Lifelong Conversion: The Dynamics of the Spiritual Life

by Tom Zanzig


Note: (1) For the purposes of this discussion I use the terms “lifelong conversion” and “dynamics of the spiritual life” as synonyms. (2) Click on the linked documents indicated in small, boldfaced type as indicated throughout the essay.

My model of lifelong conversion is, at first glance, deceptively simple. Most of us think of our life and, therefore, our spiritual journey as a kind of linear process of growth (or backsliding) from one point to another. But the reality, I believe, is that the process is really cyclic or, even better, spiral-like.

I have named four movements in that repetitive cycle, one we experience over and over again in a kind of rhythmic pattern throughout our life. The four movements, in order, are (1) hunger, (2) search, (3) awakening, and (4) response. (Cyclic Model of Conversion)  As we experience this cycle day-by-day—in fact, minute-by-minute—the process, through the grace of God, brings us deeper and deeper into the most profound mysteries of life.

I noted that my model of the spiritual life is deceptively simple. One complicating factor is that the cyclic process unfolds on multiple levels of our lives, from birth to death. I’ve named eight of those dimensions. (Dimensions of Conversion) Building on the work of the Canadian theologian, Bernard Lonergan, I identify original and new “horizons” for each dimension. If we are moving toward deepening integration and integrity as persons, we are moving toward a new horizon. When moving away from integration (in a sense, “dis-integrating”) we are moving toward the old horizon.

Since this is a lifelong journey, some dimensions predominate and others recede in influence and significance at different ages and stages of our lives. Also, as a kind of visual aid, imagine a spiral moving along the vertical line representing each dimension; this suggests that we move from the original to the new horizons (or sometimes vice versa) through the recurring rhythms of hunger/search/awakening/response.

With its strongly linear representation of each dimension, the chart summarizing the dimensions of conversion suggests a too rigid and narrow view of spiritual growth. To counter that, I offer a less linear, more organic image of the same information. (Spirituality Wheel) This representation suggests that the goal or purpose or focus of a healthful spiritual life (we struggle for words to name these realties) is movement toward full integration as persons.

Very significantly, I stress that the cyclic process and the experience of the spiritual life that it attempts to name is a universal human experience. All people in all times have gone through this process. All the major world religions try to name and celebrate (and, at times and inevitably, control or manipulate) the process in various ways. So, the obvious and critical question: What distinguishes the conversion experience for Christians? The simple but profound answer: Jesus. Jesus is, on one hand, the model par excellence of the process, the one in whom we discover how to live our humanity fully. That is, at least on one level, the very meaning and purpose of the Incarnation—to show us what it means to be fully human.

But there is more. Jesus Christ is also the One toward whom this personal growth is moving or evolving. To use the language of Teilhard de Chardin, he is the Omega Point toward which all creation is moving and converging. Look again at the Spirituality Wheel. When presenting that material in workshops or retreats I frequently click the Powerpoint and replace the term “Deepening Integration” with the name, “Jesus Christ.” This clearly moves the discussion into mystical theology. For Christians are called not only to follow Jesus but to become him, to incarnate the Spirit of God in the world today as persons, to become the Body of Christ as a community of faith. This is what I believe Paul meant when he exclaimed, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). When leading people through a retreat on this theme, I often unpack what this means in the “real world.” (No Longer I Who Lives)

And there is still more. Christians are convinced that we can only fully experience this process and pursue it in depth in communion with other disciples. This is what it means to be church, a community of disciples committed to growing in relationship with God the Father through Jesus in the Spirit. I’ve created a chart that summarizes how conversion takes place in and through the community of faith. (Conversion & Community) Some Christian denominations sacramentalize that communal and personal experience; through words, symbols, and gestures they communally lift up, name, and celebrate the conversion process.

        My model of the conversion process and the dynamics of the spiritual life, finally, suggests many insights and guiding principles for ministry and those who lead it. The final handout lists a number of principles that I hope, in light of even this brief overview of my theory, are rather self-explanatory. (Nurturing Conversion--Ten Principles)