As the weeks after Easter pass I find myself intrigued by the question of conversion. In the Easter week readings we were confronted with disciples’ fear and their betrayal of Jesus. Judas sold him out to the authorities; Peter denied him; the men deserted him during the crucifixion; when it was all over, the community gathered in fear and trembling behind locked doors. Hardly the stuff of legend!
Yet now, as we read the Easter Season scriptures, we find the disciples preaching in defiance of the authorities, travelling miles to tell the good news, and breaking boundaries fearlessly as they carry out their mission. Stephen is stoned, some of them are beaten, all of them live under threat – and they persevere. What happened?
In the Gospels and in Acts we are told that the risen Lord appears to them, that the Holy Spirit infuses them. Now, having Jesus walk into a locked room and give them his peace – that could be a transformative experience. Having the Holy Spirit descend with the sound of wind – transformative! We don’t have those experiences these days. (At least, I don’t.) I wonder when I hear those readings: How does transformation happen to us now? How can I be transformed? Can those in power (for example, our Alabama legislature, our Congress, our President) develop a heart for the poor and for peace?
I have to admit to doubts – I know my own intransigence and selfishness. Me, be transformed? I watch the legislature’s deliberations. I follow the news about still un-released Guantanamo prisoners, about “kill lists” and drone strikes. Can we be transformed? I’m a skeptic. Count me with Thomas the doubter!
There’s a great story about John Kennedy in Jim’s book JFK and the Unspeakable (Jim Douglass, Orbis, 2008). It seems there was a Quaker presence in Washington on May 1, 1962. A thousand Friends had been vigiling for two days outside the White House and the State Department, calling for nuclear disarmament and asking the President to take steps in that direction. Kennedy actually met with a delegation of six “weighty Friends” from among the picketers. (This was miracle one, of course.) They had a long and thoughtful conversation, and according to their reports, the Quakers challenged him heavily on various issues. At the end of their meeting the delegation questioned his choice of several conservatives for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Kennedy explained his strategy. He was trying to get some of them on board for disarmament. Then he looked at the Quakers with a smile and said, “You believe in redemption, don’t you?”
I love the tables-turned quality of that story, and I have to take the question seriously. Do I believe in redemption or not? Mine? Am I too lazy to take the steps that would make faith real? Kennedy’s? If he could be transformed I have to accept that other powerful leaders could also be transformed. Am I too lazy to take the steps that would make that faith real? How do we change today? How is Christ present to us, the Holy Spirit blowing on us?
Over the last few days my reading after morning prayer has been Monsenor Romero, a book of interviews and accounts of the life of Oscar Romero. (Monsenor Romero: Memories in Mosaic, Maria Lopez Vigil, Orbis, 2013.) Although I knew that Romero was a political conservative who changed, I had had no idea of the depth of that change. I’m used to thinking of him as a saint, a brave man who stood for peace and justice for the poor in an arena of war – and was killed for it. By the end of this book, that man has come into being. At the beginning of the book – not so much.
The Monsenor pictured in the first half of this account is a frightened man, a conservative man, a man ignorant of the lives of his people and subservient to the rich. It shocked me to learn that the priests and (“progressive”) people of his diocese were sad and angry at his appointment. It shocked me more to learn that he backed the government of Malina, scolding priests, sisters, and catechists who worked for justice. He must surely have been seen as beyond redemption!
We know what he became. Monsenor is an account of the Holy Spirit’s action in Romero’s life, told by those who were the instruments of that Spirit. It was through his priests and people that Romero became who he was: through listening to them, learning from them, being forgiven by them. The Holy Spirit came to him in multiple guises, many of them full of pain. He was changed almost against his will by the truth they showed him. Ultimately he paid the price many of them had paid. He was transformed.
Do I believe in redemption? Do I believe in the power of God? Same question. Am I willing to accept the nudging of the Spirit in my own life? Ultimately that’s the question raised by all these stories – Stephen, the disciples, the martyrs, and Romero. These are people who did not so much “believe” in the Holy Spirit as remain open to its promptings. They responded to God’s push, going to places they’d never been, never even wanted to be.
So, as I look at these Easter Season readings, I ask myself – Do I believe these things happened once upon a time, as an intellectual proposition, or will I open myself to the promptings of the Spirit and the appearances of Jesus in my own life, willing to go where I’m taken?
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.