Monday, February 24, 2014

Of spiritual conversions and blood conversions

As I continue my convalescence from the Stem Cell transplant which took place last July, I have come to see that there are several things, which a Stem Cell transplantation and a spiritual conversion have in common. 

 1.   The new life I have is pure gift.
This is what is pointed out to all neophytes at their baptism.  The new life that they have been given in Christ is pure grace and they could not have worked toward it on their own.  In being a recipient of the precious Stem Cells from my still-unknown donor, I am ever grateful to him (that’s about as much as I know about this mystery donor – his gender) I too have been given life, and I could not have worked to have it happen.  I am very blessed to have been given this new lease of life, without which I may not even be alive today, and I am very grateful for the altruism of my donor who has given out of the kindness of his heart.

2.   The new life that we have needs a lot of care and attention.
Any conversion that lasts and is not just a one-off, feel-good experience has to have an element of wardship, heedfulness and forethought.  It must not lead one to think that just because of the new life one has received, one can lead a carefree and careless existence.  The life of a person who has been converted to Christ requires a response, which sees the person being very careful of how he lives.  His entire life has changed, and everything has to be seen in the light of Christ.  From his choice of entertainment, to his hobbies and sometimes even his occupation, there needs to be a mindfulness of who he is now.  And sometimes, the choices he makes requires of him to make great changes in his life if he is going to truly conform to the image of Christ. 

Apparently, my blood type has changed with the Stem Cell transplant.  About a month ago, my doctor has confirmed that my former O+ blood has changed to the donor’s B+.  A change has happened within me.  Every transplant patient is briefed by doctors and dieticians about the things that are taboo for us.  There are foods that are forbidden either because they clash with our heavy medication, or because of the presence of live bacteria, which our systems cannot handle.  I have yet to eat a grape or an apple since I began my treatments a year ago.  Each meal I consume requires that I am mindful of the things that I cannot consume, and the conversion that I have undergone will be greatly compromised if I throw caution to the wind and eat all that my heart and stomach desires.

3.   True conversions do not happen overnight.
Spiritual conversions are prone to what I call the “two step forward, one step back” dance.  Much as the newly baptized or those who have undergone a spiritual conversion would like to hope that their positive change remains unchallenged and untrammelled, the very fact that each life is given the great gift of free-choice becomes the reason why one can fall from grace due to sin.  Responding to a call to repentance and a renewed and strengthened life in Christ through the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a real means to continue the journey of conversion.  Just as it did not happen overnight, neither will living a life of grace become automatic. 

It has been some seven months since my Stem Cell transplant, and on some days, it does seem that this entire process is taking forever.  Much as I would like to see my energy levels back to my pre-leukaemia days, I cannot rush things.  My stamina seems to be a thing of the past, and I find myself panting just walking to the top of slight slope.  The fact that on three occasions in the past I finished three marathon runs makes my current weakness and physical limitations something difficult to accept.  Doctors have told me that full recovery and the regaining of my former strength takes anywhere from a year to even three.  Just like a spiritual conversion, I have to allow the slow passage of time for a proper strengthening within.

4.   Not many people understand what a conversion entails.
Stories of spiritual conversion shared with unconverted friends and relatives sometimes have little or no impact on them.  Unless one shares this with a similarly graced person, one can literally talk till the proverbial cows come home, and what is heard are just words.  But talk to someone who has shared the same conversion journey, and one can even finish the sentence which the other person has started. 

In my now once-in-three-weeks visit to see my oncologist/haemotologist at the hospital, I have made several friends who are themselves patients with various types of blood cancers.  We understand each other’s frustrations and pains, and share openly about the side effects of some of the harsh medications that we are on.  When we talk about mucositis resulting from the necessary pre-transplantation ordeal of intensive chemotherapy and full-body irradiation, there’s a certain knowing that we all share without saying much.  We all have come very close to the gates of Sheol.  I have an inkling that even our kind doctors who treat us so well in our illness only have a head-knowledge of what we actually go through, through no fault of their own.  But what this experience gives us is a certain mindfulness and compassion when we see others undergoing what we ourselves have gone through.  The same should be said for those converted, where they become more patient and encourage others to bear the long suffering that is part of a true conversion.

John Bunyan, the noted English Christian writer and preacher known for his work “The Pilgrim’s Progress” had this to say about conversion :  “Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think.  It is wounding work, this breaking of hearts, but without wounding, there is no saving.  Where there is grafting, there will always be a cutting, and the graft must be let in with a wound, to stick it onto the outside or to tie it on with a string would be of no use.  Heart must be set to heart and back to back or there will be no sap from root to branch.  And this, I say, must be done by a wound, by a cut.”

I believe the imagery speaks well for itself here. 


  1. Thank you, Father for this piece of encouraging words.
    It will take a lot of patience & hard work to achieve a life of grace.

  2. Hope this message spreads wide and far, Fr Luke :) And praying that you'll gain your strength soon! Glad to read your blogs for sure:) J.O.Y

  3. Thank you for this wonderful reflection, Fr. Luke. Indeed, conversion is not an easy process, one does take a long way, facing trials after trials and heartaches before surrendering completely in God's mercy and love. Z

  4. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

    The spiritual path is an intimate relationship between an individual and the divine... it is an ego-reduction process... the removal of self so that only God remains. The conversion remains a highly personal and private experience... and happens only through his love and grace.

    Paul Mariani gave a glimpse to this process in his book, Thirty Days, on page 212::
    "Well, Lord, I offer you myself, now, exhausted with it all, as my own heart breaks."

    Indeed, it is about breaking one's heart for Jesus.


  5. Amen to that, Fr. Luke!

    I had to re-read this post twice in order to let your message sink in .Forgive me, but I would like to make a prediction (or assumption) here. I cannot help but feel that your bout with blood leukaemia (all 15 rounds, not quite over yet) has changed you somewhat.

    Having been pierced with the very nails that fastened Jesus to the cross has had to have a profound effect on you. I get a strong sense of this in your writing. This new life you write about – the one that has to be cared for and nurtured as if it were a new-born babe: this new life has given you a whole new perspective of things.

    It is a God-given grace that has allowed you to remain faithful (even more so) in the face of an ordeal that might have caused some to abandon their faith. Praise God for this; His love knows no bounds. Isn’t it written, “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my power is made perfect in weakness?” How ironic. Your very weakness is a channel of power! Not power as the world sees it, but a supernatural strength that only the faithful have access to.

    Peace and Joy,

  6. Dear Fr Luke,
    Two comments: 1) Rest is a gift - a good gift from our Creator who knows exactly what we need. Praise Him that He sometimes makes us "lie down in green pastures". So be patient and rest well so that you can get back your strength and stamina. 2) A very very very good blog and I will share your reflection with my ncc members, some of whom have just gone for a conversion retreat. Take care and God bless you.