John Wesley’s Conversion

Well, I have returned. You will have to forgive me if I haven’t adequately kept up with all of the recent controversies. As some of you may remember, I got married at the beginning of this month and we are still unpacking. My wife and I are very grateful for your prayers. I really don’t plan on blogging extensively about my personal life (although, as I write this, I realize that I do like reading Todd’s travelogues). But, if we are to speak of God, we must speak from where we are, not some idealized world where we might dream in Latin and magically float above all the messiness of the here and now. I once quoted Esther de Waal on the value of stability in the Benedictine life, “The man or woman who voluntarily limits himself or herself to one building or a few acres of ground for the rest of life is saying that contentment and fulfillment do not consist in constant change, that true happiness cannot necessarily be found anywhere other than in this place and this time.”

So, I do want to say that I am in an interchurch marriage – my wife is a Methodist. This has meant many things, including the filling out of many forms and the completion of both Methodist and Catholic premarital counseling. But, most of all, this has meant coming to regard our situation as less of an obstacle to eventually overcome, whether through clever argumentation or something like the sheer force of love, and more of a vocation. As Monsignor Giuseppe Chiaretti, the Archbishop of Perugia, told a gathering of interchurch families, “You are carrying a kind of cross for us all: the cross which reflects the sin of divisions which are not yet healed, but which becomes for us all a warning and a reminder. ‘Explorers’, therefore, of new ways to unity in diversity, but also ‘prophets’ who urge us out of any possible indifference. … In fact, you carry very visibly in your story a sort of ‘sign of contradiction’ which can be a warning to all Christians, a bit like Jacob’s ‘limp’ or Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’. You are in effect a continuous living and painful memorial of the torn robe of Christ.”

I trust that my blogging will somehow reflect “this place and this time,” even when it is difficult. Please continue to pray for us.

And, so, I would like my first post back to be about John Wesley. In particular, I’d like to excerpt part of David Brown’s book, Through the Eyes of the Saints: A Pilgrimage Through History. Fr Brown, an Anglican priest, includes Athanasius and Anselm and Teresa of Avila and Edith Stein, but also writes about figures with whom we might be less familiar. He writes, “What attracts me to the saints is precisely their likeness to ourselves in holy imperfection, in the way in which their struggle to follow Christ demonstrates their limitations no less than their strengths under divine grace.” And so we come to Wesley.

Wesley is one of those figures who seem to inevitably bring out the amateur psychologist in us. When we hear about the 1738 conversion experience at Aldersgate that famously left Wesley’s heart “strangely warmed,” we might find ourselves remembering his recent failure as a missionary in Georgia and his embarrassment with women. When we think of the Holy Club that he had earlier founded at Oxford, we might recall his childhood and see the youthful “methodism,” as, in Fr Brown’s own words, “an attempt to re-establish the positive elements of security that his mother has provided in that troubled home.” And we might then find ourselves disappointed, in either Wesley or our own skepticism.

But what if God works through our own distinct psychologies – our own limitations? This possibility would save our interpretation of John Wesley, as well as the figures who influenced his conversion – the tormented Luther, whose preface to the Epistle to the Romans was being read at Aldersgate, and the pietistic Count Zinzendorf, whose Moravians influenced Wesley’s view of spiritual experience. It also has rather obvious ecumenical potential.

David Brown writes:

And that is what I would suggest God does with each one of us. He works through the particularities of our individual psychologies, rather than requiring the same blueprint for all. This can be seen from Wesley’s own career. Even as he listened to Luther on Romans, it was to a man with a different problem. For Wesley that experience of assurance came as an answer and corrective to a deep sense of failure in personal relationships. For Luther the primary focus was rather on the almost neurotic obsession with guilt and sin that his monastic career had hitherto created. Meanwhile, the great Moravian awakening that had taken place under Zinzendorf in 1727 was different again: unadulterated joy at the dissolving of tensions within the community.

Where our natural sympathies lie will vary from individual to individual. Some will be most attracted to Luther’s experience of conversion, others to Wesley’s, and yet others to Zinzendorf’s. But for many what is required is something quite different – perhaps even the very reverse of what was needful in Wesley’s case. So laid-back have some of us become that what is actually required is greater consciousness, not less, of the role of rules, a need to be shocked out of our self-satisfaction, and so made more open to God and to our fellow human beings. By contrast, perhaps for others what is most needful is an attack of barrenness in prayer, or failure in human relationships, for that can sometimes act as an impetus to humility and as a forceful reminder of the call to empathize with those less fortunate than ourselves. In short, there is no one answer, no one remedy that meets each individual’s situation.

It is to Wesley’s great credit that this is something which he himself came to see. Shortly before his conversion he had begun to question the faith of William Law, his erstwhile hero as a spiritual writer. However, by 1770, he could write that, although Law denied the necessity of such an experience of justification, his salvation was not in doubt. In 1779 he went further, arguing that ‘no man is finally saved without works’. Instead, he now sought in his sermons to transcend all those Reformation arguments about faith versus works. Justification and sanctification (or the ‘pursuit of perfection’, as he preferred to call it) are both required, and neither should be exalted above the other. His final judgment on his conversion thus becomes not a move from unbelief to belief, but rather from the status of servant to that of son.

Zinzendorf, who had so shaped the pattern of simple Moravian belief that played such a major part in Wesley’s great conversion experience, is sometimes claimed as the first ecumenist. Certainly the first to use the word, in that unecumenical age he refused to deny faith to the Pope himself. In our own day, do we not all need a similar charity and breadth of vision, when we consider the question of conversion? Each and every one of us stands in need of the grace of God, but we do not all need the same thing. Some of us need to discover trust; others their basic sinfulness; yet others a sense of gratitude. But all are aspects of conversion, the power of God’s grace to re-make us, not in spite of what we are psychologically, but exactly through and in what we are. It is for that recreation that we need to pray. Wesley as an old man began to develop that larger vision; so must we.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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