A pilgrim in search of pure water beside a fountain of bitter water. If he drinks it, he runs the risk of poisoning his soul and his brother’s so that he will no longer be able to accept mutual differences or listen to a different message.
By drinking, he may come to the place where he will believe that he alone is right, that he somehow has been installed as God’s only spokesman and right-hand magistrate. If he drinks of this bitter water, he risks a place in the hell of those who never thirst.
The pilgrim moves on. Suddenly a deep, majestic river flows swiftly before his eyes. Its beauty grips him, tempting him to make a permanent home on its bank. He notices that he would have a lot of company along its bank; it feels good to be with others, with family, surrounded by ancient habits and customs and traditions. But the river is polluted. It runs too close to the city. So it, like the bitter fountain, doesn’t meet the needs of the pilgrim. “These waters are bound up with men,” he muses; “but I must have water from on high if I am to survive.”
The pilgrim must continue his travel. He walks, walks farther— A true pilgrim never stops, because, headed for eternity, his existence is one of perpetual renewal. He decides to leave the throng of travelers, seeking out the ancient paths which had been lost. Conversion is his choice. No, not that despicable surrender, not that cowardly act that conversion often connotes!
A true, complete conversion is something else. It restores the converted one to his roots, recovers the ancient image, reconciles the creature with his Creator. Genuine conversion has been the purpose of biblical meditation throughout its history. The Sacred Book owes its existence, in fact, to conversion.
Abraham, the father of the faithful, had to pass along that road. For him conversion was not easy. It involved, first of all, the sacrifice of his own past, which he admitted to have been in vain, foolish, and false. Conversion required that he would abandon his former habits of thought and conduct, which had been dear to him. It took him from his native land, from his customs, from his material and spiritual comforts. It rang a bell of departure and of a new beginning.
However, in this struggle solitude was the hardest test of all. Other trials remained constant, with little change. The same routine, the same road came with each rising sun. Thoughts, gestures, and work changed little. Could that be a kind of difficulty everyone on the conversion road experiences? It is difficult, too, to make changes—to be converted— because then one becomes different. And that difference is a heavy burden in the midst of people who are ever ready to condemn a stranger. Abraham had become the stranger, the permanent stranger, simply because he had been spoken to from on high and had answered Yes!
Some 2000 years later, Saul of Tarsus, the first and the greatest theologian produced by Christianity, had to go through the same experience. Pharisee and son of a Pharisee, he had studied at the feet of the great Gamaliel. He took pride in his lineage and training, and rightly so. A very decisive and determined man, Saul attacked and pursued people he considered to be dangerous heretics. He had the zeal of his convictions.
Yet, the day came when he, a doctor endorsed by Jerusalem, understood his mistake. Necessity forced him to sit again on the learner’s bench. His life then changed. Henceforth he would travel from continent to continent in order to announce to the world the truth that had turned his life literally upside down. He was no longer the same well-organized official with an insured future. He set out upon the highways of the Greco-Roman world often not knowing where God would lead him, led only by his unshakable faith in the invisible. Once converted, Paul too became a stranger, bringing upon himself countless perils, including that of uncertainty. But his conversion also ushered in a strong faith in a God still ready to do the works of salvation.
Between these two men who became the chief human instruments of the Judeo-Christian revelation streams a vast people of strangers: Israel. The story of this people is nothing more than a story of perpetual conversion. Israel is not allowed to settle down in religion. To do so, becoming merely citizens of an earthly commonwealth, would be dangerous. Kings, priests, and prophets continually encouraged Israel to return to the old paths, exhorting the people to repent. Occasionally, the idols that had found their way into the habitations had to be destroyed. At other times, the purification of hearts was the chief concern. One only has to recall the revolutions brought by a David, a Josiah, or a Nehemiah to get the full drift of Israel’s story. The messages of Elijah the prophet, of Amos and Jeremiah, reveal the heart of Israel’s destiny.
The people were constantly brought back to fundamentals. They never were allowed to settle down in an easy peace and compromise. Nor could they rest on the laurels of their ancestors. They had to take up the struggle every morning, constantly renew the covenant with God, daily sing a new song. It was not easy to be Israel, but it was thrilling! The mystery of Israel’s election lay precisely in this never-ending conversion. Lectured to continuously, reprimanded unceasingly, Israel was constantly forced to call its very existence into question and to be ready always to make the needed correction: its conversion.
In the Bible conversion is represented as the highest possible life ideal. Possibly this is why nomadism is considered in Hebrew civilization as the outstanding virtue. The Levites, God’s priests, were not permitted the right to put down roots anywhere. They thus made sure that material security would not blind their eyes to life’s true values.
Israel as a whole had to undergo the teaching device of the desert, which later became a subject of nostalgia for the prophets (Hosea 2:16; Ezekiel 20:35-37). Those were the “good old days,” when Israel, still a young betrothed, was experiencing the first love. Toward this spiritual golden age Israel’s aspirations turned periodically when a special need was felt for repentance and reconsecration.
Whoever would follow in the biblical furrow must bend to this way of continual conversion. It is not primarily a question of passing from one religion to another—for a new baptism, for a betrayal of the faith. The point is simply to recognize, as did men and women of old, that one has lost his or her way. The need is for humility and courage to turn back, to consult the sources, to examine oneself, and to align oneself with the will of God. Conversion is not treason when it means to join up again with the fathers. Conversion is rather the fulfillment of the last prophecy of Malachi, who was to close the long line of Israel’s prophets, a prophecy that concerns the time of the end, possibly ours: “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6 [3:24 in Hebrew]; NKJV).
Image: Abraham's departure by József Molnár. Public Domain