Conversion while listening to the Lord

by David Gibson

What language does the Lord speak? Advent is a great time for listening to the language of the Lord and learning to speak it — or, perhaps better, for learning to sing it.

Pope Francis proposed as much a year ago during Advent. To speak the language of the Lord, it is essential not only to learn “what” to say, but “how” to say it, said the pope. He meant that students of this unique language need to pay close attention to the way the Lord expresses himself. The Lord “draws near” to people in much the way that a father or mother draws near a little child who is afraid, speaking tenderly and in words the child understands, the pope explained. Someone overhearing it might find the conversation ridiculous, with all its affectionate, endearing words.


Pope Francis waves at onlookers during the Angelus prayer / CNS

But, Pope Francis commented, “The love of a father and a mother needs to be close.” Thus, they “lower themselves to the world of the child.” The Lord draws near “without making a spectacle,” becoming “small in order to make me strong,” said the pope. The quiet closeness and tenderness that characterize this way of speaking are “the music of the language of the Lord.” This is how “it is with the Lord,” he stated. “This is the language of the Lord, the language of the love of a father or a mother.” It could become our language too, he made clear.

Learning any new language is a real accomplishment. It requires time and commitment. But as this demanding process unfolds, a new person emerges, someone able to speak in a new way.
The same is true of journeys toward many important points of destination in life. In retrospect, people see how they were transformed by the somewhat long, complicated process of acquiring needed job skills, caring for a baby during the early years, healing a broken friendship or coping with an energy-sapping illness that lingered for months and months. Perhaps they discover that the entire process mysteriously changed them for the better in large or small ways. Maybe their self-respect grew. Or they may notice, with some surprise, that they now interact with others in a more understanding manner. In any event, becoming new persons in large and small ways is what the church encourages by inviting Christians to see Advent as a time of conversion, of transformation.

Because this is a season of watching for the Lord’s coming, conversion in Advent can have a lot to do with recognizing the Lord when he comes, taking care not to overlook his presence in the Eucharist, in ourselves and in others. “The meaning of our lives is to be a process of conversion,” the Catholic bishops of Ireland said in a 2012 pastoral letter. They added, “We can gradually come to know ourselves and our destiny better,” but “the process is never completed, and it involves setbacks as well as growth.” Conversion is a word to describe “the journey by which we open ourselves, allow our outlook to be changed,” said the bishops. Conversion involves growing to recognize God as “the source of our gifts and our ability to develop them and use them well.”

What might an Advent conversion look like? Consider, for example, the spirit of competition or jealousy that characterizes many human relationships, setting people against each other, even within church communities. Pope Francis mentioned this in October when he discussed the body of Christ, which he insisted is not a “catchphrase.” Baptism “regenerates us in Christ . . . and unites us intimately among ourselves as limbs of the same body of which he is the head,” the pope said. Should the members of Christ’s body, who are each other’s “limbs,” resent each other’s finest talents? Not according to the pope, who offered this advice: “When I feel envious — because envy comes to everyone, we are all sinners — I must say to the Lord, ‘Thank you, Lord, because you have given this [talent or quality] to that person.'”

Thank God for his gifts to others, the pope proposed. I consider it a proposal with an Advent tone, since it involves watching for the coming of the Lord in others and not ignoring or dismissing his presence in them. We are readily thankful for the good qualities God gives to us personally. But the habit of thanking God often for talents and qualities given to others might well demand a spiritual conversion, a journey prompting us to interact far more positively with those who are part of our lives.

The same seems true of learning the language of the Lord. Doing that could require a conversion to a changed way of speaking. The Lord’s way of expressing himself is a language Christians indeed could learn, Pope Francis said. “Yes, we understand ‘what’ [the Lord] tells us, but we also see ‘how’ he says it. And we must do what the Lord does, do what he says and do it as he says it — with love, with tenderness.”

Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.