LIVING IN THE LIGHT
Spirituality for the Lay Person
The Joyful Journey of
Dr. Patricia Cooney Hathaway
ope Francis is calling us to a conversion of mind and
heart so that rooted in the values of Jesus we will
form a band of joyful missionary disciples committed to
spreading the good news of the gospel.
That task is easier said than done.
Conversion is never a once-and-for-all
achievement but a journey to integration
and authenticity that takes a lifetime.
In his writing on conversion, Fr. Bernard
Lonergan, SJ, describes three modes of
conversion that serve as a criteria for distin-
guishing between authentic and inauthen-
tic conversions. He states that conversion
is not merely a change or even a develop-
ment; rather, it is a radical transformation
that follows on all levels of being: religious,
moral, and intellectual.
Such conversion, he emphasizes, is
found in our experience. As such, it is per-
sonal to each one of us.
Let’s take a look at how each mode of
conversion finds expression in the life of a
few special friends of God.
Father Lonergan describes religious con-
version as a falling in love with God in an
unrestricted fashion. It involves the discov-
ery of God as real. Dorothy Day describes
such an experience when she was seven
years old. She was playing with her sis-
ter, Della, in the attic of their family home
when she came upon a musty old bible.
She began reading the Bible to her sister:
“Slowly, as I read, a new personality im-
pressed itself on me. I was being introduced
to someone. I knew immediately that I was
discovering God. Here was someone that I
had never really known before and yet, felt
to be One whom I would never forget, that
I would never get away from.”
Dorothy knew her life would be forever
changed. She spent the rest of her life serv-
ing God in the poorest of the poor through
the Catholic Worker Movement.
An intellectual conversion takes place
when a person radically changes his or
her way of looking at reality. It involves the
search for truth, an unrelenting desire to un-
derstand and find the meaning of one’s life.
Thomas Merton’s search for truth inten-
sified when he began studies at Columbia
University. One afternoon, while browsing
in a book store, he picked up the book The
Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Etienne
Gilson. This Neo-Scholastic philosophy
of God was the first understanding of the
Christian God he had ever encountered.
The philosophy was not a simplistic an-
thropomorphism. Its concept of Aseitas,
God is Being Itself—that is, the power of a
Being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself—
would revolutionize his whole life.
“I had never had an adequate notion of
what Christians meant by God,” Merton
explains. This way of thinking about God
dismantled his former image of God as “a
dramatic and passionate character, a jeal-
ous, hidden being.”
The rest, we know, is history. Merton’s
conversion to a Christian concept of God,
one that his brilliant intellect could accept,
was the beginning of his eventual entrance
into the Catholic Church, his monastic
vocation as a Trappist, and his becoming
one of the most influential spiritual writers
of the twentieth century.
Moral conversion leads to a conscious
shift in our criteria for decision-making
from self-satisfaction to the pursuit of value.
It pursues self-consistency between the val-
ues one affirms and the deeds one lives by.
Surely one of the most well-known sto-
ries of the journey to moral conversion is
found in the life of St. Augustine. He strug-
gled for years with a passionate nature that
pursued self-satisfaction in many areas of
life, particularly in sexuality.
The surrender of his total being to Jesus
Christ through grace, described so poi-
gnantly in the Confessions, eventually en-
abled him to learn to love everything and
everyone in God.
“My conversion to You,” he states, “was
so complete that I sought no more a wife,
nor anything else one hopes for in this
What does each of these conversion sto-
ries reveal to you about your own story?
Which one was the catalyst through which
Jesus called you to discipleship? Which
one is the most challenging as you seek fur-
ther integration and authenticity—the goal
of Christian conversion?
Dr. Patricia Cooney Hathaway is professor of spir-
ituality and systematic theology at Sacred Heart.