The narrative of the Vita coetanea begins with this crucial event in Llull’s life, defining it as ‘his conversion to penitence’. It is a term which situates Llull’s experience within the framework of the popular, lay spirituality of the period, in which cases occurred of individuals who, short of entering into a mendicant or monastic order, strove, alone or with others, towards a more intense religious life, marked in particular by poverty.
The Vita itself describes in detail the chief moments of Llull’s experience, which we can consider as three initial episodes. The first episode was the nocturnal vision of the crucified Christ, a vision repeated on five separate occasions, with intervals of a few days between them. According to the narrative, Llull was lost in thought, ‘about to compose and write in his vulgar tongue a song to a lady whom he loved with a foolish love’ I, 2). After insisting on his desire to forget these events, Llull finally concedes the significance of the visions: ‘that God wanted him, Ramon, to leave the world and dedicate himself totally to the service of Christ’ (I, 4). Reflecting upon the specific way to carry out this proposal, Llull formulated a triple objective: to bring about the conversion of unbelievers, even at the risk of undergoing death for Christ; to write a book, ‘the best [book] in the world’, against the errors of unbelievers; and to request the foundation of monasteries in which the languages necessary for missionary activities might be taught.
According to the Vita, three months were to pass before Ramon took the next step. This second episode occurred on the feast of Saint Francis, when Ramon, while listening to a sermon by the bishop in the Franciscan church, decided to sell his goods, leaving the amount necessary for the upkeep of his family, and to leave his home. He immediately undertook a pilgrimage, which took him to Saint Mary of Rocamadour, to Carcin (Occitania), and to Saint James of Galicia. This third episode comes to a close with the interview between Ramon Llull and Raymond of Penyafort in Barcelona. On learning of Llull’s plans to go to Paris to acquire the necessary education to forward his project, the latter persuaded him to return to Majorca.
In effect, the narrative unity of Llull’s ‘conversion to penitence’ comes to a close, when Llull, now back in Majorca, ‘put on a lowly habit of the coarsest cloth he could find’ (II, 11). This external sign betokened, according to the customs and ecclesiastical stipulations of the period, the status both of one who had completed a pilgrimage and one who had opted for a life of poverty.