The word 'Damascus' has become synonymous with a sudden insight that changes a life, with a conversion, a turning point. It is different from the name of another place, Waterloo, which also signifies a turning point but a final one, a catastrophe. 'Damascus' means seeing things with new eyes; it mea

ns a thrilling new experience of understanding that leads to a new beginning. That was the experience of Saul of Tarsus though far from ‘new eyes’ he actually went blind for a time.
Conversion is a peak human experience. Many artists and musicians begin their careers learning from their masters. But there comes a time when they are dissatisfied with the tradition they receive and they strike out on their own. A conversion takes place. They create something original which the rest of us recognize as deeply satisfying: a book, a song, a painting. But it is not only in artists. For Gandhi it was when he was thrown out of a ‘whites only’ carriage onto a barren platform in the middle of a South African night. The cold hours until dawn changed his life. For Ignatius of Loyola it began with a bullet in the leg. For Rosa Parks it was when she refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus.
These are well known conversions. But there are countless others – moments that have changed lives. The secret in life, perhaps, is to long for such moments, to watch for doors opening.
Why is conversion so hard for politicians and men of power? It seems that for them any change is risky. Their whole identity is tied up in wanting to come across as consistent. Of Margaret Thatcher it was said, ‘the lady’s not for turning.’ She would not budge from her policies no matter what the evidence of their effects on the lives of people. There have been exceptions. When the House of Commons pushed through the reform Act of 1867 extending the vote to all adult males, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, commented; ‘now we will have to educate our masters,’ and introduced an Education Bill extending schooling to millions of children. Perhaps that was not conversion but expediency, but at least he had the courage to change.
And what of our own leaders? Is there any sign of conversion? Or is 2007 going to be just more of the same? Conversion is a personal thing – I am the only one I can convert. But I can help create conditions that will open the door to change. I can force no one. But one conversion can send out shock waves. Good example can be powerful and inspiring.
Jesus’ first recorded words in the gospels are ‘The time has come, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Be converted, and believe…’ (Mark 1:15). If we close our doors and our eyes we may never reach Damascus. And, what is worse, we may even end up in Waterloo.
26 January 2007

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