I remember listening in amazement in high school chapel at my Christian school as various guest speakers told of dramatic conversions from being ardent atheists, gang members, and Satan worshippers to being on fire for Christ. I sat there thinking about how boring I was. I was already a faithful Christian who did not plan on leaving my faith to join a gang or Satanic cult, so I would not get to experience a dramatic conversion. I wished I could have the fire inside that lit up these speakers.
Years later, I did get to have a moderately dramatic (for me) conversion when I came into the Catholic Church. I was very lit up by the fire of the new riches I was gaining that helped me know Christ more deeply and live more wholly for Him. I had a desire to pray that I had never known, and I would spend four or five hours a day in adoration.
Looking back from my present state of chaos, this seems amazing. I remember begging God to never let that desire leave me, and to always let me have this much time with Him. I wanted to remain just as I was. I was reading C. S. Lewis at the time, and his wisdom helped me to realize, “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” He talks about how a flower bud is so beautiful, but it must keep growing and opening to become what it was created to be. We must be perpetually converted, daily sacrificing our own pride to take up our crosses and say yes to God’s will for our lives. C. S. Lewis’s depiction of Heaven in The Last Battle is to always be moving “onward and upward,” to spend eternity always growing closer to Christ, but we need to be moving always onward and upward here as well. We cannot be stagnant; we are either moving forward, or we are moving backwards.
This coming Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Lent, we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt - talk about a dramatic conversion! I would love to know more of the details of her life. It is hard to get a sense of her as a real person from the scanty biography that St. Sophronius wrote about her around 640 AD. She most likely died in 522 AD, but her story was kept alive in the oral tradition of the monastery of St. Zosimas, to whom she had relayed it shortly before her death.
At the age of twelve, she ran away from her parents (what were they like? Were they devout? Were they trying to bring her up in the Faith?) to Alexandria, where she lived a life of lechery and prostitution for the next seventeen years. This was her chosen path because she struggled with lust, not because it was a last resort; often she even refused the money offered her and lived off of begging and flax-spinning. For a young girl to choose such a life, what must she have believed about herself? Did she know God at all?
When she was 29, she followed a crowd of pilgrims to Jerusalem, seducing them along the way for fun. But when the crowd arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for the feast of the Veneration of the Holy Cross, Mary found that she was unable to enter. An unseen force held her back, despite repeated attempts. Looking at an icon of the Theotokos outside the Church, she was struck by a realization of her own impurity, and she repented and begged God’s forgiveness. What other events lead up to this sudden repentance? Had her conscious been pricked before this? Had God-loving people shown her His mercy and helped lead her to this moment?
She not only converted, but from that moment she promised to renounce the world completely, and immediately went to live alone in the desert on the other side of the Jordan, subsisting on whatever herbs she could gather there. She had heard a voice telling her to cross the Jordan and go into the desert and she would find rest, but she continued to struggle with temptation and sin for another seventeen years before she finally found some rest. After that, she spent another 30 in extreme asceticism living out her perpetual conversion When St. Zosimas happened upon her a year before her death, she was completely naked and emaciated . What was her life like all those years alone in the desert? At the end, at least, she was given miraculous graces, and she was certainly moving doggedly onward and upward during those 38 years in the desert.
For most of us, our perpetual conversion does not take such an extreme path. It is “boring.” It is in the little trials of each day, each small opportunity to deny ourselves and choose Christ. But it is no less incredible and saintly to embrace the “little way.”
A few years ago we decided that we would adopt “onward and upward together” as our Neri family motto. I hope we will be always running towards Christ, knowing that when we fall frequently along the way He will pick us up and give us the grace to carry on.
For more on St. Mary of Egypt, go to her page in my resources section.