In reference to Galatians , where Paul says “I live no longer, Christ lives in me:
Conversion in the Pauline sense… is a death-event. In other words, it is an exchange of the old subject for another. The ‘I’ ceases to be an autonomous subject standing in itself. It is snatched away from itself and fitted into a new subject. The ‘I’ is not simply submerged, but it must really release its grip on itself in order then to receive itself anew in and together with a greater ‘I’… No one can undertake on his own the exchange of subjects spoken of by Paul… indeed the exchange would still be the ‘work’ of the individual subject, thus confirming his hopeless self-imprisonment. The exchange of subjects includes a passive element, which Paul rightly characterizes as death, in the sense of receiving a share in the event of the Cross. It can come to someone only from the outside, from another person. Christian conversion can never be achieved solely in the interiority of one’s personal decision. It has a sacramental structure.”
Reflection – This is deep stuff. We’re paddling into very deep waters here. The central issue of our humanity lies in these words of then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Who are we? What are we made to be? We find ourselves in our current condition grappling with this whole idea of personal identity and autonomy. To be a person seems bound up with being a self-enclosed ego. To have an identity seems bound to the reality of self-assertion, competition, aggression, even. We have to establish ourselves, put ourselves out there, carve out our own space and defend it against all comers.
And there is something deeper in us that experiences this reality as death. Egoism, even in its more innocuous forms, is not the fullest expression of our humanity. Something is lost in this unending project of the self.
We cannot get out of this project by our own efforts. As Ratzinger puts it so well, our efforts to do so just become one more self-project. There is something that has to come to us from what is not us, to liberate us from ourselves. Something has to change in us that is so radical that we cannot do it ourselves, and the change feels to us like death.
This is baptism, in its deepest realization. What happens in baptism is not a nice ritual with a cute baby. It is not mere incorporation into the Church. It is not even merely the forgiveness of sins. Baptism is the making of a new creature. At the conference I was at last week, one of the presenters put it beautifully: “Into the waters goes a baby. Out of the waters comes a living icon!”
And this baptismal grace, the essential sacramental movement coming utterly from outside of us working this total and radical change of our inner subjectivity, is played out again and again in the life of the Christian. We are perpetually closing off into our egoism; the grace of God continually comes to us in the sacraments, in prayer, in a million hidden ways, to open us up again to the life of God filling us from what is not us.This is deep stuff. But this is what Christians mean, really, when they talk about ‘spiritual life.’