This is just a short note—short by comparison since my 1985 book ‘A Process Called Conversion’ that Doubleday published in 1985 is 191 pages long. It was important to me, since I had just started writing it, by accident, when I had a heart attack that nearly finished me off. So, completing it, lying in bed for weeks and hours, not knowing whether or not I would make it, turned an attack into an adventure. So, been there, done that. Just a few observations on how conversion works.
Conversion. What is it? It is a psychological process, not necessarily a religious one. We can get to places in our lives painfully aware that things can’t keep going this way. Something has to give. Like being on a road that ends at a “T”—my road is ended—have to make a turn – which way do I go? There may be a lot of that in the coming months and year.
Back in the 1960s, during the Council, there was a sense of renewal in parishes all over the country, and a huge amount of new life, especially in the new suburbs that were springing up all over the place. Back then—1960 or so—I went at Christmas on a tourist drive with a few young Dominicans from St. Albert’s in Oakland out to Walnut Creek. Never been there. Population then—11,000. Acres and acres of walnut trees all set out in beautiful orchards. No freeways.
But that was all changing fast—and in an extraordinarily upbeat look to the future. The Vatican Council, then in session, was issuing one renewal and forward looking decree after another. We responded very enthusiastically. And bigtime, arrogant, confident, enthusiasm in the life of youngsters still figuring out which way is up is probably as good a picture of chaos as boring as you can come up with.
The movements and the groups that came out of these days really created the suburban American parish. Four movements. The parish-based Christian Family Movement—veterans, young families and kids—was the oldest and the human base for all of them. I want to mention three others, all important. The Charismatic Renewal; the Cursillo; the Marriage Encounter. They were all weekend-away, group programs. And, looking back to the T in the Road, what they were, were functionally conversion-precipitating programs. Each, in a different way, opened people up to a personal awareness that facing that T at the end of road was very difficult, and also a really common experience. The leading folks shared their own personal experiences of how personal and tough it could be. And then, again using experiences, gave them an upbeat and hopeful alternative—the methods tried and tested in this group all over. And invited them to come in, experience its benefits, often by coming to group meetings. But what they all presented were functional pictures at how they worked in the lives of people. They were conversion-precipitating movements, but they also had the safety of being Catholic and parish based in origin. And people all over the country took part.
Back here in the late 60s beginning my teaching after two years in Philadelphia as an NIMH Fellow, at Penn Med School’s psychiatric department working in their marriage counseling clinic, friends talked me into attending a Marriage Encounter weekend. I did, and it seemed useful so I ended up starting the Marriage Encounter movement in the five dioceses of Northern California. Directed it for two years, and by the time I wore out, 10,000 couples had taken part. For some it seemed really helpful. There was a lot of groupie and party-line stuff, sort of enthusiastically wacky, worked into the weekend experience. But given that it gave mostly young, overworked couples a rationale to value their own relationship and private time; and gave their own relationship an equal importance in the midst of all those kids, it could be worth it. So, I set it up and directed it for two years (in my spare time) and when I bailed out two years later 10,000 couples had taken part in it. In addition to teaching I was also prior of our house at the Graduate Theological Union at the same time. No wonder I had a heart attack at 50.
But my point. These conversion movements and experiences are not essentially religious. They are human, and best explained for me as a psychological process that helps people get beyond being stuck in life by giving them an option for picking up and going on again. Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a story about his own inner turmoil and conversion. What was he converted to? Violence. Killing Jews. Getting even. Hating the right people. Psychologically, it was the Nazi Charismatic Renewal.
In times of turmoil there always seem to be merchants of conversion, peddling their group action as a way to get yourself going again—and going with us and all our group confidence. The Klan gave that to disheartened people very successfully. And I suspect that we will see that again. There are going to be a lot of people—millions, probably—wondering where and how they went wrong. And, sadly, actually convinced that they did go wrong. And there will be preachers with promised ways to get going again, ways that have all the answers. How do you spot them and their spiel? Flags, banners, slogans, group action, marching songs—and often, real discipline within the group. In times of terrifying stress, it can be appealing.