Inside and outside
It is important for those who are committed Catholics – especially those who have never known anything else – to remember that a threshold [or stage of conversion] usually looks and feels very different to “insiders” than it does to someone approaching from the outside. As evangelizers, we need to make a real effort to imagine; to see Christ, the faith, and the Church through the eyes of outsiders. The same threshold can seem overwhelming and insurmountable to them while looking very simple and obvious to us.
One important side note: We have found that people who are already disciples within another Christian tradition usually go through these same stages as they contemplate the possibility of entering the Catholic Church. This was certainly true for me when I first considered entering the Church. I had been raised as a strongly anti-Catholic fundamentalist in southern Mississippi, and contemplating becoming Catholic was like considering becoming a Martian.
I brought a big book about Catholicism to my first RCIA session. In those days, I was completely clueless about intra-Catholic squabbles and presumed that all books on Catholicism came from the same basic perspective. I put my big book underneath my battered metal chair and waited for the session to begin. A member of the RCIA team sat down next to me, glanced at the title of my book, and fixed me with a knowing look. “I see where you’re coming from,” he said.
“What?” I was completely mystified. “I don’t even know where I’m coming from. How do you know where I’m coming from?”
That was my first clue that there were mysteries involved in being Catholic that weren’t covered in the catechism.
It’s a mystery
There is no one-size-fits-all way of negotiating the journey to discipleship. People will move through at different paces. In intense retreat settings, some may bound through a couple thresholds in a few days. Others may stay stuck in one place for years or ping-pong back and forth between different thresholds. There may be great leaps forward as well as relapses to earlier thresholds.
The thing to remember is that we are not in control of this process. Some people will not respond to our best efforts to be helpful. Jesus warned us that some people will not receive the “seed.” (Mk 4:14–19) Others may dazzle us by choosing to cooperate with grace and become the good soil that brings forth thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. We are dealing with the mystery of a relationship that God himself is initiating in the human heart. Let me stress that we cannot bring anyone to faith through pressure, guilt, argument or cleverness. Conversion and true faith are works of the Holy Spirit. But it is also true that we can, by our responses, help or hinder another’s journey. Responding to seekers in a way that does not accept and honor their lived experience may cause them to “freeze,” or even move away from God. Understanding the thresholds can help us help them or, at least, help us to not get in the way of what God is doing.