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    Get Ready to Be Changed

    Saint or sinner, all of us must be changed by Christ.

    By Dietrich von Hildebrand

    May 5, 2024

    “For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus, to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:22–24). 

    These words of Saint Paul are inscribed above the gate through which all must pass who want to reach the goal set us by God. They implicitly contain the quintessence of the process which baptized people must undergo before they attain the unfolding of the new supernatural life received in baptism. All true Christian life, therefore, must begin with a deep yearning to become a “new self” in Christ, and an inner readiness to “put off the old self” – a readiness to become something fundamentally different. 

    Even when they lack religion, the will to change is not unknown to people. They long to develop and to perfect themselves. They believe they can overcome all vices and deficiencies of their nature by human force alone. All morally aspiring people are conscious of the necessity of a purposeful self-education which should cause them to change and to develop. They, too – as contrasted to the morally indifferent person who “lets himself go” and abandons himself passively to his natural dispositions – reveal a certain readiness to change. But for this, no spiritual and moral growth would exist at all.

    The readiness to change is an essential aspect of the Christian’s basic relation with God.

    Yet, when a person is touched by the light of revelation, something entirely new has come to pass. The revelation of the Old Testament alone suffices to make the believer aware of humankind’s metaphysical situation and the terrible wound inflicted upon our nature by original sin. We know that no human force can heal that wound; that we are in need of redemption. We grasp the truth that repentance is powerless to remove the guilt of sin which separates us from God, that good will and natural moral endeavor will fail to restore us to the beauty of the paradisiac state. Within us lives a deep yearning for the Redeemer, who by divine force will take the guilt of sin and bridge the gulf that separates the human race from God. Throughout the Old Testament that yearning resounds: “Convert us, O God: and shew us thy face, and we shall be saved” (Ps. 79:4, DRA); we perceive the desire for purification which enables us to appear before God, and to endure the presence of the unspeakably holy one: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow” (Ps. 50:9, DRA). 

    painting of Nicodemus Visiting Christ

    Henry Ossawa Tanner, Nicodemus Visiting Christ, oil on canvas,1899.

    The New Testament, however, reveals to us a call which far transcends that yearning. Thus Christ speaks to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3). 

    Christ, the Messiah, is not merely the redeemer who breaks apart the bond and cleanses us from sin. He is also the dispenser of a new divine life which shall wholly transform us and turn us into “new people.” Though we receive this new life in baptism as a free gift of God, it may not flourish unless we cooperate. “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough,” says Saint Paul. 

    A strong desire must fill us to become different beings, to mortify our old selves and re-arise as new people in Christ. This desire, this readiness to “decrease” so that “he may grow in us” (John 3:30), is the first elementary precondition for the transformation in Christ. It is the primal gesture by which we react to the “light of Christ” that has reached our eyes: the original gesture directed to God. It is, in other words, the adequate consequence of our consciousness of being in need of redemption on the one hand, and our comprehension of being called by Christ on the other. Our surrender to Christ implies a readiness to let him fully transform us, without setting any limit to the modification of our nature under his influence. 

    That unlimited readiness to change is necessary not only for the sinner in the narrower sense of the word, but also for the guarded, the pure, the graced, whom God has drawn unto himself from youth onward: not only for a Saint Augustine but also for a Saint John. The saints are classed sometimes in two categories: on the one hand, the great converts like Saint Paul or Saint Magdalen; on the other, men and women in whom a continuous slow maturing of grace is clearly observable, such souls as Saint John the Evangelist or Saint Catherine of Siena. Yet the necessity of what is here described as readiness to change applies by no means only to those who have gone through a conversion and who therefore evidently cannot but repent of their former life, but even to such as have never definitely and gravely trespassed against God’s commandments. They, too, must be willing to rise above their nature and hold themselves ready for coinage by the spirit of Christ. 

    On the measure of our readiness to change depends the measure of our transformation in Christ. Unreserved readiness is an indispensable precondition of the “conception” of Christ in our souls, and it must endure with undiminished vigor all along the path of our transformation…. The significance and the value of such an attitude also appear from the fact that the better a person’s inward condition and the more he feels touched by God the wider the doors of his heart will be opened and the readier he will show himself for being changed. Whenever, on the contrary, some baser impulse gets the upper hand in a person’s soul, he will shut himself up, and the “doors” will close again. He will harden, and attempt to maintain himself. There is a deep nexus between a kind, unrestrained attitude in general, and the state of “fluidity,” openness and receptivity to formative action “from above.” Still more is the act of free inward surrender to God inseparable from that state of “fluidity” and receptivity; whereas, by bolting ourselves up and entrenching ourselves in our nature we stifle in our souls the growth of the germs implanted by God, and an opposition to higher appeals will consequently arise in all domains. The readiness to change is an essential aspect of the Christian’s basic relation with God; it forms the core of our response to the merciful love of God which bends down upon us.

    Source: Dietrich von Hildebrand, “The Readiness to Change,” in Transformation in Christ (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1948), 1–23, lightly adapted.

    Contributed By Dietrich von Hildebrand Dietrich von Hildebrand

    Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889–1977) was a German philosopher and writer.

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