Plough Logo

Shopping Cart

0 item items

Your cart is empty, but not for long...

      View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    Checkout
    painted blue water

    Did the Disciples Have Conversion Stories?

    The moment of commitment is not the climax of the Christian calling but the first step in a lifelong journey.

    Sister Carino Hodder

    October 15, 2020
    2 Comments
    2 Comments
    2 Comments
      Submit
    • Nic Carvalho

      Hi Sister, I would love to discuss this with you personally. From what you've shared my own faith journey seems to have many similarities to yours. I have had my own struggle with hearing and telling conversion stories, but I think I am beginning to become more aware of their power and why God might want us to use them. As Nigel says, in help with evangelism. I think the new stories are perhaps for new people, and the older/"boring" stories, are for those who are more mature in their faith. I agree that I don't think a conversion story should ever be presented as the whole story, but if we relate the conversion story to the telling of a love story, I could imagine how I would tell many stories of how I came to choose my wife. From when I met her to now, to the future, the story is not over, but that doesn't mean I should tell it.

    • Nigel Myall

      Sometimes a conversion story can be very compelling. It may even help with evangelisation. See "The Chosen" TV series and the story of Matthew for an example.

    It is a dangerous thing indeed to end a story with baptism. There is much that is strange and testing about coming to faith in Christ as an adult, and one of the constant, if more subtle, challenges is how to make sense of it – not to ourselves, but to the people around us. The question usually comes like this: “Why did you convert to Christianity?”

    It’s not just a request for information; it’s a request for a whole story, self-contained, conclusive, and at least mostly comprehensible. I try my best to give an answer. I lay a path, within my limited understanding of the designs of providence, of the temporal steppingstones that led me to the point of conversion: that old church I stumbled into and sat in for an hour, that priest who answered my difficult questions.

    The real answer is that I don’t know the whole story, because my conversion is ongoing, but no one wants to hear that. People want a story that begins with an atheist teenager and ends with a woman having holy water poured on her head in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, or perhaps a great moment of clarity arising from sorrow, illness, or death. They also sometimes want an epilogue on how I ended up in a convent – depending on how long we’ve got together in this lift, or how late the bus is. No one wants to hear a story in which the author has no idea of the ending, nor where the beginning should be, then tells you she is not actually the author of the story at all.

    Seven years into the life of grace, I can confidently reject any attempt imposed upon me to produce a conversion story. Partly this comes from an awareness that I can love and trust God well within my human limitations, at peace in the knowledge that his ways are not my ways and his thoughts are not my thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). But the main reason I do not want to have a “conversion story” is because, as far as I can see, none of Christ’s first disciples had one.

    When I first entered the convent in which I am now a sister, I spent much of my time praying with the Gospel of Mark. The beginning of convent life is a time for prolonged reflection, for considering one’s call, and for me that began with reflection on how I ended up as a Christian in the first place. I thought about the conversion story I had so often told people, and realized that because I had told it so often, I believed in it myself, when in fact it was merely my own interpretation of the workings of grace. I came to the Gospel of Mark ready to reflect on my conversion story once again, focusing on the words of the scriptures.

    Mark’s account of the calling of the disciples is remarkably bare and rapid-paced. It takes a mere four verses, Mark 1:16–20, for Simon and Andrew to leave their fishing nets by the shore of the Sea of Galilee and follow Christ.

    We are not told what Simon and Andrew had been thinking and reading about before Christ approached, or what interactions and events had made them open to the possibility of discipleship that day. We are not told what they found attractive or plausible about Jesus. We are also not told what else, if anything, Jesus said to them before the command to follow. Instead, we are given a mere four verses, the most jarringly, almost shockingly brief account possible, and then we are given a whole life of faith, a whole life of infinite, incremental moments of conversion, to read about. Perhaps there was no material for Mark to draw on; perhaps Simon and Andrew had never spoken about it, or could not speak about it, because they did not know how to. Maybe they did, but always preferred to speak about what happened next. The call matters, of course, but more important is the journey it begins. The Gospel describes the way of discipleship: a physical journey that embodies – incarnates, if you like – a spiritual journey, from fear to faith, from self-protection to trust. This journey is haunted with a growing urgency by the inevitability of that strange and wondrous reality, death-dealing and life-giving, that is the cross.

    The call matters, of course, but more important is the journey it begins.

    Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection are not merely the events that mark the end of the way. They are the very reason for the way, for this whole mysterious and almost unimaginable story that Simon, Andrew, and each one of us have chosen to place ourselves in. This “good news” ends in what, in human terms, is scandal, failure, and an empty tomb. It is either the rubber stamp on our despair or the most astounding sign of hope. And still, at the end of it all, we know no more about the disciples’ decision to leave everything and follow Christ than what those four brief, enigmatic verses tell us: he called them, and they left their father, Zebedee, and followed him.

    For the reader, to simply accept this brevity is itself an act of discipleship. It is an act of trust in the operation of grace, an acknowledgement that we are not called to take charge of our own conversions, only to cooperate with them. This acceptance is a truly human act, that of a creature who can know, understand, and freely choose, but at the same time one rooted in the prior act of the God who speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, from whom the seraphim shield their faces, and who chooses to die as a man on a cross.

    The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, a painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner

    Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water (Public domain)

    Many years ago, when people asked me why I was becoming a Christian, I would tell a conversion story. I told it to friends, colleagues, to family, and to anybody who wanted to know, and then I was asked if I would like to tell it in an article in a Christian paper, to which I agreed. I wrote two thousand words on how I began to study philosophy and theology as a teenager at school. I wrote how I arrived at the conclusion that morality was objective, and that the universe did not simply exist but was created. I wrote that Christianity was the most historically plausible creed which incorporated these truths, and that was why I was now being received into the Christian church. I found it very easy to write, because I understood barely anything of the depth and profundity of the mystery attendant upon being brought to faith in Christ. I understood so little that I was almost entirely unaware of how much there was yet for me to understand. (At nineteen, I generally understood very little on the natural plane, let alone the supernatural.)

    I feel sufficiently kind toward that nineteen-year-old that I can read the article nowadays without too much embarrassment. When I do, in my account of my conversion I find not God, but arguments for God. I had enough maturity to refrain from making myself the object of my writing, but nevertheless, its object was not Christ; it was Christian credibility. God may have found me, but it seemed more important that I had found proofs for him.

    The reason I wrote in this way was not because I had no relationship with Christ. It was not because what I thought of as my faith was merely an impersonal sense of triumph at having grasped a theological argument. It was because a neat, methodical, well-structured, and easily comprehensible conversion story was what people seemed to want. Usually they were simply interested, or curious, or wanted to celebrate with me, but to that young woman, in the midst of the most astonishing change of her life, the question “Why did you convert to Christianity?” seemed to say that she needed to explain Christ in order to follow him.

    Where else can a conversion story truly end except with death and the face of God?

    Nowadays I am happily aware that there is very little I can say with honest certainty about those months of preparing for my baptism, that time which I wrote about and spoke about so profligately back when I was in the habit of telling people a conversion story. All I know is that it was a time when I came to realize that the way to be drawn most fully into the world was to acknowledge that it wasn’t all there was, and while I was unsure where this decision would lead me, or what it would cost me, it was enough to convince me to start out on the way. That real yet unspeakable trust, that depth of hope in God, which I had at the time, is what I find in Mark’s account of the call of these silent, inscrutable, yet utterly convicted disciples. It comes, too, with a sense of great tenderness and compassion both for them and for my former self: the catechumen who did not, and could not, possibly know the life of constant conversion that was waiting for her as she stepped away from the baptismal font.

    I want to go back and tell that teenager, who wrote down her conversion story with such conclusive certainty, that she now has enough material for ten or twenty essays on conversion. I want to tell her of the depth, height, and breadth of conversion to Christ, joyous and painful, which is far beyond anything she could have comprehended – and yet nothing compared to what the next decades will hold for her. I want to tell her that, if she opens her Bible, she will find that the disciples who answer the call to follow Jesus are the same disciples who will three times hear him predict his own death and yet not understand; fall on their faces at the sight of him transfigured; run away from his maimed and suffering body on the cross. Three days later, they have the glorified wounds of Christ offered to them, not as a reproach, as human justice might demand, but as invitation and as gift. How bizarre would it be, and how disparaging to them, to view these events merely as an epilogue to the story of dropped nets by a lakeside?

    In the convent, we pray often for a good death. We do so particularly at the office of Night Prayer, where the Psalms are offered in the dark, on the cusp of sleep, as preparation for the profound darkness of the sleep of death. One of my older sisters is wont to say – lightly, but still truthfully – that after Final Profession, the only other major event in a sister’s life is her death. Our whole Christian lives are a preparation for a good Christian death, one in which we pass through the new and living way to the beatific vision. We can hope for such a death, and reach out our hands toward it, no matter what happened to us at the time we came to faith. It is not at that first moment of conversion, but at the end of our Christian journey that the true meaning of our discipleship will settle and reveal itself, if indeed it ever does in this life.

    I know of many books in which Christians give an account of their initial conversion, but I do not know of any recounting their ongoing conversion toward the end of their lives. People do not want to hear the conversion stories of Christians approaching death, and yet are more than happy to ask for stories from new Christians who have barely begun to convert at all, before so much of their conversion has happened to them or even become comprehensible to them. Where else can a conversion story truly end except with death and the face of God?

    I think many people assume that my demurral from telling a “conversion story” is an unexpected form of shyness, rather than something principled. It’s not that I don’t want to tell anybody the personal details of how I came to faith, and it’s not that I don’t trust anybody with them. It’s simply that I am beginning to understand, seven years on, that much of what is truly significant happens after the point at which most people expect the story to end. If we must know each other’s faith journeys, then we need the honesty to present our first conversion just as the Gospels do: not as a culmination, nor as a reassuring and satisfying conclusion to our story, but as the most mysterious of beginnings.

    Contributed By

    Sister Carino Hodder is a Dominican Sister of St Joseph based in Hampshire, England. She made her First Profession in September 2019.

    2 Comments