Many years ago in high school one of my classmates was William Johnston, who went on to become a Jesuit missionary in Japan. Father Johnston became an expert on Zen, and was known worldwide through his best-selling books, such as The Still Point, Silent Music, and Christian Zen.
From his experience in learning Zen, he said that he sometimes envied the Buddhists because they are so single-minded. While Catholics were drawn in different directions in pursuit of holiness, Buddhists had just one goal, Enlightenment. Later he came to realize that Christians too could focus their pursuit of holiness on one single goal, Conversion.
Conversion is the goal the Church puts before us time and again during the season of Lent. The very first sermon of Our Lord, read on the First Sunday in Lent, is a call to conversion, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1, 15)
Repentance means a change of mind, a change of heart. Sometimes “Repent” is translated as “Change your ways”. It really means changing both your way of thinking and your way of acting.
Every day of your life you are under the influence of forces which are trying to tell you how to think and how to act. A book published in 1957, “The Hidden Persuaders”, by Vance Packard, explains how advertisers make use of psychology and motivation techniques to persuade you, without you being aware of it, that their products are the answer to your needs.
From the moment of birth we are self-centered, so the spirit of this world finds us to be ready listeners when it tries to persuade us that happiness is to be found in the pursuit of possessions, the pursuit of power and the pursuit of pleasure. But there is another Spirit which appeals to our inner self with the inspiration that happiness is to be found not in holding possessions, but in sharing them; not in dominating others, but in serving them; not in seeking pleasure, but in a spirit of self-sacrifice. These are two contrasting sets of values; the first set self-centered, the second set other-centered.
The call to conversion is a call to reject that first set of values, and embrace the second set. And conversion is not a once-off action but an ongoing process. Our Lord makes clear that it is a decision that has to be renewed day after day, and that the struggle is ongoing. “If you wish to be my disciple you have to forget yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9, 23)
The Buddhist single-minded pursuit of Enlightenment helped Father Johnston to see conversion as the central focus of the Christian life. If you can be single-minded enough to pray for your conversion each day during Lent, look in the mirror on Easter Sunday morning and you will see a new person.