For most of us, the religious experience of a significant awareness of God’s presence that leads to personal conversion is a long and slow process – usually we are not even fully aware of the meaning of what has been happening until a time later when we look back and reflect. Often we hear Eugene’s Good Friday experience being presented as if this was the one and only sudden momentous experience on his conversion journey: a Saul on-the-way-to-Damascus epiphany. A milestone the Good Friday certainly was, but only within the context of a long journey of awareness and experience that led to gradual personal change.
The Eugene who was supposedly suddenly smitten by his looking at the Cross one Good Friday, is not much of an example or encouragement to the rest of us who are “unsmitten” by never having had a similar sudden religious experience. We may feel happy for him, but there it stays in the realm of the plaster statue saint that doesn’t touch our real lives. No, Eugene’s experience speaks to me because it was a journey of realization – a journey of awakening that inspires us to do likewise. I have traced his lost and lukewarm years in a certain amount of detail to highlight exactly this: in his journey we find a mirror of our own history of awareness and lack of awareness, of faithfulness and unfaithfulness to God’s presence in our lives. As a saint he walks the same walk with us today as a guide and intercessor.
Several years later, Eugene would write to his mother about his lukewarm stage:
When I was being urged more strongly than ever by grace to give myself entirely to God’s service, I did not want to do anything rash and you must have seen that I began to move out of that state of lukewarmness into which I had fallen and which would infallibly have led to my death, I tried by a much greater fervor to merit new graces from the Lord and as this good Master is generous, he did not fail to grant them to me…
Letter to his mother, 23-24 March 1809 EO XIV n 49
Can I identify with Eugene’s “state of lukewarmness?” What does the experience of Eugene teach me as a follower of Jesus?
“Conversion for me was not a Damascus Road experience. I slowly moved into an intellectual acceptance of what my intuition had always known.” Madeleine L’Engle, Christian novelist