Conversion begins with the act of falling in love. All miracles do. Only love does miracles, only it has the power to genuinely subvert the deepest ruts in our lives, to dehabituate us, moving us beyond the prison of our own selfishness. There is a lot of confusion about conversion. Mostly we associate it with the begrudging regret that fear forces upon us rather than with the genuine remorse that follows falling in love.
Let me illustrate with an example: The classical picture of a conversion story is usually that of the “death-bed” conversion: A man lives a long selfish life…wine, women and song! No church, no morality! And he enjoys it! Only the occasional prick of conscience disturbs him.
But this can only last for awhile. Alas, one day he is stricken ill. Suddenly his life flashes before his eyes, as does eternity, filling him with a deep fear and a deep regret. He realizes that this is the eleventh hour. He senses he is dying and does not want to face his creator. Choking on fear, he repents, converts. The priest is hastily summoned, a confession is heard. He dies peacefully; luckily inside God’s grace. We breathe a sigh of relief even as we secretly envy him for having had a fling and yet getting heaven besides. This is a story that, in fact, quite often happens; unfortunately so. It is not, I submit, a genuine conversion. It is a conversion of sorts (imperfect contrition, the old catechism aptly called it). Minimally it is enough. It spares the man hellfire. What it does not spare him, however, is the need to fall in love and, in the light of that love, to come to a whole new way of living and loving. This man has still to reach the “eleventh hour”!
Let us imagine another conversion story, a genuine one: A person is living a very immoral life. A selfish defiance allows her to live for self, seeking hedonistic pleasure, regardless of what her actions mean to others and how they might hurt them. Her life is guided only by selfish pursuits. One day she falls in love…with another person, with a community, with God, with an ideal, or with all of them. Suddenly she is filled with a deep remorse. She realizes it is the eleventh hour! She repents, converts, usually in tears. However, her regret and tears are not because she is afraid of death or afraid of facing her creator. Her regret and tears stem from her knowledge of what her sin has done to her and to her new love. It has had her waste years, waste her love, damage her dignity, living away from her loved one, outside of the goodness and love which make up her love’s body, the body of Christ. She realizes, perhaps only unconsciously, that she has missed something. Whatsoever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven! She realizes that she has not been bound in heaven because she has not been bound, nor held, on earth.
There is in this story a genuine moment of conversion because there is a genuine falling in love. There is real repentance. In the light of the new love there is an entirely new understanding of life. There is, as well, a new enthusiasm for life. In Nietzsche’s famous phrase, there is a “transvaluation of values.” Everything is understood in a new way. This is the eleventh hour! In John of the Cross’ phrase, she is now “fired with love’s urgent longings.” She is dehabituated, born-again, empowered to live anew…and it is a miracle, a pure gift that only God’s spirit can produce. However, unlike the other conversion story, nothing is based on fear. There is, sure enough, a deep regret. But it is no longer the regret of the scared and defeated, the bitter regret of the man whose will is broken by force or death. It is the regret of the person who realizes that he has missed something precious. However, this falling in love is not a painless, perennially-painted-with-romance experience. There is more to rebirth than falling at the feet of a Billy Graham, falling in love with an attractive member of the opposite sex, or crying away guilt in a moment of charismatic fervor.
Rebirth means entering again the fetal darkness of the womb, allowing oneself to be gestated by love, and allowing love’s goodness to make a deep incision into one’s sickest parts. This is always a painful, excruciating experience. For this reason, many times, conversions do not last. The old world rises up and recaptures the new, the new wine breaks the old wineskins. The conversion is lost. When this happens then we have been to the eleventh hour, but have not repented. We return to exile, away from love’s body. As Soren Kierkegaard puts it: “When remorse awakens concern, whether it be in the youth or the old man, it awakens it always at the eleventh hour. It is not deceived by a false notion of a long life, for it is the eleventh hour. “And in the eleventh hour one understands life in a wholly different manner than in the days of youth or in the busy time of manhood or the final moments of old age. He who repents at any other hour of the day repents in the temporal sense.”
Falling in love is the eleventh hour. The miracle leading to repentance is only a tear away!