The Relationship Between Spiritual and Moral Conversion
Spiritual conversion connects us with the heart of Christ – and this trusting and loving connection opens the way to all the other gifts of the “inner church”. The gifts of the “inner church are as listed below.
- peace beyond all understanding
- guidance from the Holy Spirit
- transformation in the heart of Christ
- sensus fidei
- sensus fidelium
- the sense of spiritual community (Koinōnia)
Spiritual conversion occurs through regular participation in four major services of the “outer church”, which are as listed below.
- reception of the Holy Eucharist in Holy Mass
- listening to the Word of God
- contemplative prayer
- participation in other forms of complementary inspiration
All of these gifts and perfection of the inner and outer church – given through the Holy Spirit – free us and help us toward moral conversion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this as follows:
It is not easy for man, wounded by sin, to maintain moral balance. Christ’s gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues. Everyone should always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow his calls to love what is good and shun evil. (CCC 1811)
Our close connection with the heart of Christ that catalyzes the spiritual gifts of the inner church gradually transforms us — conforming us ever more closely to the heart of Christ. St. Paul speaks of this transformation as moving from the fleshly man to the spiritual man (Rom. 8:5-11) – or moving from the old nature/man to the new nature/man (Eph. 4:17-24):
Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer Live as the Gentiles [ethnē – unbelievers] do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. Put off your old nature [man — anthrōpon] which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature [man – anthrōpon], created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
This quotation gives us the key to resisting temptation through Christian faith because we need only replace “thinking with our lower self” (our “fleshly self” or “the old man”) with “thinking through our higher self” (our “spiritual self” or “the new man”).
Christians are not consigned to resisting temptation by using a stoic act of the will – a “no” to temptation; we can much more effectively fight temptation by simply moving our thought process from our lower to our higher self.
Moral conversion – detachment from egocentricity and sensual pleasure — presents a significant challenge. St. Paul tells us that it is likely to be a struggle even for those dedicated to holiness (like himself) until the end of our lives. This does not mean that moral conversion will not become simpler and habitual over the course of time – for it certainly will. It means only that we must be vigilant until our dying day – ready to ask for forgiveness from the Lord of love when we fail and encounter setbacks. In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul proclaims in exasperation:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:15-25).
Saint Paul wrote this passage when he was a mature Christian in 58 A.D. – 23 years after his conversion in 35 A.D. and 9 years before his martyrdom in 67 A.D. Even after 23 years, he was tempted by various deadly sins – though it is difficult to identify which ones they were beyond his self-disclosed sin of pride (see 2 Cor. 12: 7).
Nevertheless, as the Pauline author implies in the Letter to the Ephesians cited above (Eph. 4: 23-24) – we should continually try to replace the “old man” – our inclination toward the deadly sins — with the “new man” – our identification with Jesus and the virtues he espoused:
Put off your old nature [man] which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature [man], created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Spiritual conversion frequently precedes moral conversion because the closer we are to Jesus in relationship and prayer (spiritual conversion) the more we will want to imitate him in thought, word, virtue, and action (moral conversion).
Yet the relationship between spiritual and moral conversion is not that simple. As we become more proficient at resisting temptation and living the Christian virtues (moral conversion), we open the way to an even deeper relationship with the Lord through prayer and sacraments (deeper spiritual conversion) which in its term, opens the way to the final stages of moral conversion – complete self-offering to the Lord in evangelization and charitable service.
To read more on this topic, view Fr. Spitzer’s article, Moral Conversion and Resisting Temptation.