Life’s experiences of brokenness can be doorway to Lenten conversion

By Richard B. Patterson Ph.D. | Catholic News Service

When I hear the word “conversion,” I immediately tend to think of persons who became Catholic but were not born and raised Catholic.

Those converts chose to be Catholic. Some may have done so for reasons having nothing to do with the church. My grandfather, for example, apparently converted from the Presbyterian Church so that he could marry my Irish Catholic grandmother. There are others who convert because they found something within Catholicism that drew them.

Conversion points to a process of transformation, a change in something essential. Related words and phrases include metanoia (a change of consciousness), spiritual awakening and redemption. Literally, conversion means “to turn to.”

People hike in Los Angeles May 9, 2020. Life’s experiences of brokenness can be a doorway to Lenten conversion, writes clinical psychologist Richard B. Patterson. To truly convert requires action, he says. “It is not a passive process.” (CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)

Some indeed turn to a new spiritual path. But for many of us, the possibility of a new path is thrust upon us, arising out of a place of spiritual and psychological brokenness. In the depths of despair, we may be offered a path of healing and, ultimately, transformation. But we must choose to be open to that conversion.

For some — such as St. Paul or Bill W., the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous– this transformation may occur dramatically and in an instant. But for many of us, the process of conversion is experienced quietly and gradually over time. The invitation to conversion doesn’t come in a burst of light but slowly, as if through a whisper, just as Elijah experienced in his moment of fearful brokenness (1 Kgs 19:11–12).

There are many different experiences of brokenness that can be a doorway to conversion, including addiction, trauma, depression and facing one’s death.


The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous had the wisdom to point out the strong spiritual component to addiction. Essentially, when addicted, we have made something — alcohol, drugs, sex, porn, etc. — our god. When troubled, we turn to our god. When happy, we turn to our god. We look for release. We look for comfort.

And, for the short term, that god works for us! But that god comes with a price: loss of family or employment, financial crisis, legal problems, isolation, shame and especially the spiritual equivalent of cancer, self-hatred. In the midst of such turmoil, some addicts choose to confront their addictions and seek help.

Addicts soon learn that the conversion from addiction is only the beginning. For addicts, the process of conversion is ongoing — a process of fearless self-awareness and gratitude, which continues for a lifetime.

I often wonder about the Gospel story of the healing of the 10 lepers. Jesus heals all 10, yet only one returns to express gratitude. Jesus never seemed to me to be a person who reveled in the gratitude of those he healed. So why did he ask the 10th leper, “Where are the others?”

For me, there is an important lesson in that story. Jesus, I believe, was pointing out to the 10th leper, and to us, that the removal of the scars of leprosy was only a beginning and that, to continue to heal, the lepers would have to continue the work of conversion. This would include ongoing gratitude.

Concerning addiction, conversion involves turning to sobriety — learning how to work at a sober spiritual life with honesty and gratitude.


Traumas are those life events that turn our worlds upside down and become so powerful that a day does not pass without that trauma exerting its influence through intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and nightmares.

Today, there is more awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many think of combat veterans, but the sufferers also include victims of other types of violence, including sexual abuse and political oppression. There also are those who lost a loved one in a traumatic manner. Other life traumas include divorce, loss of employment, hospitalization, etc.

With many trauma victims I meet, they may ask, “Will I ever be able to forget what happened?” My answer is always, “No, but you will be able to heal and take back some of the power that trauma has over you.” It is that hopeful step toward healing that becomes a conversion for many trauma victims. This conversion is a turning to healing and empowerment and away from fear and anguish.

I think of a young man I knew some years ago. He had been repeatedly molested by his parish priest and was badly traumatized. He had stopped going to Mass because of crowds but also because he would feel deep anger, especially when the priest raised the host at the consecration. “I would see that priest doing the same thing on the day after he molested me!” he told me.

This young man drew upon not only his courage but also his creativity to heal. He painted a picture in which there was the headless form of a priest. But in the corner of his painting was a white disc that I assumed was the sun. “No,” he said, “that’s the Eucharist. I still believe in the Eucharist, and it gives me hope.” In choosing a path of conversion rather than bitterness, this young man opened new doors. He joined a support group and became sober. Eventually he went back to school and now works as a counselor himself.

A conversion from trauma is a turning to an inner place of safety, hope and perhaps forgiveness.


Depression may be the most common form of brokenness. It is a place where there is no joy, energy or motivation. It is a place where God can seem silent; it is a dark place with little hope.

Most of us have faced bouts of depression, which can be defined in many ways and can be caused by many different circumstances. For our purposes, let us simply say that depression is that physical, mental, emotional and spiritual state where there is little hope.

Most of us, when depressed, have tried different solutions: medication, therapy, even prayer. The conversion from depression occurs when we decide to have the slightest hope that our circumstances can improve or that at least we can feel better and at times enjoy life.

A true conversion from depression occurs when we make the decision to do whatever it takes to heal. That path may include difficult decisions to remove ourselves from situations and relationships that feed depression.

To truly convert requires action. It is not a passive process, even for those who experience a sudden moment of spiritual awakening; it requires some form of action.

Whatever role therapy and medication may play, the depressed person is ultimately faced with the need to change something: perhaps work on patterns of negative thinking, change the pattern of relationships in his or her life, try a different form of spiritual practice — or needs to forgive himself or herself.

A conversion from depression is a conversion to a place not only of hope but also of compassion and perhaps forgiveness of oneself.

Facing death

Facing one’s death might seem like an odd topic in discussing conversion. I have been privileged to walk with several remarkable people on part of their final journeys. They have all taught me that conversion can occur when faced with the reality of death. It is a conversion from fear, anger, and guilt to a place of peaceful acceptance.

As one man said when I asked him how he wanted to face his death: “I want to look forward to stepping into the light.”

I witnessed the conversion of a man dying of AIDS. While I was sitting with him, his estranged daughter called. He responded with anger saying, “Where the hell have you been? Now you’re calling me?” Then he hung up on her.

After a moment, I asked him, “Is that how you want to deal with your daughter before you go?” He sat quietly and started to cry. “What do you want to do?” I asked.

“I want to gently help her deal with my death,” he said. He later called his daughter, and they were able to reunite before he died.

Rather than die with bitterness, he embraced the opportunity for a conversion and opened himself to a spirit of gentleness with his loved ones. He turned from a place of fear and anger to one of peace. This is the essence of conversion when facing death.

God provides opportunities

The beauty of conversion is that the Lord makes opportunities available to us. Much like Samuel, it is our choice as to whether or not we say “Here I am” in response.

For me, thankfully, I was able to say “Here I am” on a summer morning some years ago. My conversion story is not profound, but I believe it illustrates God’s patience in waiting for us to accept the opportunity. It also shows that God can use unexpected avenues to get our attention and that the moment of conversion is only the beginning.

I used alcohol for the first time when I was 14. Even then it had negative consequences: I spoke rudely to a girl I actually liked. The next day, I was so sluggish that my basketball team lost, and I was benched. So it began.

My drinking progressed to the point that it was daily. Slowly, the disease of alcoholism took hold. Thankfully, I never lost my family or a job, but self-hatred set down its roots.

In the months approaching my sobriety, I can now see that God was putting things in place, inviting me to a conversion. Those things ranged from rereading Henri Nouwen’s “The Wounded Healer” to watching a “Star Wars” film. Finally, one morning, in what was the clearest experience of God’s grace I have ever had, I decided it was time to face my alcohol problem. I decided to accept conversion.

Given my own arrogance, I waited 10 days before reaching out for help. When I told my friend, a recovering alcoholic himself, that I was trying to face my drinking, he burst into tears, saying, “God, Rich, that’s an answer to a prayer!” Through him, I began to look for help.

That moment of conversion on the morning of June 2, 1983, was indeed only a beginning. My conversion continues today as I not only try to live each day without alcohol but also strive to live a life of sobriety based on honesty and gratitude.

A year after I quit drinking, I found out I’d suffered some liver damage. Had God not blessed me with that invitation to begin conversion, I would not be writing these words.

Hugh Kerr and John Mulder put together a wonderful book titled “Famous Conversions,” a collection of conversion experiences ranging from St. Paul to the great African American singer and actress Ethel Waters. They define conversion as “a mystery of God, and the varieties of conversion experiences testify to that divine initiative seeking out those who are lost, finding them, and bringing them home.”

As a humble recipient of the gift of conversion, I am glad to be home.

Patterson is a clinical psychologist in El Paso, Texas.

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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