As we celebrate Sunday of the Word of God and conclude the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it is providential that today’s Gospel develops 2 major themes: conversion and discipleship.
The main idea of conversion is found in these lines: “repent and believe in the good news”. The word “repent” signifies more than being sorry for past sins and not committing them anymore. To “repent”, in the Biblical sense, is to undergo a radical change in one’s thinking. “Repent” is synonymous with “conversion”.
“Conversion” comes from the Latin word, “vertere”, which means “to turn”. “Conversion” refers to a complete change in direction. In Bishop Robert Barron’s words, “Conversion hints at a change of attitude, a change of orientation at a fundamental level of one’s being.” What Bishop Barron is saying is that conversion implies a change of priorities whereby we turn from one way of seeing life and turn to a different way of seeing life.
What is that new direction, new priority, that new way of seeing life? The answer is found in Jesus’ words, “believe in the good news”. Notice that Jesus does not say, “believe about the good news” nor does he say, “believe the good news”. “To believe in” has little to do with the ability to understand statements of dogma or doctrine. Rather, “to believe in” involves a total commitment of one’s whole self.
Bishop Barron puts it this way: “To have faith is to allow oneself to be overwhelmed by the power of God and to permit the divine energy to reign at all levels of one’s being. It involves surrendering to the God who wants to become incarnate in us”.
Bishop Barron’s point is that Jesus himself is the good news. “Believing in the good news” means we trust Jesus so completely that we turn around and go in the direction that the Gospel maps out for us.
Where does this type of conversion lead? The one-word answer is discipleship. In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John by saying, “Come follow me”. Notice their response. They had no idea where they were going; they had no idea what the future would bring. Yet, immediately, they leave behind their boats, their nets, their father and their colleagues. In other words, they leave their homes, families, livelihoods, sources of security. They risk everything for Jesus.
God does not expect us to abandon our families and our jobs. However, as was the case with the first 4 disciples, becoming a follower of Jesus is an act of complete trust. Discipleship is an act of total surrender of self, not to be done in the distant future. The time is now!
Answering the call to be a disciple may involve letting go of the comfortable, the familiar, the secure. Today’s Gospel challenges each of us to ask these questions: What nets (or boats) do I need to leave behind in order to follow Jesus wholeheartedly? What are the worldly attachments that prevent me from risking everything for the Lord?
To help us answer these questions let’s consider the teachings of two famous saints.
The 1st saint is Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225 to 1274. Aquinas, whose feast day we will celebrate on January 28, taught that there are 4 types of “worldly attachments” that prevent authentic conversion and discipleship (4 types of nets / boats that we must leave behind): wealth (preoccupation with money, consumerism, materialism, accumulating goods), power (obsession with our authority and control over others), honor (preoccupation with our social status, by what others think of us), pleasure (obsession with entertainment and leisure, food, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography).
The 2nd saint is Ignatius Loyola. He was a Spanish priest and theologian who lived from 1491 to 1556. He co-founded the Jesuit order and is famous for his book entitled The Spiritual Exercises.
In Spiritual Exercise #1, Ignatius explains the goal of all the exercises when he writes: “These exercises are ways of preparing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul”.
Ignatius is presenting the concepts of attachment to God and his divine love and detachment from everything that prevents our relationship with God from becoming the priority in our lives. Whenever someone develops a “disordered attachment” or addiction to something, Ignatius suggests a prayer exercise involving the use of one’s imagination to restore that thing to its proper order.
Ignatius explain how this process works: “The person is to imagine he sees Christ our Lord on the scene and to consider how Christ looks, and how He speaks, and how he acts and then strive to imitate Him. In this way, his mind will be occupied principally with our Lord, and less with the provision for the body. Thus, he will come to greater harmony and order in the way he ought to conduct himself”.
The method outlined in the Spiritual Exercises demands 2 steps. The first step is that we are brutally honest. We name and identify the disordered attachment within us that requires restoring so that our bonded attachment with God can grow and develop. The second step is that we bring that situation to imaginative prayer.
For example, if our disordered attachment or addiction lies in the area of wealth, such as compulsive possession of material goods, we imagine Christ in the mall with us and we spend money and buy only as Christ would.
If our disordered attachment lies in the area of honor, such as our preoccupation to be highly esteemed by others in public, we imagine Christ at the workplace with us and we say and do things only as Christ would.
If our disordered attachment or addiction lies in the area of power, such as making cruel, demeaning and uncharitable remarks on the Internet about people whose political, religious or moral views differ from ours, we imagine Christ sitting at the computer besides us and we keyboard comments as only Christ would.
Seth Haines, a married father of 4, is an attorney and writer living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In one of his articles, he describes his disordered attachment of pleasure as it relates to his terrible struggle with alcoholism and how this way of prayer that put Christ in the room with him led to his sobriety.
At one point, Haines writes: “Through this sort of imaginative prayer, we come to learn the way of Christ, who lived a life of perfect sobriety, of perfectly ordered attachments”. Haines concludes his article by saying: “If we learn the way of St. Ignatius, we cultivate a bonded attachment with the Giver instead of the gifts.”
That’s the key for both conversion and discipleship: cultivating a bonded attachment with Jesus Christ. Then, everything else – wealth, honor, power, pleasure – is secondary.
As our Eucharist continues, let us ask God for the 2 graces of conversion and discipleship. Furthermore, may the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Ignatius Loyola help us to ensure that these 2 graces bear abundant fruit in our lives.
Deacon Roland Muzzatti January 23-24, 2021