A few months before we converted to the Greek Orthodox Church, I had a dream. In dreams, persons are houses, and this house was my own soul. I had smoothed the walls of the main rooms so that they could be written with holy icons.
I watched through my own eyes and the double-vision distance that dreams give as I tried again and again to draw a holy figure on the walls with a little piece of charcoal. I prayed and worked diligently and brought my family in to see my work and rejoice with me.
All that was on the walls were scribbles. The lines I had thought would show the visage of saints ready to be filled with light and color, were jumbles and tangles. I wept and lowered my head. On the ground under the wall were broken charcoals I had dropped.
In sadness, I went to the far wall to try again. This time I knew that I was, to put it generously, a terrible artist. I asked God for help again, and I lifted my charcoal. This time, I saw even as I wrote that the lines were scribbles. I said, “Help,” and suddenly, as though the colors were blooming outward from that wall and from the failed strength of my very best effort, an icon of the Theotokos of the Sign filled the wall, filled the world with light and color, and filled me with joy. I woke up laughing.
I share this now as I have been contemplating the question of conversion. When I began to study church history, I read about the conversion of famous leaders: Saul who became Paul, Augustine the erstwhile Platonist who became St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Constantine the power scrambler who became St. Constantine the Great. I read less at first about the great missionary saints whose humble love led to the conversion of thousands and hundreds of thousands, but in time, those stories formed my imagination, too. In the usual tendency to oversimplify, conversion was distilled into a moment: a great light and voice on the road to Damascus, the voice of a child singing, “Take up and read,” the sign of Christ that ensured victory at the Milvian bridge.
The sudden, one-time conversion is a narrative that suits movies and soundbytes and a culture that tidies its religious observations away after each meal. But like a household whose members prepare and gather and disperse several times each day, every day, the true nature of conversion is ongoing, daily, and integral to life itself.
After the first, dramatic outlines of conversion are understood, the person who wants to live a life with God finds the true pattern of conversion. Its hallmark is that it is ongoing. It’s the ever-becoming more like God that we can trace both in what we choose and what we lay aside. Conversion is what happens every day when you desire the gift of true repentance.
The signs of conversion are the dust that gathers on stories that took us captive rather than set us free, the grass that has grown over the paths we once used to run toward our own downfall. You see conversion also in the lullaby and the hug and the preparations for a gathering of friends or hours spent in the careful and prayerful choosing of words. It is the spoon to lips hoping for fire, the kneeling to receive mercy under the hem of God’s robe that fills the temple with glory. The whole earth is filled with God’s glory. We lift up our hearts to be filled with that glory like a baby bird lifts its head and waits for its food.
The measure of converting is not where a person starts, but where they’re headed. Conversion never stops because the outpouring of love all around us never ends.
“For His mercy endures forever. Alleluia.”