The etymology of “conversion” and “conversation” are similar. From Latin roots, “con” means with or together; “ver” or “vertere” is a reference to turning or changing; “sion” or “sation” implies an action. Converting or conversing, then, is an act of turning in a different direction because of engagement with another or others. “Ver” or “verit” also means truth in the same mother tongue; while “con,” though in most languages means with, in ours it means against. Perhaps, through conversational dialogue, discussion, debate, even disagreement, and discernment, we push back and forth, with and against, in hopes of turning together to a truth that prompts us to act in a different way than we did before.
Cultural directives, like the Nike motto, “Just Do It,” and Elvis’ famous lyrics, “a little less conversation…a little more action,” suggest that we sometimes talk about matters so much that it keeps us from experiencing life. But a better life involves balance between action and reflection. Jesuit spirituality promotes the action-reflection model in service learning. In other words, when we engage in the world, it is good to reflect upon it with others to discuss what we did, saw, heard, experienced, etc., so that we can go out again to serve with deeper awareness and, hopefully, make a greater impact. By sharing stories through conversation, we gain increased insight from others; through prayerful discernment we become open to God’s spirit and other good spirits working through us, with us, in and around us. By conversation, then, we experience conversion to a better understanding of our surroundings and our society. And that will steer us to a deeper truth.
Next month (next year), at Rockhurst, I will participate with colleagues in some opportunities that promote conversation and conversion. One offering is a podcast that will discuss significant issues to our faith; another is a series of interactions with people who live, learn, work, and/or worship in the heart of Kansas City, especially along Troost Avenue, site of the future Alvin Brooks Center for Faith-Justice. I will be taking it to the streets to share the perspectives of those who are invested daily in urban living and who have witnessed the conversion along Troost in recent decades. I look forward to expanding my understanding through heart-of-the-city engagement with neighbors, coworkers, former strangers, future friends, and fellow sojourners. It is my hope that the conversations lead to conversion in the way I and others view things, even in the way I understand my faith as it is lived out on asphalt and concrete, in shops and service agencies, amidst other citizens who, like you and me, want a healthier, happier, holier, and more wholesome city to pass along to the next generation.
Advent and Christmas are times for conversion through stories of mystical spirits and magical energy. Films, movies, shows, music, carols, hymns, seasonal novellas, bible passages, and holiday characters—they are all part of the story, part of the conversation, and part of our year’s end call to conversion. It is good to return to them at this time because they prompt our act of turning together to discover a deeper truth of a deeper reality found in this blessed season. Before flipping the calendar of our life to a new chapter with hope-filled resolutions for a better life in the year that awaits, we pause and pray that we are tuned in to the right voices. For religious people, that means turning to God, first, foremost, frequently, and faithfully. Prayer is how the most important conversations take place and where the real conversion occurs. While visions of sugarplums and dreams of peace on earth swirl around us like snowflakes dancing in chilled air, let’s not wander from the reason for the season, the reality of God in our midst, for it will guide every season of our lives.