Conversion, holiness and the search for true beauty

Matthew 28-32 (26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

Le rire (The laugh) by Eugène Bataille, 1883, source
We spend a lot of time and money looking good on the outside. Globally, “beauty” is a $160 billion-a-year industry, encompassing make-up, skin and hair care, fragrances, health clubs, cosmetic surgery and diet pills. According to the Economist, Americans spend more each year on beauty than they do an education. Canadians spend $5 billion-a-year on cosmetics alone. Taken in moderation, there is nothing wrong with caring for how we look physically. Unfortunately, we often invest far more time, money and effort on improving our bodies - which eventually get old, die and decay - in comparison to the attention we give on developing our spiritual or inner beauty, a beauty we will carry with us for all eternity. Jesus calls each of us to develop this true beauty by growing in holiness and becoming saints. In the parable of the two sons and the vineyard, we are presented with two very different responses to this invitation.   

At times we give mere lip service to Jesus’ call to grow in holiness and become saints. When this happens, we are like the second son who who said he would go to the vineyard but never went. Jesus identifies this son with religious authorities who claim to be great religious leaders, refuse to follow Jesus. We can fall into the same trap. When I was living in Rome I used to visit an elderly couple. In their house I saw so many pictures saints, including Padre Pio - this is Italy after-all.  As the saying goes, “not everyone in Italy believes in God, but everyone believes in Padre Pio!” I said to them once that they must be fervent Catholics.  They said of course, they were 100% Catholic! Then the old lady came close to me, pointed her finger in my face, and said,“listen we are more Catholic than you!”. So I asked what Church they went to.  Their response was “oh, we haven't been to mass in 20 years”.  Just identifying ourselves as Catholic, whether it for cultural or other reasons, isn’t enough. When we simply try to do the bare minimum in our spiritual life and not take any steps to grow in holiness, we give lip service to Jesus’ call.

Like the first son in the parable, we are to have an attitude of conversion. He initially said no to serving, but then had a change of heart and went to do his father’s will.  Jesus explains that the tax collectors and prostitutes fit into this category. Their actions were a sign they had said no to living as God commanded. Unlike the religious leaders, however, when they met Jesus they experienced a conversion and chose to follow Him. We should follow their example. Sometimes conversion involves a change from a bad life to a good one. For example, I once met a middle-aged man who has a shaved head and arms covered in tattoos. Some years ago he had a dramatic conversion that caused him to leave a life of crime and sin. He now spends most of his time serving the poor. Another type of conversion - also extremely important but unfortunately not enough emphasized - is from living a good life to living a better life. We find a famous example in the life of St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic and reformer. As a teenager she chose to follow Jesus and was already living a good life. At the same time, however, she had certain weaknesses such as an immoderate interest in popular fiction about knights and chivalry, as well as an excessive care for her physical appearance. These things held her back from following Christ. One day, she had a conversion, choosing to follow Jesus more closely and live a better life, breaking some of her bad habits and spending more time in prayer.

As followers of Jesus, our lives should be marked by an attitude of ongoing conversion. Ongoing conversion is nothing other than a desire to grow in inner beauty. We should always desire to change, transforming ourselves to become more and more like Jesus. In short, we should want to become saints!   If this desire is lacking, something is amiss in our spiritual lives. Love is always dynamic, it is always growing. When we follow Jesus, there is no level ground, we are either moving up or moving down. We can consider three degrees of moral conversion.
  1. First degree: conversion from mortal sin. Mortal sin is a freely chosen rejection of God. For example, murder, adultery, hatred, blasphemy, and grave injustice. If one continues in this rejection, it ends in freely chosen eternal disaster. This conversion is a dramatic 180 degree change from a life that leads away from God to one where we desire to be in relationship with Him and follow His commandments.
  2. Second degree: conversion from willed venial sins. Though venial sins do not destroy our relationship or love with God and neighbor, they do wound it. Examples include gossip, overeating, rudeness and impatience. In this conversion, we recognize our faults, desire to change and make steps to do so.
  3. Third degree: living as the saints did, loving God and neighbour without limit. This involves giving oneself beyond the call of duty and going all the way for God. The spiritual writer, Fr. Thomas Dubay explains that at “this stage of growth these individuals are not simply rather better than ordinary good folk - they are vastly superior in sheer goodness”.
Though each of us is weak and our lives very much a “work in progress”, we should never lose sight of the fact that we are all called to this third degree of conversion.

Holiness, which is true, eternal beauty, is something worth spending time and effort to develop. Let us not be like the second brother in the parable who did not take this call to conversion seriously. Today lets spend some effort on looking good on the inside. Try to identify one area in your life you want to work on. Perhaps it is one bad habit you want to root out or one virtue you want to develop. Let us make ongoing conversion a way of life and becoming saints our greatest dream. For, as the french novelist Leon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”