( Jn.17:11)
You see the sins and blemishes of others more clearly but they become less important. Because in the midst of these folks, you really encounter Christ and, together with them, you have a much deeper awareness that you are in Christ and Christ is in you, both individually and in the “you all” of the community. It’s really sweet.
In closing, I would remind you that this is not a clean set of steps that will follow one immediately after the other. There’s a lot of zigzagging and back and forth and you get to repeat them more than once. But it is helpful to see that conversion is a process; discipleship is a process, the process of having a mature relationship with Jesus. I’ll repeat Sr. Rose Page’s “8 Stages of Conversion.”
- Awareness— you start paying attention.
- Investigation— you start checking things out.
- Commitment—it’s a time of conversion—and you make a newly found commitment to Christ. You have a relationship with Him.
- Conscious integration— you get your act together.
- Fidelity— you hang in there during a time of real dryness.
- Absorption—it’s a time of sanctification and satisfaction and joy in your walk of faith
- Penetration— all hell breaks loose and you are driven to your knees—and you become aware of God’s presence in the darkest places of your life—those places you want to keep hidden.
- Transformation— you become one with Christ, and He with you—and you discover the true joy of Godly living and love.