Conversion Process

November 05 2017 | by

ONE OF our favorite couples had their first pregnancy end in miscarriage. Every year, they do something to commemorate that difficult day. This year they gave birth to a child who survived, and they are learning about parenting. The learning began with pre-pregnancy surgeries to prevent another miscarriage, then getting pregnant and trying not to worry about whether or not this pregnancy would end too early. In addition, mom’s blood pressure rising before the due date caused anxiety. When labor began, it developed so rapidly and intensely that the new dad joked that he would be in therapy for years for post-traumatic stress disorder. Six hours after arriving at the hospital, baby was born. Mom and baby did well until Mom developed a serious pregnancy complication which, thanks be to God, doctors successfully treated. Now the new parents are learning how to deal with a “ravenously hungry” infant and sleepless nights.


Unplanned pregnancies


Pregnancy and birth are familiar life processes. Saint Anthony, who used the familiar to explain God’s truths, used pregnancy, birth, and child rearing to explain the spiritual life. Initially he acknowledges the spiritual battle for each soul. Each unconverted person is like a woman experiencing a crisis pregnancy. Such a woman fears the drastic changes a baby will bring. She had not planned for nor desired this baby. Yet she is pregnant. What to do? Do nothing and have a baby for whom she will be responsible? Or else abort the pregnancy and return to the status quo of a childless life?

Without planning, the woman became pregnant. Most often, without planning, a soul begins to experience conversion. Out of curiosity, people listened to Saint Anthony’s preaching and found themselves unintentionally being converted. Each individual faced a choice of acting or not acting on Anthony’s message. Anthony phrases it this way, “The Lord, by the inspiration of his grace and the preaching of his Church, calls the woman (the sinful soul… ) to penitence.” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Vol I, p. 321).


Spiritual attacks


The invitation to conversion is not without spiritual attack. Although Satan tempts a pregnant mom to abort the new life, he tries a different tactic with the sinner. He feeds the troubled soul with more enticements to sin. Anthony likens Satan to a clever black raven which feeds its young partially digested, regurgitated carrion. “It is said that a raven does not feed its young unless it first sees black feathers growing… if the raven sees white plumage growing on her young, she abandons them and casts them out of the nest” (Sermons I, p. 321). Lest we miss the symbolism, Anthony explains, “The raven is the devil, and the raven’s children are sinners living in mortal sin who imitate the blackness of their parent… sinners are children of the devil, but when by the brightness of grace they receive remission of sins, the devil forsakes them and the most loving Lord takes them in the arms of his mercy” (Sermons I, pp. 321-22).

When a woman aborts a child, she casts him out of her womb and the child dies. In contrast, when Satan aborts a converting sinner by casting him “out of the nest,” intending him to die, God takes him “in the arms of his mercy” and feeds him spiritually with “a fine confection of three choice ingredients – contrition, confession, and satisfaction – and the balm of divine mercy” (Sermons I, p. 322). This confection nourishes spiritual effort. Just as enduring pregnancy, labor, delivery and parenting are work, so the converted soul must work to make permanent its conversion.


From contrition to satisfaction


In conversion, contrition comes first. “The woman is the soul. The grace of the Holy Spirit is like a husband making her pregnant with blessed offspring, namely a good will and intention, and the spirit of salvation… when she has been made pregnant, the soul grows heavy, being afflicted on account of her sins” (Sermons I, p. 325). Anthony notes that, “In pregnancy the appetite grows weaker and more fastidious” (Sermons I, p. 325), an illusion to morning sickness which many pregnant moms experience. Anthony spiritualizes morning sickness, “The soul, heavy with God’s grace, likewise loses the appetite for evil, and frets over her past sins” (Sermons I, p. 325).

Pregnancy develops. The baby grows. In the repentant soul, the desire grows to make things right with God who was offended. When the time is ready, a baby is born. Likewise, when a repentant soul is contrite enough, it will confess its sins and beg God’s forgiveness. “The woman’s ‘hour of birth’ is, for the penitent’s soul, the time of confession, in which she should be sorry, and emit bitter groans, saying with the Prophet: ‘I have labored in my groanings’ [Ps 6.7] (Sermons I, p. 330).”

Labor is a difficult process. No matter how much childbirth classes prepare a mom for giving birth, birthing is strenuous and painful work. The sinner will likewise find confession painful work because it necessitates the reviewing of transgressions, be they heinous, embarrassing, or humiliating. Yet “Jesus Christ is… the counselor who counsels her to hope for mercy, saying, ‘Be in pain, O daughter of Sion (O soul), with the pains of contrition and the labor of satisfaction, so that the penalty may be proportionate to the fault… ‘There shalt thou be delivered,’ because (as St. Augustine says), ‘If you confess, God will forgive’” (Sermons I, p. 331).


The priest as midwife


There is danger of the child dying if, at the point of delivery, a woman can’t bring her child to birth. Something similar can happen with confession. “‘The children are to come to birth, and there is not strength to bring forth’ [Is 37.3]. This happens when one’s sin is on one’s lips, but for embarrassment it is not disclosed in confession, so that the unhappy soul dies. If she would go through the pain and labor, without a doubt she would have joy at the birth” (Sermons I, pp. 332-333).

When pregnant women need help, “Midwives stand by to assist in delivery,” notes Anthony. When sinners need help in confession, “Priests are ‘midwives’ who should help and serve sinners to confess… the priest is the Lord’s hand, by which he draws out the ‘serpent’ (the old man) from the sinner, so that afterwards he may bring the new man to birth… by confession he first puts off the old man, and then he gives birth to the new man in himself” (Sermons I, p. 332).


“So,” Anthony notes, “the words are well said: ‘A woman, when she is in labor, hath sorrow; but when she hath brought forth the child, she remembereth no more the anguish for joy,’ the joy of eternal glory… to that joy, from the sorrows of this world, may he deign to lead us who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen” (Sermons I, p. 333).

Updated on November 05 2017