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The Desire for Conversion

Catherine Chalier


I will open my secret with the harp. (Ps. 49:5)

Philosophy has given little thought to conversion; it seems to consider it the expression of a curious faith, and as such, foreign to that theoretical spirit of universal intent that guides it. Even phenomenology, while inclined to describe, in a concrete way, without any exclusive a priori, how the real presents itself to a consciousness that intends it in all its lush and endless luxuriance, skips over it in silence. Thus it falls to historical, sociological or psychological approaches to deal with it, though they run the considerable risk of dissolving the phenomenon into a network of determinations that make us lose sight of its singularity. Now this lack of attention to conversion on the part of philosophy is indicative of a more decisive exclusion: that of spirituality. The thinkers who still take an interest in spirituality, are often viewed with suspicion as being in league with the imaginary and the irrational. They must be guilty of having broken the scientific pact that a work of philosophy is supposed to honor when reflecting on the conditions to be fulfilled in order to distinguish between relative and unreliable opinion, on the one hand, and precise, well-argued, rigorous thought on the other. But if what is to be understood by spirituality is the search, practice, and experience through

2 which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth, should philosophy be so suspicious of it? Indeed, seen from this perspective, spirituality teaches that it is the seekers of truth themselves who must be transformed in order to approach it. There can be no truth without a conversion or transformation of the subject.1 If, in order to become capable of truth, a long and difficult work performed on oneself proves to be indispensable, it will not do to simply disqualify spirituality in order to satisfy the requirements of truth vis--vis oneself. The philosophers of Classical Antiquity knew this. They did not view conversion as irrational obscurity somehow antagonizing the clarity of reason, but as a philosophical requirement. The search for truth implied changing ones life, and, conversely, an insight into truth transformed the subject. Thus spirituality had its place in philosophy. A conversion was required of anyone desirous of becoming a philosopher. Although of course our conception of philosophy is no longer that of the Classical Age, for a variety of reasons, particularly because since Descartes and Kant thinkers have become convinced that the human subject no longer needs to be transformed in order to accede to certaintynevertheless we may be permitted to question the appropriateness of confining the conversion of the self required by spirituality to the religious domain. Moreover, there remain fields of human knowledge in which, at the very moment when the idea of truth is shaken to its foundations, a work upon oneself continues to prove indispensible in order that what we sayin the area of self-knowledge, for examplemay truly become meaningful and shed light. Thus, even in a time of nihilism (ambient or militant), psychoanalysis, but also morality and politics, if

Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France, 1981-1982 , trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005), 15.

3 they are not to remain empty words or uncertain endeavors, continue to maintain a connection that is fruitful, albeit fraught with risk to itself, with spiritual conversion.

In the following pages, the itineraries of conversion that will be described, at the heart of the great historical suffering of the twentieth century and the spiritual desert crossed by many, are not exclusively philosophical. However they may differ from one another, the search for truth driving Franz Rosenzweig, Henri Bergson, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton and Etty Hillesum is inextricably intertwined with the thread of their desire for God, forming a bond as deep as it is fecund through the works it has engendered. This quest and this desire pass, for each of the above, through a face-to-face confrontation with the burning question of conversion. Conversion of oneself and conversion to God; a conversion to a religion into which one was born but that had become meaningless, suddenly revivified, or a conversion to a new religion; a conversion accomplished, impossible, or adjourned. An ardent conversion to Judaism rediscovered after the temptation of an abandonment in which he believes he has found the truth elsewhere (Rosenzweig); a conversion to a truth sought philosophically and at length, then glimpsed among the Christian mystics, but definitively adjourned by the intrusion of a merciless moment of history (Bergson); a conversion as radical as inaccessible in this life to a God who has deserted the world (Weil); a conversion accomplished to the point monastic commitment, after many peregrinations (Merton); a conversion to a God unable to save her from the dark torture of persecution, but who gives her astonishing strength (Hillesum). It is because they reveal that the quest for truth cannot be sundered from a transformation of self, which can go as far as a commitment to a specific religion, that these itineraries are worthy of the attention of the philosopher who does not scorn spirituality. Each of these thinkers

4 sought to open their lifes secret by playing the partition that they alone could decipher by being attentive to their individual souls most hidden recesses. Despite their irreducible differences, there is in the intensity and tenacity of these singular itineraries a common truth: not to resign to human defeat, of whatever stripe; to live ones finitude with the exigency of what is highest which is, alsoof what is most profound.

Chapter 1

The Secret

Behold, all souls are Mine (hen kal hanfashot li), said the Eternal in the prophecy of Ezekiel (18:4). Far from announcing to humans that they have no freedom because they are dependent on a Creator from whose grip they cannot hope to escape since they are His property, this statement is the corollary of grave good tidings. It is because his soul does not belong to his parents but to God that, according to this prophecy, each child is freed from the constraint of having to bear the terrible yoke of their offenses to the pointineluctable as it is so often thoughtof suffering endlessly because of them. But it is also for that reason that he cannot take credit for their merits. Similarly, Ezekiel insists, the father can neither use the qualities of his son to exonerate himself of his own shameful acts, nor take upon himself the responsibility of his sons misdeeds. This way of thinking, however, is not a plea for the modern cause of an individualism alien to the bond between generations. It does not free the parents from their task of transmitting to their children those moral imperatives at the heart of which, according to Ezekiel, the call to justice (to return the pledge of a debt, to give bread to the hungry, to clothe the naked, etc.) nor does it abolish the filial duty of honoring ones parents. But it announces to the sonto all human childrenthe good and grave tidings of his spiritual and moral freedom. No father can take the place of his son and bear his freedom in his stead, or pretend to confiscate it from him; no son can relieve his father of his own freedom and spare him the responsibility of his tasks. Far from being the expression of an unbearable alienation, the statement all souls are Mine is thus astonishingly liberating. There is, in every child, a parthere called soul (neshama)that does not belong to his parents. The parents must assuredly pass on to him the

6 best of what they themselves have received or discovered, and bear witness, in his presence and for him, to what gives their lives its deeper sense, but they cannot deprive him of his moral and spiritual freedom. They can pass on to him the truths of a religion that is truly meaningful to them, and often also to their ancestors; or, conversely, the truths of an atheism matured through reflection, serene and responsible. But they can never take over the soul of their child and force it to draw life from by those religious truths or that atheism. The soul as a spiritual reality is here, in each person (nefesh), what resists the power of one human being over another. In other words, it is this non-appropriable place of freedom, off-limits to anyone elses desire, will or passion that makes each of us a unique and responsible person. A person responsible for his or her life, for better or worse, a person who listens and sometimes repents, who saves his life (Ezek. 18:27) at the very moment he was about to lose it, or, on the contrary, loses it suddenly when giving up what gave him his life (Ezek. 18:26). Ezekiels prophecy thus brings out the irreducible singularity and uniqueness of every human person; bestowing upon him or her the name soul, and describing at length how it eludes all possession, by anyone of human lineage. The soul belongs to no one. It is Gods: but this God leaves it its freedom. Still, Ezekiel is not defending a thesis concerning whether the ontological nature of the soul is human or divine. Rather his intention is to awaken each one of us to its presence within us, by describing it as a response to a call to life. A response that is never formulated or given once and for all, since it is to be kept alive at every moment; a response no one but myselfsingular, uniquecan give, because neither parents, relatives or close friends can take my place when it comes to listening or responding.

7 If Ezekiels prophecy is at once resolutely liberating and demanding due to the moral responsibility it calls upon each one of us to assume, casting aside all fatalistic ways of thought, it also invites us to reflect on the possibility of conversion itself from the point of view of that freedom, and from the aspect of a responsibility that is not only moral but spiritual as well. Or yet again, from the point of view of that unclassifiable and secret part (secret, first and foremost, from oneself) that sometimes stirs in response to the Eternal. It is a response that goes against the religion or the atheism received from ones parents, a response that may surprise or disturb them, and that they may criticize or respect, but over which in any case they have no power because it is the response of a soul that does not belong to them. Contrary to modern reflections that so often confuse freedom with autonomy, this soul does not make its own law. Its freedom discovers the promise of life it has been madehe shall surely live (Ezek. 18:28) only once it knows that it cannot escape the interlocking cogwheels of destiny simply by an act of will on its part, but only because it was able to respond to a call freeing it from them. And this, without having had time to excuse or to justify its own moral iniquity or spiritual laziness by pretexting the bad examples to which it may have been exposed. In the case of the Bible, while it is true that freedom belies the necessity of remaining in the same place, assigned once and for all by others (not only by ones parents), that freedom only emerges into the outer world when the soul discovers that it carries within itself the image of an invisible and loving Creator, a Creator who calls upon it to choose to act, to speak, and to think in ways that are life-fostering in itself and otherswithout, however, being able to force it to do so. This appears to be the way the expression all souls are Mine is to be understood: not as a proprietary claim, jealously reserving His goods for Himself, without the least sharing, forcing the soul to remain beneath His tutelage, but rather as the denunciation of any bond of servitude

8 and hence of deathbe it moral or spiritualbetween a father and his son, and in its place a freedom of chosenness. The son, on an equal footing with the father, is chosen to respond to a call that each one hears in his non-substitutable uniqueness. This does not, of course, mean that the father should not hand down to his son the best of what he has received. But he who, in the belief that what he is handing down is the truth itself, the truth for which he is prepared to give his own life, is desirous of taking over his sons soul, can only destroy it. Indeed, the human soul can only breathe the free air of its own response to its Creator, in a faithfulness of each instant that breaks the yoke of submission and rigidity, of indolence and fear. Whether it surprises us by its suddenness or is the result of a long journey, the discovery of ones own response, when it is that of a conversion, is always given by the risk of embracing ones freedom. True, it is tributary to a contentgenealogical, historical, sociological, and cultural, sometimes spiritualbut unless it is allowed to dissolve within this context, thus disappearing as a phenomenon in its own right, it remains irreducible to it. The efforts of the adepts of reductive explanations (especially psychological ones) are fruitless. One can, it is true, argue that specific individuals may have converted to a religion in order to oppose the wishes of their parents (which sometimes happens) or to find consolation and relief from their distress, or even become part of a supportive milieu (which also occurs), but this misses the essential: the spiritual freedom of the human being; the joy of it, and the anxiety it may awaken. Naturally one can, after the fact, as for every free decision, try to explain a conversion by influences received or undergone, by economic or social pressures, or by pathological determinisms or characterological factors, or even by simple selfish motivations. There is no free act that one cannot retrospectively flatter oneself with having been able to predict. But we should be wary of such retrospective assessments, because if conversion is a

9 free act, it belies predictions based on determinism,2 on context and on what are conveniently enlisted as influences. Freedom always remains unpredictable. It springs up at those moments when it gives someone the strength or the inspiration to begin, to accomplish deeds, to speak words and to opt for a way of life that does not meet anticipation, nor tally with the explanation one would expect, based on context and precedence. A creative conversion is of this kind: again and again, it is what determines a destiny, and not the reverse. It is always to be found at the juncture of a disposition of the soul and a favorable circumstance (karos), or the cusp between a hearkening and a call, to speak in the Biblical register. But no one, however knowledgeable, can anticipate this with certainty. There are many reasons why such an encounter may fail to take place. It may be that the soul is slumbering, inattentive to the favorable circumstance or lacking the knowledge to take advantage of it, being preoccupied with other cares or tasks that distract it; or, as Ecclesiastes says, the circumstance may be buried beneath the excessive weight and opacity of habit, insignificance or vanity. But when it does occur, it is inevitably a surprise, and many are those who, seeing it as an object of astonishment and sometimes of irritation, try to understand it and to restrict it within parameters thought to eliminate the coefficient of freedom. Indeed it is only on this condition that everything falls back into place, despite what for a moment seemed to suggest an exception to the rule of necessity and counteract the very violent, the even irrepressible desire of human beings to overcome the otherness of their neighbor by any means in this case by intellectual toolsrather than be held in a state of wakefulness by him or her.

Vladimir Janklvitch, Le Srieux de lintention. Trait des vertus I (Paris : Flammarion, 1983 [1949]), 53, 54, my emphasis. [My translationTr.]

10 We know that Edith Stein answered those who questioned her on the why of her conversion to Catholicism by saying that it was the most important decision of her life, but without any further explanation, and without satisfying the curiosity of those close to her. My secret is mine, she would say,3 adopting the counsel of discretion given by John of the Cross, who, in turn, borrowed the expression from the prophecy of Isaiah, 24:16 (razi limy secret). In contrast to retrospective interpretations and apologetic or dogmatic elucidations, such a response keeps a vigilant eye on the essential; for in the case of conversion no human curiosity, be it animated by the utmost goodwill, is equal to what is required. In vain do we solicit or demand an explanation for such a passage, such a change, a metamorphosis, or evenfrom the point of view of those who do not tolerate conversionsuch a betrayal or apostasy: our demand will never be satisfied. The word secret, moreover, does not mean that those persons involved are themselves aware, in all lucidity, of the profound nature of the enigma. Indeed, this secret is bound up, for them as well, with the deep and endless discovery of that whichor He whowithin them, calls out to them and instills life in them; of what gives them the power to choose life (Deut. 30:19), in ordinary, day-to-day routine existence as well as in the brutal, tempestuous times of suffering and anguish. Whatever the quality of the bond between those who pass down to new generations a certain way of thinking, of believing or of not believing, of leading their lives in letting themselves be guided by specific values and meanings, it is to each and every one to discover later, on their own, how to choose life. Sometimes it requires the courage to resist pressures of all kinds, especially of course those coming from the ones closest to us who would forbid any change, or who consider conversion to be a personal betrayal directed against them. This secret,

See Ccile Rastoin, Edith Stein (1891-1942). Enqute sur la source (Paris: Cerf, 2007), 7, 131n1. According to the Vulgate of Isaiah, 24 :16, Secretum meum mihi.

11 then, is what that person must listen to within himself or herself, in good times and bad, to keep going, despite adversity, loneliness or lack of understanding by ones neighbors, to the unknown end of a path that, though it may remain difficult and trying, is illuminated by something the eyes of the worldly wise cannot perceive. Indeed, such motivations as spite or dejection, hatred or fear can explain the choice made by those whose conversion is profound only in the eyes of those already convinced that freedom and the life of the spirit belong to the realm of illusion and resentment, or of rancor and the need to find protection and consolation. If that were the case, conversion would be something best understood as a protest against the old established certainties, against ones group, against ones suffering. But should we not rather consider its meaning and its strength in relation to a for? If the biographies of those who have converted to Judaism, Christianity or Islam, for example, try to get close to the secret inhabiting them, even the subtlety of their analysis and their sense of identification with them will not reveal it. The secret awakens, wends its way forward through the obstacles that frequently mask its presence. It begins to live and breathe freely, to increase in savor, taste and meaningtaam, as Hebrew calls itwithout anyone being able to take charge of it; not even those in which it has taken up residence, whom it also inconveniences, surprises and does violence to when it makes them let go, and perhaps stake their all. The best commentators know this. Rather than pretend to bring to light the reasons and motivations assumed to constitute the interpretive key to the behavior of othersthus running the risk of being judgmentalthey prefer to relate their lives and reflect on them, letting themselves be guided by their works. This approach, by the way, is not always strictly faithful to what their author meant, since that work, especially when it is a great one, goes beyond the strict

12 intentions of the author. The work deprives the author of the ability to hold it close, shielding it from interpretations its author may believe to be erroneous. Once written into history, the singular work constituted by each human life undergoes the same vagariesdepriving its author of the right to see the various meanings ascribed to it by biographers. But the only attitude at once respectful of others and initiatory of fruitful interpretations of ones own life remains the one thatwithout pretending to know, with a clairvoyance capable of penetrating the secret of the person who lived that life, or (especially) by means of the scalpel of a socio- or psychoanalytic readingawakens the desire to listen to that life and to respond to it. Even when its author is departed, a singular life continues to address us. It may, with respect to mankind, ask for or give help, cause suffering or worry, or give guidance and contribute to our being a little less consumed by our present anguish. But this remains impossible as long as mankind holds up the arrogance of its knowledge or the radicalness of its skepticism as a rampart to shield itself from being affected or questioned by that life. As for conversion, the standards of transparencyas if every secret hid something unutterable, or even shameful and very ordinaryinevitably blind us to the deep meaning others giveor try to givetheir lives. In this domain, admitting the limits of ones own insightfulness and resisting the influence of ones own disappointments means being willing to listen and to respond, and to restore meaning to the word transcendence, so ill-used by a conceptual and theoretical flattening out, and to turn the focus of ones questioning toward oneself. Sociology can shed pertinent light on the context of a personal history in its collective dimensions, and psychology is often of decisive help in loosening the grip of labyrinthine sufferings that drive us to alienation or despair, and to struggle against them. But neither can grasp this secret, which is one with the alterity of each human self and his or her freedom.