I have received some comments about my allusion, in the January column, to my personal conversion to Jesus. It seems to me that it is necessary to develop this theme further. The development of the "discipleship and stewardship" way of life certainly demands that we be able to articulate our personal faith.
I mentioned the Letter to the Hebrews in the previous column. Some of the arguments of that letter became very real to me — in the sense that I could see how they applied to me — in my sixth year of seminary. Seminarians, of course, attend Mass every day, and Hebrews became real to me as I heard it at Mass in late January of 1981.
When we read the Old Testament, we find, over and over, descriptions of people offering up bulls, calves and goats from their livestock as a burnt offering (sacrifice) to God. My thought, as I became acquainted with these various descriptions, was: "Those people were certainly quite unsophisticated if they thought that this was the right way to get God's attention."
Ah, those unsophisticated people. I did not have anything in common with them, did I?
I found, however, upon reflection, that in fact I had a great deal in common with these blood-stained people at their messy altars. I had been balancing the meaning of my life upon an unstable foundation. I took pride in my academic ability, and I defined myself in terms of my ability to excel. This strategy had "worked" for many years.
But there came a time when "success" was not so obvious, and I was enveloped in great frustration. All I knew was to keep trying to be "perfect." But perfectionism is a path to nowhere. The perfectionist essentially burns himself up on an altar in an attempt to prove that he has the right to be here.
The Letter to the Hebrews, particularly in chapters 9 and 10, discusses how all of our attempts at "sacrifice" — that is, our attempts to justify ourselves through our own efforts — are futile, and that we must rely upon the one sacrifice of Jesus: his self-offering, his death suffered with complete freedom and love on behalf of the salvation of all human beings.
This was a breakthrough for me. I was able to trade in my self-induced anxiety for the profound peace of being aware that Jesus has personally poured out his love upon me.
This is the situation in which the salvation given by Jesus became personal for me. Every one of us has a unique experience of our life in the sight of God. Every such experience is precious. We may find it next to impossible to articulate this experience. If the above summary seems "easy," keep in mind that I have had 35 years to reflect upon it. (And have I given up perfectionism? I wish.)
We can expect that our attempts to articulate our unique religious experience will be awkward. We take comfort in knowing that "conversion" — perceiving what may seem to be the same old reality in a new way — is the fundamental experience of Christianity. We can become more comfortable with one another as we seek understanding of others' experiences.
Our ecumenical and interreligious efforts are enhanced as we give simple witness to what God has done for us personally. We will be receptive to the experiences of others. We will be aware of our Christian faith as an irreplaceable gift.