He might have blinding lights and inaudible voices to bring him to his knees but I have something Paul doesn’t have—a photograph of my conversion.Photo might follow if I can get the scanner to work! Here it is, just after dawn, in Venice, the summer of 1980, waiting to get into the Youth Hostel. I was desperate, at my lowest, loneliest ebb, an ardent atheist, sick to the stomach, feeling utterly alone in an empty universe, not seeing a way to get through the day. I knew I had to take the shot. A few minutes later I was sitting on cold marble at the back of a church, emptying from its morning mass, praying, turning to a God I didn’t believe in, for I’m not sure what… help surely, hope maybe, peace? I was undone when I found all three.
Now of course, once I was feeling better I forgot all about the embarrassing lapse and got on with the day, with life. And that might have been that, were it not for the photograph and the next ebbing of the inner tide, and the one after that…
What I share with Paul, I suppose I share with each of you too. Conversion is only begun and never ended. It feels safe to look back on the darkness of that Venetian morning because that particular shadow no longer threatens in the same way… yet other obscurities have taken its place. There are different darknesses to turn away from but the turning away isn’t what makes the difference – it’s the turning to, the turning towards. I’m probably lying when I say that Venetian shadow no longer has a hold on my heart – the coldness of soul it signifies is always a tempting fix when the tide is going out.
Conversion, I’ve found, isn’t a clocking up of milestones, of faults fixed, human growth grasped, or sinfulness set aside. What we turn away from doesn’t go away. But then neither does what we turn to. And that ‘what’ is really a ‘who’: not an ideal, not a standard to meet, not even the beckoning of our best selves, but someone, someone real we turn to, who has always been turned towards us. Our turning towards life takes a lifetime… because our living takes a lifetime. But God’s turning to us is complete and constant. God’s gaze is always there to meet ours when we glance Godward, a gaze that intrigues, attracts, and defeats our defended hearts. And even when the tide is ebbing that makes all the difference.