St. Paul wrote, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know the hope to which God has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18).
I’m drawn to stories of sudden spiritual conversions, where without warning, hearts shift focus, lives turn upside down and inside out, a bad guy becomes good, a life is restored.
Brennan Manning in the Ragamuffin Gospel describes the visceral experience of a spiritual conversion as being “seized by the power of a great affection”. In my Big Dream, Jesus’ agape love-filled gaze reached the very core of my soul. Troubles in my waking melted in the gentle hold of Jesus’ peace and gentle power. Such spiritual experiences can be like blood transfusions fueled with emollient love.
The experience I had in my dream reminded me of birthing my son. As his head peered out from the birth canal, the doctor, wide-eyed with a grin, pointed, “a lot of hair”, she said. The nurse still continued pushing my legs further apart, regardless that my taunt muscles felt ready to rip. Giving one last push, I heard a ‘’shwoosh’, my son catapulting out of the birth canal into the doctor’s hands. In that instant I was born anew. Now a mother, holding in my arms a child so fresh from God, my heart blazed with love — my old, barren life and long-winded yearning for a child, no longer relevant.
Spiritual conversion — having the eyes of ours heart enlightened–is like the lifting of the veil that hangs between the world and God, our hearts aflame. William James says we are separated from it only by filmy screens of consciousness.
It’s a sudden knowing God – to know meaning to be intimate with–a rebirthing through the spirit.
When Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews came to Jesus–at night probably because he didn’t want to be seen–he wants to learn about Jesus’ power. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher and come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered him, “”Most assuredly, I tell you, unless one is born anew, he can’t see the Kingdom of God…Most assuredly I tell you, unless one is born of water and spirit (often referred to in Old Testament as spiritual renewal and cleansing), he can’t enter into the Kingdom of God! That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew”.
I think he’s saying it’s an option he should already know, don’t make it like it’s some great secret.
For some, as for Saint Paul, a notorious murderer of Jesus followers, it’s a sudden happening. As he was going along, approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” So he said, “Who are you Lord?” He replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting!”
Scripture and stories of spiritual conversions, are filled with those hearing the voice of God. Many have experiences like St. Paul of seeing a great light. William James says, the name for the light, “photism”, “possibly deserves special notice on account of its frequency”.
Bill Wilson, the founder Alcoholics Anonymous, once a drunk, prayed to God for a sign that God existed, and soon the room filled with a great light, followed by ecstasy and peace.
CNN writer John Blake wrote of his experience:
Then, something strange happened.
I bolted awake, tears streaming down my face. I was on my back, right arm over my closed eyes, but squinting anyway because the sun was so bright it streamed through the small openings..I felt a presence within that light. I was crying because I had never felt so exposed. This light seemed to bore through me, revealing my most sordid deeds, my inadequacies and my fears. I felt like an insect.
Despite that feeling of shame, I felt something even more powerful: love. It seemed as though this presence, something as immense as the universe, was telling me that I was accepted.
Others, have visions, or a gradual pull on their hearts.
If anyone could convince me that sudden spiritual conversions are possible, it’s author, Anne Lamott, because I relate to her former messy life. We both grew up in creative families. Although I wasn’t an alcoholic, I, too, like so many seized by the power of God’s great affection, had a spotted past. I also relate to stories about her parents who had friends pass out from too much alcohol at her table, because mom’s best friend, who was also my best friend’s mother, drank herself to death, while my mom passed out on the floor all the time.
Anne lived on a houseboat in Sausalito at the time of her sudden conversion. Sausalito is a jewel of a west coast town in Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It’s places like Marin where God snatches up a few choice people. It’s mostly a Godless county worshiping the new and old money growing on trees. Around the time, my husband and I also lived on Sausalito on a boat, and although we didn’t know Anne, we hiked the same trails, frequenting the same cafes and bookstores.
After getting pregnant by a married man, she had an abortion, and drown herself in alcohol and pills. As she lay in bed one dark one night she “became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner” she identified as Jesus. “I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love.”
For the next few days she sensed Jesus following her everywhere, “like a little cat.” In time, she gave her ragged life and addictions to Jesus.
If actor, Alex Baldwin turned to Jesus, I’d, be surprised. Like me, the Baldwins are also from from Long Island, and from a family with five wild kids. When Alex’s brother Stephen Baldwin was living in Tuscon, his wife hired a Brazilian cleaning woman, Augusta. Augusta liked to sing everyday as she worked. After a few days Baldwin’s wife said ‘I noticed you’re singing, why is every song always about Jesus?’ Augusta burst out laughing in her face, saying “Quite frankly, I think it’s a little bit funny that you think I’m here to clean your house.” Baldwin’s wife later told Stephen, “honey I’d like to share with you something Augusta just told me. She just told me that the real reason she’s here is because in the future you and I are going to become born again Christians, and at some point after that we’re going to start a ministry.”
And they did. It turned out Augusta had a dream about the Baldwins which led her to work for them. In his book, Stephen talks about the end of his days going to the basement of the Playboy mansion with Robert Downy, Jr.
St. Augustine went through period of anguish due to leading a rambunctious, wild life. One a night in a garden in Milan, while meditating, he heard a child’s voice saying “Take and Read”. He had already started exploring Christianity, but it wasn’t until he opened his Bible that moment to the Epistle to the Romans 1:13, that the verse astonished him, changing the course of his life. He read, Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery, and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to gratify it’s desires. At that moment peace ascended, starting his path to sainthood.
In one study about conversion experiences, most prior to the experience had ‘’depression, sadness, and pensiveness”. Afterward they had “experiences that resulted in a sense of ‘newness of life”, exultation, peace, joy, and a perception of life on a ‘higher plane” –as ‘unselfing’ along with the awakening of altruistic impulses.”
For some, personalities changed in profound ways.
CNN writer Blake continued, “What do you do with such an experience? Was it a dream, a breakdown, youthful foolishness? I don’t know. But that moment changed me. I couldn’t quit. I had encountered something else besides my aunt that wouldn’t abandon me.”