By KATHY SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — What is the real task the church proposes for the Lenten journey that begins with Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and concludes on Easter? It is the conversion of life that lasts a lifetime, according to Abbot Francis Kline from Mepkin Abbey, who spoke at the St. Thomas More Center on March 18 as part of their Lenten lecture series.
“Conversion of life has many, many stages, and it accompanies us or invites us to itself at innumerable points in our Christian experience,” he told a captivated crowd of college students sprinkled with faculty and friends. Highlighting the source and summit of Christian life, Abbot Kline broke down three major marks of conversion people can look for as they move toward the imitation of the Lord Jesus in the pascal mystery.
The need for conversion is tied to what it means to be a human person, defined by Abbot Kline as one who is constantly open to the action and presence of almighty God and who is preparing in this life for what will be an eternal transcendence into the next. So when the human person enters into sin, there is a fragmentation of the person, because one who was created upright in the image and likeness of God has fallen beneath his or her self as described by St. Gregory the Great. Therefore, according to the abbot, the first duty of conversion of life is to “get upright or back up to oneself.”
“What is needed to do that?” he asked rhetorically, “To know oneself.” He elaborated “… By repenting internally about one’s image,” by not judging others but judging oneself honestly, a person can progress in conversion. Abbot Kline said the Gospel is filled with examples of individuals coming to self-knowledge such as the penitent woman in Luke Chapter 7. “You can’t have an encounter with Jesus without having some kind of gift of self-knowledge as well as some kind of realization of who I really am,” the abbot said.
When the penitent woman, he said, woke up to who she was she did not wallow in guilt and shame but got up and did something creative and beautiful for Christ, washing his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, kissing and perfuming them.
“But there is no real act of repentance unless there is a kind of double-edged sword with self-knowledge …. It realizes the degradation, to which the human person falls in sin, but it also realizes that there is no roof to how high you can go in the grace of Christ,” said Abbot Kline, adding everyone should have the hope and conviction about nobility of life in Christ. He contrasted Peter with Judas, where upon the self-knowledge Judas fell in despair while Peter, realizing he denied Christ, wept bitterly but “it wasn’t 36 hours before he was back up chasing the risen Christ.”
Abbot Kline then discussed the next mark on the path to conversion of life — compassion for others. “You don’t come to real self-knowledge without something else happening. All of the sudden when I admit to myself who I am both my shame and my glory, I immediately look at my neighbor in a new light.”
He used the Good Samaritan as an example of someone who had self-knowledge and was able to show compassion for another. Reserving judgment, the abbot gave some reasonable excuses why the priest and the Levite passed the injured man, but he also explained how the Samaritan went the extra mile for this stranger because he had compassion. “The Samaritan was just an ordinary person, where God put in his way an extraordinary situation,” said Abbot Kline, adding that everyone has opportunities to go the extra mile and “and it’s not for us to say what that traveling the extra mile is like, only you know and God know what it is.
“Truth about ourselves (self-knowledge) and truth about our neighbor (compassion) leads to truth with a capital ‘T,’ (some kind of veritable knowledge of God),” explained the abbot, and that stage is where “God is going to ask those things of us and from us that leaves us vulnerable to his action.” These three sources of conversion of life can lead to the summit of Christian life “where the human person is carried way beyond ourselves.” It takes a person beyond the young man who walks away from Jesus sad because he could not go the extra mile, for him discipleship had a ceiling but not so with Jesus and maybe not so with us.”
He described the common motivations for renunciation and suggests that a person mature past the first two. The first one is a slave mentality where a person sees God as a master who they must win over or avoid punishment, and the second is the mercenary who bargains with God, “if you do this, I’ll do that.” Abbot Kline suggests that one renounce as a child would for a loving parent, not to win over or to barter, but to eliminate anything that would prevent getting closer to one another.
“In the religious life, vowed life or that unending transcendent life in Christian love, if not based on love answering love, you’re going to get tripped up at some point,” warned Abbot Kline, who feels that each renunciation should be a conversion that moves one forward.
It may seem like a contradiction, according to Abbot Kline, that as a person moves closer to God they see how much further they must go. But it shouldn’t be discouraging, for he adds, “Once you are on the way, firmly treading after the footsteps of the Lord, there is an internal energy, a kind of living in the Spirit that propels you forward so as St. Paul said you don’t look back anymore but look forward to that upward call to the glory of Christ.”