Sunday 17 March 2013

The second conversion


Something I have been looking for, and thought I did not have with me. Delighted to find it. I had forgotten that I had discovered the Donovan story in Thomas Cullinan.

One of my favourite stories is from a little book written by a missionary in Africa. It is a good entry into the theme of contemplation and action. The story is about a Masai elder speaking to Vincent Donovan in Tanzania:

Months later when all this had passed, I was sitting talking with a Masai elder about the agony of belief and unbelief. He used two languages to respond to me - his own and Kiswahili. He pointed out that the word my Masai catechist, Paul, and I had used to convey faith was not a very satisfactory word in their language. It meant literally "to agree to." I, myself, knew the word had that shortcoming. He said "to believe" like that was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word. He said for a man to really believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down, the lion envelopes it in his arms (the Masai refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms), pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is.”

I looked at the elder in silence and amazement. Faith understood like that would explain why, when my own faith was gone, I ached in every fibre of my being. But my wise old teacher was not finished yet.

“We did not search you out, Padri,” he said to me. “We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end the lion is God.”

Cullinan comments: when we first set out to work for God the chances are that we are more or less Pelagian and have a reasonably clear ideology. We set out ‘to do God’s will,’ and he is indeed lucky to have us around to do it. We the actors, he the spectator.
For some, that state of affairs lasts until middle age tempers it and they slide quietly and sadly into mediocrity.
But what should happen, and I believe is the normal progress for Christians in any walk of life who have remained alert, seeking and prayerful, is a transition from being in dialogue with God as neighbour (with all the demarcation disputes that it involves) to being in union with God....
It is a conversion which we cannot programme or achieve, but which God’s Spirit will work in us if we are open to it and persevering. We recognize it by hindsight. It is, I believe, the transition:
-        From ‘coming to do God’s will’ (Psalmist) to really seeking ‘that God’s will be done in us’ (Mary)
-        From moral endeavour for God to contemplative union with him.
I have died already. Or as Paul sings at the end of that chapter (Rom 8:38): I am now sure that neither death, nor life... no ‘power’... can come between us and the love of God.

Four thoughts

1.    This conversion ushers in an intense solitude of communion. We discover that the heart of ourself is not in the end an ultimate aloneness but a radical solidarity and communion with all God’s beloved people.
2.    But also we carry an intense joy, because the Christian is not merely a striver for liberation yet to come but a hearer of a liberation of which the down-payment, the pledge, has already been made. It is an enigmatic co-existence of suffering and joy which makes our lives, especially our community lives, living signs:
     From being patrons of his Kingdom, to being instruments of his Kingdom....
     From Jesus’ initial ‘follow me’ to Peter by the lakeside calling him to work for and preach the kingdom to his second ‘follow me’ by the lakeside after Peter had lost any self-assurance other than loving the Lord! When you were young you girded yourself and went where you would; but the time comes when you will be girded by othes and not go where you choose. Follow me. (Domine, quo vadis?)
3.   It is a conversion – from living out of duty and thereby keeping our self-image intact, our autarchic ego respectable, to abandoning that entire game of ‘being somebody’ before God and others. It is the conversion which Paul talks of so often in Romans. God’s Spirit releases us from loving through moral endeavour, to being able to love freely, as it were, naturally.
The conversion always involves a death; indeed, this side of the grave, it involves a constant dying, but only that a new life and freedom may be released in us. We learn what it is to constantly carry in the Body (our community of faith) the dying of Jesus so that his risen life may be manifest. And, surprise, surprise, this freedom from fear makes us invincible: you cannot kill me for I have died already.
4.    Living in the present – one final comment to end with: all our work and missionary endeavour is surely, in the end, enabling the daily things of peoples’ lives to give glory to God. It is the experience of a number of people I know that the conversion I have tried to speak of enables us to live far more fully in the present, and to savour all things.
We are not really artisans in God’s world, are we! We are “God’s work of art” (Eph 2:10). All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God!

See Thomas Cullinan, “A Spirituality for Conflict,” East Asian Pastoral Review (1984) 396-405. 

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