Monday of the First Week of Lent
Convert us, O God our salvation,
and, so that we may profit by this work of forty days,
form our minds by Thy heavenly instruction.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever.
Convert Us, O God
Today’s Collect is unusual in that it begins directly with a verse from Psalm 84: “Convert us, O God our salvation” (Ps 84:5). A dangerous request. One has to be bold and not a little foolish to make such a prayer, or distracted, or inattentive to what one is saying, or lulled by pious routine into thinking that words are just words and that the things we say to God are, in the final analysis, without any real effect on our lives. “Convert us, O God our salvation” (Ps 84:5). What if God were to take us seriously and do it?
Note that we do not say, “Help us to convert ourselves”; that would be a safe little prayer. It would leave us free to turn to God and away from sin at our own pace, in our own way. It would leave us a margin of comfort and a way out of what Saint Benedict calls “the things that are hard and repugnant to nature in the way to God” (RB 53:8). But that is not what the psalm says nor is it what the Church makes us pray today. Instead, if we are obedient to the “givenness” of the liturgy, we are obliged willy-nilly to take a deep breath and say what, left to ourselves, we would not have the courage to say: “Convert us, O God our saviour” (Ps 84:5).
Do Thou In Us Things We Dare Not Do
This prayer makes the old self in us tremble with fear. The old self senses that, by uttering such a prayer, its days are numbered and its very existence threatened. We are asking God to do in us the hard things that we dare not do. We are asking God to take away from us the very things from which we cannot bear to part. We are asking God to intervene, to step in, turn us around, and change us. There is nothing reassuring, nothing cozy, nothing safe about such a prayer. It makes us vulnerable. Who is to say what God will do once we have given Him permission to convert us?
Deus, Salutaris Noster
But there is something else in that one line. We pray, “Convert us, O God our salvation” — Converte nos, Deus salutaris noster. The God we ask to convert us is our healing, our wholeness, our restoration to well-being. We approach him then as one sick approaches a physician, saying, “Do whatever is necessary to make me well.” The remedy may be painful. It may involve a long therapy or a regime of medication with unpleasant side effects. It may require incision, surgical removal of the affected parts or even amputation. In giving God permission to treat us, to convert us, we focus not on the treatment but on its end result: health, wholeness, peace of mind and heart, holiness.
My translation of a Lenten Office hymn puts it this way:
The hidden wound whence flow our sins,
Wash clean by bathing in the tide;
Remove the things that, of ourselves,
We cannot reach, or put aside.
Should God answer our prayer what sort of things might we expect? Hearts purged of the thorns of hatred and of the need to plot revenge. Revenge? Not in a monastery, you say! Alas, even in a monastery, one can find the sickening sweetness of revenge irresistible.
I speak not of enormous, violent acts, but of the little act of vengeance, the barely perceptible act of revenge. “Aha! He got what was coming to him!” In monasteries nowadays we rarely seek revenge overtly. Monks no longer brandish the sword or conceal the dagger. Abbots are no longer ambushed on the dormitory staircase; prioresses no longer poisoned at their own table. We are content with the nasty little pinch, the discreet pinprick, the razor-like word, the withering glance. Ask God to convert you, and all of that will have to go.
The Pet Grudge
Grudges too will have to disappear. However fond you may be of your precious little pet grudge, it is incompatible with conversion. Ask God to convert you and the grudge you have been cherishing and feeding with tidbits picked up here and there is doomed to extermination.
Sins of Omission
Finally, should God answer our prayer for conversion, we will find ourselves strangely sensitive to a category of sins that often goes unconfessed: sins of omission, things left undone. Jesus refers to them in today’s gospel: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Mt 25:45).
Sins of omission are the result of spiritual blindness or selective vision. Either I fail to see or I choose not to see. Once God sets about converting us, turning us around, we begin to see the good things we could have done and did not, the good words we could have said but failed to say. With seeing, of course, comes the responsibility of doing. Ask God to convert you and expect to see occasions of grace where you have never seen them before.
Change Me, O God
Benedictines vow conversion of life. It can be understood in two ways: first, as a solemn promise to live in state of repentance, embracing the things that turn one away from sin and help one to live facing God; and second, as a bold and almost reckless permission given God to change oneself, to do in one whatever one cannot do in oneself, and this not for a limited time or season, but hour by hour and day by day for as long as this time of earthly testing lasts.
A Prayer One Cannot Afford Not to Say
“Convert us, O God our salvation” (Ps 84:5). I would not dare utter this prayer were it not given me by the Word of God and placed on my lips by the liturgy. But because it is in the Scriptures, because it is given us by the Church today, I cannot afford not to say it. He who inspired it will fulfill it. And He who will fulfill it is merciful, even as He is holy.