Conversion, Reconciliation, and Transformation

“And I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

This is an excerpt from the Prayer of Absolution that the priest says at the end of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At this point, you’ve confessed your sins to the priest in persona Christi (ie, in the person of Christ; read: you’re really confessing your sins to Jesus). This prayer washes you clean of your sins, lets you start anew, lets you move on, makes you know and feel the mercy of Christ.

When I’m at college, I spend most of my social time around other Catholics, so I’m basically immersed in Catholic thought. It’s always striking when I get home and notice the stark contrasts between secular and Catholic thought. (No one else in my immediate family (or even extended family, really) is a practicing Catholic–read about my conversion story here.)

Secular and Catholic thought really diverge on the subject of reconciliation. Most notably, Catholic thought asserts that people can change. I’ve observed that many (though not all, of course) in the secular realm seem to think that someone with a troubled past could not possibly have changed. These people continue to be labeled by the sins of their past. This is entirely unfair, as people can change, especially with the grace of the Holy Spirit.

So many of the Church’s saints were extreme sinners at one time, and then drastically changed when their hearts were converted to Christ. Take St. Augustine, for example. Pre-conversion Augustine was, in today’s terminology, a playboy. Then, when he converted to Christ, he changed drastically and eventually became a saint. St. Augustine understood how people could change because he experienced it himself. He said,

“There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”

Today’s world seems not to know what St. Augustine knew. I think that anyone who has experienced first-hand the transformative power of the Holy Spirit knows that people change. I think that the secular world copes with this misunderstanding in two ways (of course, generalizations are never entirely accurate; not everyone with a secular mindset has this ideology):

  1. When people recognize others as sinners, they label them as such (because radical change seems impossible).
  2. When people sin, they try to convince themselves that they actually haven’t sinned (because there’s no mode of redemption).

I think the mainstream culture would be shocked to know that Catholicism advocates moving on from the sins of our past. Everyone always talks about “Catholic guilt” which, tbh, I don’t understand. Yes, we’re all sinners, but we are redeemed in Christ, which we experience first hand through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sure, we should be horrified by our sins, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we should also know that we are made new and that we can change with God’s help.

When Academics Become God

It seems like, for a lot of people, religion is a source of self-discipline. And it is for me too, but I possessed a great deal of self-discipline before I ever had my conversion experience at the age of 16. And I’m not saying that to “toot my own horn,” so to speak. Even though we usually think of self-discipline as a good thing, it’s only good in moderation. And before I started taking my faith seriously, my self-discipline as it related to academics was…well, way overboard.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s good to study hard. Doing well in school allows you to learn about God’s creation and the magnificence of it all. It also gives you a means by which to use your God-given talents to contribute to society. But here’s what I think the thing to remember is: academics is a means, not an end. That can be a particularly hard thing for people such as myself to understand.

When you have the natural tendency to work ridiculously hard (i.e. spending 7+ hours on homework per night, studying till 1 AM, resisting the urge to join the neighbors having a good time outside your window, etc.), it’s really easy to start to, quite frankly, worship academics. Now, I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing to spend a lot of time on homework or stay up late doing it or stay inside when you have business to attend to. In fact, my studying practices in these regards are still very much the same. The big difference, I think, is how you view it all– there’s a big difference between worshipping academics and serving God via academics.

Before my conversion experience towards the end of my sophomore year in high school, I studied for — now, this will sound weird — no particular purpose that I was conscious of. My parents had always placed a great emphasis on school, so I was just kind of responding to that, maybe? But it’s not like I was thinking that. I probably also liked how it felt to get good grades– perhaps I was addicted to the pride that comes with getting good grades in school? Whatever my reasons were, I was hooked for reasons I was unaware of. By the end of that sophomore year, I started to have a slight existential crisis: “Why am I doing this?”; “Why do I continue on studying even when it isn’t fun?”; “What purpose does this all serve?”

— ENTER GOD —

When I received the Sacrament of Confirmation, something changed within me. For the first time in my life I was on fire for God, and I wanted everyone else to know about the Good News, and I became a practicing Catholic. (Praise the Holy Spirit.) (Although there was one definitive moment when the trajectory of my life changed, conversion doesn’t happen all at once. In fact, it is still happening; it is a lifelong process.)

My conversion drastically changed my views regarding academics. In 10th grade, academics were for me. In fact, school was basically what gave my life meaning. Now (as a rising college sophomore) I see my pursuing of academics as my current vocation as a student, as utilizing the particular skill set God gave me, and as a means by which to eventually serve my neighbor. In 10th grade, I saw church-related activities (including Mass) as interfering with my studying. Now I go to Mass approximately 4-6 times a week during the school year.

Maybe skeptics would view these changes in me as some overstressed kid trying to escape the pressure she puts on herself. Not so. It’s not like I used God as some excuse to stop working hard. I still study for many hours a day. I still stay up late to study– even until 3 AM or 4 AM sometimes. I still sit myself down and work even when there are other things I’d rather be doing. My sense of purpose in my study habits is what changed– it’s for God, not me. And that is truly what makes all the difference.

Another breed of skeptics may think it’s crazy to ever put God before school. And I can relate to that line of thinking since that’s totally where I was 3 years ago. But I promise you: making God the purpose for your hard work and making time to worship Him will bear many fruits in your studies (and more importantly, in your life in general). Seriously. And it’s way better for your soul. Plus, let’s face it: eternity is way more important than this life.

So, is self-discipline bad? No! Not in itself! It allows you to be dedicated in serving God. But all good things can become perverted. Eve provides us with a good example of this. Satan told her that eating the forbidden fruit would allow her to become more like God. God is good, right? Eve wanted to be good like God. In trying to become “good,” Eve caused the Fall of humanity. Likewise, in pursuing self-discipline (or any other seemingly good quality) to an excess, you can pervert it and be the cause of your own personal Fall.

Doing well in school is certainly not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s very good! But know why you strive to do well. Make your academic successes a means for you to serve God, not an end for yourself. If you have a rather academically “intense” personality like me, harness that and make it a virtue, not a vice.