“Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)
I’ve been pondering this very famous line of Jesus, perhaps because I’ve been spending a lot of time with a small child lately. I’ve also been thinking about that word “conversion,” and what exactly it means.
For me, conversion entails a shift in life perspective, which may or may not be reflected in outward ceremony or recognition.
As one author I recently read put it, conversion is a change from ego-centered living to God-centered living (or Enlightenment-centered living, or other-centered living, choose your metaphor!). Someone who has been converted enters into a radically different way of interacting and viewing the world.
I describe in Choose Your Metaphor my own ‘conversion’ process, one that St. Augustine and countless others have been through. Although the specifics of each person are different, all conversion experiences seem to describe the gradual dawning that there’s something more to life than merely serving selfish desires (which, in any case, can never be fully satisfied).
A person who has ‘converted’ has looked inside themselves and asked, what really matters? What formerly seemed important might suddenly seem less so. Running after material gain and pleasure usually doesn’t hold the same appeal it once did. Staking out a place and position in the world- ‘making a name for yourself’- may seem like a Sisyphusian waste of time.
At best, any achievement will be known to a few million humans for perhaps a few centuries or millennia if you’re really brilliant (or destructive). At best, we can hope to lead a life of comfort for a few decades before the forces of death and decay inevitably overtake everything we hold most precious (including our bodies).
If these are the best-case scenarios, then we’d better start looking for other scenarios, no?!
The scenarios that a converted person will seek generally involve putting personal desires aside and seeing how one can be of service to others and the world. It’s a nice coincidence that living like this generally leads to more happiness, irrespective of any mention of God or Buddha or Krishna.
In this sense, conversion is not really about what I claim to believe, but about what I value and how I act.
For example, when I’m tired or want to read or go out with friends and my child is fussy, do I resent the fact that I now must turn my attention to him? Or do I try and be patient and present with the reality that I’m now facing?
If I have accumulated wealth, do I use that fact to elevate myself over others? Or do I look at it as a gift that I have been given, and perhaps even how I can turn that gift to benefit others?
In my prayers, hopes and intentions, do I long for status, possessions, and self-aggrandizement? Or do I humbly present myself as a servant of a larger Truth?
Instead of thinking “My will be done”, do I think “Thy Will Be Done”?
Of course, it can be difficult to spot and understand what this ineffable “will” is (God help if we meet someone claiming to know God’s will!).
But once one becomes converted away from the hollowness and suffering associated with the ego self, then situations, circumstances, and people will naturally present themselves that will facilitate one’s awakening.
I don’t know how to explain how this works, other than to say that I have seen it in my own case as well as the stories of countless others whose perspectives have been shifted despite their opposition and resistance.
And once one has had the experience, it becomes clear that every step in life- even and especially mistakes- was part of the moment when one becomes aware of what’s really going on and consciously decides to align oneself with the process.
At bottom, someone who has been ‘converted’ comes to see this life as a gift—something that as a parent, I am reminded of every day when I see just how much work it is to keep a young baby alive.
Truly, the precious nature of human life really is the most important thing we can keep in mind. If we can open our eyes, and be converted to see the world as little children, then we see the joy, wonder, and gratitude of this gift present in every situation and event.