I remember quite clearly how overwhelmed I felt the first summer I ever had a homework assignment. (To this day, it still seems unjust!) It was before my junior year of high school and the teacher wanted us to read The Scarlet Letter and write a two-page essay on the book. I was beside myself. After reading two chapters, I begged my dad to let me switch into the easier section. “I can’t do it!” He denied my request. I wrote the paper, got a B in the course, and ended up learning just about everything I know about writing that year. I hate it when dads are right.
When I look back on that time, it makes me laugh a bit because I would kill to have such an easy assignment. This semester, I have four different classes that require a two-page paper every week, and seem to be handling it “okay”! Who I am today, and what I am capable of, is far beyond what was the case when I was 16. The same has been true at every stage of my life: At each new level, I started off overwhelmed with all that I couldn’t do, only to find that, with time and training, I was able to do it.
The reason I tell this story is not to show how great of a learner I am or even to spout the cliché that “you can do anything you set your mind to!” No. (I thought that Calculus was overwhelming when I started it and I will forever believe that it is overwhelming. Growth doesn’t always happen.) What I am trying to say is that we are often more capable of growth than we realize, and more importantly, that conversion often takes a long time.
I look to my life as a Christian and a Franciscan friar as another example. Today, I live a fairly ascetical life compared to what I did in college. I have less freedom, less time, spend less money, and own fewer things. I prayer at least three times per day. I have more than one time looked at my life and decided to something much more inconveniently or uncomfortably in order to be more energy conscious. If college me would have looked at the way I live now, with all of the many things I have picked up over the years as a way to live out my call to discipleship, I would have been absolutely overwhelmed. I can’t do it!
Do you know what? Four years ago, that was true. There is no way that I could have taken on four years worth of conversions at one time, redefining every aspect of my life all at once. And yet, here we are. I am living this way and I am loving it. I am a person today that is no longer overwhelmed with the same demands of Christian discipleship as I was yesterday. Conversion has taken place, and in some cases, it took four years (some things will probably take much longer!)
So what does this have to do with anything? Very simply, small conversions amount to big ones over time. We may look at someone like St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa and say, “There is no way that I could ever be that holy, that devoted to Christ.” And you’re right: Right now, you can’t. But just remember, at one time, St. Francis was just Giovanni “Francesco” Bernardone, an arrogant kid in nice clothes that wanted the glory of being a knight; at one time, Mother Teresa was just Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, a little Albanian girl admiring the lives of missionaries. They weren’t always saints. Over a lifetime they learned to live radically for the Gospel, one step at a time, until they had become a completely changed person from when they started.
The same can absolutely be true for us. We are all called to be saints. Really. Do you think that you could be a saint? Probably not if you focus on just the finished product. As a sixteen-year-old, I couldn’t even see myself writing one two-page paper over the entire summer let alone four per week. And yet, here we are. Jesus doesn’t ask of us perfect discipleship all at once, but he does ask that we face what challenges us today with a step forward. It may not be a big step, but small steps over a lifetime makes for quite a journey. May we, like the saints, use every moment we’re given to learn to live each moment more radically than the last.