The Dynamics of Conversion and the Case of the Elder Brother
As catechists and evangelists, the first person whose conversion we need to attend to daily is… our own.
I recently watched this tremendous little clip. It’s about a man’s massive conversion from dangerous prisoner to Christian. Watch it if you haven’t seen this already.
If we are lifelong Christians with no story to compare with Shane’s, I wonder how we react to conversion stories like this? Perhaps we think that such people are different from us, that their experience of being a Christian is different from ours. I’ve even heard Christians almost wistfully wish they had at some point along the way “gone off the rails”, but they haven’t. They have remained in the Father’s house, a bit like the “elder brother” (cf. Luke 15).
Something’s wrong here…
Aren’t we all the prodigal?! This is the problem with the elder brother – he forgets that he, too, is the prodigal.
St Therese of Lisieux commented that Jesus saved her from all the dreadful sin she could have committed, before she committed it.
I really recommend going back to Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth (vol. 1), p. 202 onwards. He has amazing insight into this parable…
The elder brother is bitter –
“He sees only injustice. And this betrays the fact that he too had secretly dreamed of a freedom without limits, that his obedience has made him inwardly bitter, and that he has no awareness of the grace of being at home, of the true freedom that he enjoys as a son” (p. 208-9)
And of those in this position, Pope Benedict says,
“Their bitterness towards God’s goodness reveals an inward bitterness regarding their own obedience, a bitterness that indicates the limitations of this obedience.
In their heart of hearts, they would have gladly journeyed out into that greater ‘freedom’ as well. There is an unspoken envy of what others have got away with.
They have not gone through the pilgrimage that purified the younger brother and made him realise what it means to be free and what it means to be a son” (p. 211)
Even for those of us who have for the most part “remained at home”, a “pilgrimage” of our heart is required – recognising our own need for profound conversion, recognising that a bitter, jealous, angry heart is as estranged from the Father as is a rebellious one. Maybe, I sometimes think, a bitter heart is even further from the Father, because at least in the prodigal there is authenticity – he does and says what he means, rather than putting on a pretence.
So, when we hear of great conversion-stories like this one, I hope we can also see in them something of our own conversion. That we know our own hearts and our capacity to sin well enough. That we, too, experience a need for as deep a conversion.
As Pope Benedict says,
“…the Father through Christ is addressing us, the ones who never left home, encouraging us too to convert truly…”
…and St Paul,
“We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20)