Reflections on the Conversion of St. Paul

Today, January 25th, is the day in the Liturgical Calendar that we celebrate the conversion of St. Paul. This day is not to be confused with the Feast Day of Saints Peter and Paul which is celebrated in June. I believe there is no mistake in having two Feast days for St. Paul; One day is to celebrate his sainthood, and the other to celebrate his amazing conversion. St. Paul’s conversion teaches us so many important things of God and Christianity (Hope for the sinner, ultimate forgiveness, obedience to God, even the Communion of Saints) that it would be tragic to omit it from our celebration. I realize there are so many Feasts for the Saints that it would be quite difficult to celebrate them all and might possibly interfere in the motive of celebration in our hearts in the first place (the reason we celebrate Feast Days).So, with that in mind, my husband and I try to celebrate the days that are especially important and meaningful to us in our life.

Daniel chose St. Paul for his Confirmation Saint for many of those above reasons, and has always been the instrument of deeper thinking in my life on the Saint. That being the case, I thought he would better be able to express thoughts on the Saint and his Conversion this special day. Without further introduction, here’s Daniel’s reflections.

Hannah asked me to contribute a few thoughts on January 25th, the feast day of St. Paul’s conversion. I chose St. Paul as my confirmation saint because I have always been struck by his life and identified with his conversion in particular. I’m glad to offer a few meditations on this most profound event described in the Acts of the Apostles.

Firstly, a disclaimer. I am by no means an expert on St. Paul’s life, early church history or the New Testament. All I hope to share is some insight I’ve personally received from the scriptures and devotion to the Saint. Matters of scholarship are certainly up for debate and interpretation.

ImageIt is fruitless to consider the conversion of St. Paul without giving mind to the stoning of St. Stephen, the Church’s first Martyr. In Act’s chapter seven, Stephen delivers a history of God’s faithful guidance of Israel through history, a case for the fulfillment of Jewish law and prophecy by Jesus, and a harsh rebuke directed at the people of Israel for rejecting God and persecuting his prophets.
As a side; In this speech, Stephen refers to those listening as a “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears.” This concept of a spiritual circumcision is expanded on in detail by St. Paul in the second chapter of Romans, among other places.
Stephen goes on to cry out that he sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God, a notion that was immeasurably blasphemous to the orthodox Jews. Enraged, the Sanhedrin threw St. Stephen out of the city and stoned him. Here we find the first mention of Saul (the Hebrew name of Paul). It is implied that he adopts zealous leadership of the church’s persecution from this moment onward, as the witnesses against Stephen lay their cloaks at his feet.

— The Power of Stephen’s Intercession and Forgiveness
Here I think we must consider the first facet of St. Paul’s conversion to be Stephen’s last words. Falling to his knees, St. Stephen cries out “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). I have recently reflected on the significance of this final act of forgiveness. I believe that God had his purpose for Saul in his mind already, but I also think that Saul’s conversion can be viewed as a rich fulfillment of the Proto-Martyr’s final, desperate prayer. This is at once a rich example of forgiveness and an absolutely beautiful image of the communion of Saints.

As a Catholic, I believe that there is no forgiveness without the accompanying conversion, or to put it more technically, no justification without attached sanctification. God does not merely forgive Saul, but he forgives and redeems Saul in a profound intervention that begins on the Road to Damascus, is carried out in the Saint’s subsequent baptism, and then drives the subsequent life of one of Christianities greatest fathers. God’s abounding grace is clearly rich, and I wonder if we gloss over the roll that St. Stephen’s intercession may have played. We should never underestimate the effect that absolute forgiveness and pure-hearted prayer may have in another’s life. I feel that Paul’s conversion demonstrates, among other things, how truly efficacious Stephen’s forgiveness was. This forgiveness echo’s Christ’s words from the cross; it is the true forgiveness which all Christians are called to live.

So often I engage in counterfeit forgiveness. I am often an adherent of the mantra “Well, I guess I can forgive, but they’re not going to change.” This begrudging lie is an empty parody of Christ’s calling for my life. Nothing less sincere than crying out to God with desperation for my murderer even as he murders me constitutes true fulfillment of Christ’s command. Stephen’s prayer and Saul’s subsequent conversion dash my prideful, self-righteous sentiment to pieces and convicts me with the real power of Christian forgiveness.

While we meditate today on St. Paul’s glorious conversion, let us also meditate on the beauty of our first Martyr’s intercession, which so profoundly followed in the steps of our Lord’s passion and began the great legacy of the Christian Martyr’s. The beauty of this prayer, at once his final prayer on earth and his first intercession directly to God as a citizen of heaven moves me beyond description.

 

ImageStruck Down by Revelation, Paul Responds in the Only Fitting Way
All of that serves as a prelude to Saul’s conversion itself. The most profound point of Saul’s conversion, to me, has always been the violence and totality of it, which I will discuss here.

In the eighth chapter of Acts, Saul is described as seeking out the destruction of the Christian Church in Jerusalem, invading homes and imprisoning their occupants for their faith. Seemingly on a roll, Saul gets approval from the high priest to continue his persecution to Damascus. It is likely that Saul was riding to Damascus, and there is conjecture that he was attempting to shave a day of the journey by riding hard. It is no stretch then to imagine him and his companions riding at a gallop when the event occurs.

Acts 9 tells us that as his party was nearing Damascus, “a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’  I am continually amazed at how this image encapsulates my feelings regarding my own conversion, as well as the conversion of all human people who encounter Christ in their lives.

In truth, I was traveling through my life, completely secure in my own self and without a thought towards any purpose God might have for me when I was converted. I think that we so often become caught up in the classic idea of man searching for God, that we may overlook the history of the human race and the life of each individual as a narrative of God seeking out man. This begins immediately following the fall in Genesis; God’s first words are “Adam, where are you?” I find it epitomized by Jesus command to Lazarus to “Come out.” But I can not think of a more resonant sign of God’s power to reorient the human heart than Saul, struck down from his own ways in the dirt and blinded by the overwhelming reality of Christ before him.

When I came to real faith, which, for me, coincided with opening my eyes to the Roman Catholic Church, I was no more seeking that relationship with Christ than was Saul. In truth, I was forming malice and prejudice in my heart against God, Catholicism, and believers around me. Blinded by sin, we are all on a road to Damascus which we would keep riding through life if not for God coming into the world and seeking after us as a shepherd seeks ignorant and wayward sheep.

When I was finally called, it was as bizarre and dumbfounding to me as this light to Paul. I suddenly understood the depth of his question: “Who are you, sir?”  When we encounter the sudden reality of God in our lives, the only response can be to open ourselves to him with this much openness. From that pivotal moment, our hearts should be completely oriented to the question Saul asks. Lying in the dirt, Saul is not exchanging pleasantries with the risen Christ. His question is desperate; he is aware that the reality of what and who he is experiencing is the only thing of any importance. It shows Saul’s complete and immediate recognition of his own insignificance and ignorance. In it, we hear the words of Job: “I have heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eyes have seen you.”
The dichotomy between our thought of God and our experience of God is often massive. Saul was incredibly educated, not to mention conventionally pious. According to his culture’s view of God, he would have been seen as a person with a very solid knowledge of God, his laws and his ways. All of this melts away immediately when he actually meets God. So too should the feeble images of God that our minds form be constantly torn down by his revelation of himself. How many churches, families, friendships and personal lives have collapsed amid bickering over our ideas of God whilst the reality of God remains an afterthought? We can get caught up in our own idea of God so completely that something as violent as the road to Damascus is required for God to reach us through it.

We can so easily fail to keep in faith that awareness of God. As I meditate on this conversion, I am convicted that I let this wonder and awe die in my heart on a daily basis. How much more effective could I be, how much more sincere could I be if I conducted my moment by moment life aware of God’s blinding light? After the fact, my mind immediately begins to reduce my awareness of God to the abstract and to make him smaller and smaller in my heart. I find that God’s light is never diminished, but I sinfully degrade it to the ordinary by simply not asking that question: “Who are you sir?” If I’m paying attention to the reality of Jesus, I will want nothing more than to learn who he is that is speaking with me. This is the beauty of God as Mystery. Every day of my life should consist of me, with the humility of one cast into the dust, asking that question of God with the same earnest sincerity that Saul did on the road to Damascus. The more I do this, the more this moment of conversion will become a constant, redemptive experience of the risen Christ.

Personal “Roads to Damascus” and Daily Persecutions
“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” The Lord’s words are painfully direct. It’s tempting for me to think that the analogy between St. Paul’s conversion and my life breaks down here. After all, I don’t often set out on a rampage to murder and persecute the Church. The problem is that Jesus doesn’t mention the Church, he accuses Saul of persecuting himself.

I may not be stoning Christians, but when I ask myself how I persecute Jesus, the answers can be countless. In fact, if not converted, we are perpetually on a personal road to Damascus with our own personal persecutions to carry out. Do I persecute Jesus in my heart by stamping out his influence calling me to holiness? Do I persecute him in my mind by not devoting time to study and meditate on him? Do I persecute him in my body by not treating it as a holy thing deserving of morality? Do I persecute him in my marriage by not striving to craft it in his image? Do I persecute him in my friends lives by not planting and cultivating the seed of truth? Do I in some sense, persecute him in his Church by not giving and serving Her as I should? Do I persecute him in the Holy Sacrament by not keeping steady my reverence for it week after week? The question that has convicted me most recently is this: Do I persecute Jesus in the lowly?

In the Gospel of Mathew (25) The Lord tells us that whatever we do to the least, that is the hungry, thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, or the imprisoned, we do directly to him. What alarming tragedy that various corners of Christianity embrace a philosophy of monetary elitism while looking on the poor with disgust. For myself personally, I am cut deeply by the realization that every concession I make to the world’s greed and every prideful thought I hold over the lowly is a persecution of Jesus. I am particularly thankful for our new Holy Father’s steadfast teaching on this weakness that we are so prone to tolerate. When we minimize the poor, be they poor in the material, emotional, or spiritual, we go running down that road to Damascus.

— God’s Calling to Rise, Go, and Listen
“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” Jesus does not wait for Saul to acknowledge his identity. He doesn’t provide Saul the opportunity to offer the ‘sinners prayer.’ The Saint’s conversion continues in the calling to act.

First God commands Saul to get up. The conviction of our sins and the magnitude of God’s revelation to us should never hold us down, it should fuel us to get up and get over where we were before. Saul was one man when he went down into the dust, but he must rise up out of it as a Christian. Here, we find Saul joining symbolically in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are called to put our old selves to death with Jesus and join in his resurrection, born again. A murderer went down to the earth, but a believer rises up from it.

Next God commands Saul to go into Damascus. Notice that Paul is now traveling an entirely different road to Damascus. God’s intervention in his life instantaneously redirects the purpose of Paul’s journey and all his energy. Again, we see that conversion cannot be reduced to such a weak sentiment as a change of heart. It takes hold in the muscles and the breath. Saul isn’t called to the “I’m saved” mentality but called to a servants mentality and to immediate obedience.

God’s third command to Saul is also a promise: “You will be told what you must do.” All of Saul’s plans have evaporated in an instant on the road. As in all of our lives, God’s calling doesn’t come with revelation of his whole plan for us. Saul knew persecution better than anyone and was doubtless aware that he could be on his way to immediate martyrdom at the hands of those he previously served. He would have wondered what his relationship to the Christian Church which he had so zealously persecuted would be. But the Lord quite literally leaves him in the dark, to the point that he finds himself physically blind when he stands up. He must be lead by the hand the rest of the way into Damascus. Notice also the contrast between Saul’s two journeys to Damascus. Before the light, he was riding with his own purpose and intent on entering the city as a conqueror. He is traveling at the head of men at his command. After the light, he is dumbfounded, blind, and unsure of what will happen. He must be lead by those he was previously in command of, being the most humble of them all.

Our conversions are not feel good experiences. I catch myself going back to my old evangelical youth-group paradigm that my relationship with God should be mildly cathartic little bits of emotion which make me smile and feel great about myself. Saul’s experience on the road brings him lower than he would have previously imagined. Coming to know the risen Christ is an experience that produces ecstasy and deep joy, but that joy greets us with an intense humbling. We must empty ourselves, take on this humility and go forward with faith that we will be told what to do. Joyful as it may be, the redeemed road to Damascus is the much narrower road, requiring us to walk absolutely by faith and not by sight.

— Paul’s Three Day Fast and the Faith of Saint Ananias

We are also told that Paul was unable to see for the subsequent three days and that he did not eat or drink. Three days of no food or water sounds like a very serious and unpleasant fast to me, but when I consider undertaking it during a hundred mile walk through the desert, the idea that conversion is a nice event collapses pretty quickly. In the three days of blindness and fasting, we find again a sign of being joined to Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Acts of the Apostles next tells us of Saint Ananias, a Christian in Damascus. God comes to him in a vision and commands him to go to Saul. Ananias is well aware of Saul’s reputation and even respectfully inquires of God regarding him. God commands Ananias a second time, referring to Saul as his “chosen instrument.” Ananias goes to Saul in Damascus, and addresses him: “Saul, my brother, The Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Two points stand out to me here. First, Saul’s conversion is bookended by forgiveness. He is forgiven by St. Stephen at the beginning and by St. Ananias’s at the end. St. Ananias is addressing a man who has wounded the Church, imprisoned and murdered Christians. Saul has essentially committed his life to destroying Ananias’s family but Ananias has faith in God’s command. He, like Stephen, does not offer some superficial show of minimal forgiveness, but embraces Saul as a brother. We should endeavor to accept God’s purpose for an individual that completely. How often do we rebelliously put our view of a person above God’s by insisting that they are one thing in spite of the Lord’s will to forgive and convert them into something else.

The second image that I recognize here is the power and authority which God has invested in the church. Acts goes on: “Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. He got up and was baptized.” God’s will for Saul is clearly his own, but notice that he relies his Church to administer forgiveness and healing. Here I think we see the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven gifted to Peter by Christ and the immense outpouring of power to heal and absolve, which his Church carries within Her. Saul’s conversion is only complete when God’s servant Ananias obey’s God. Let us never underestimate the healing that comes through the Sacrament of Reconciliation or hold ourselves back from forgiveness when it is ours to offer. When we obey God in embracing our enemies as brethren, real conversion flows through us and effects those we encounter.

— The Sorrow that Leads to Repentance
Lastly, I want to reflect on St. Paul’s boldness to receive forgiveness. The Acts tells us that Saul, having recovered from his fast and his blindness, immediately began preaching about Jesus in the synagogue. Putting myself in his shoes, I wonder at the insecurity I would feel, the shame for my past offenses and the intense sorrow for the murder I had committed. As difficult as it was for the Christian’s to forgive Saul, it must have been at least as difficult for him to live among them and preach. Nevertheless, the scripture tells us that he was so bold that those around him were astonished and the religious leadership plotted to kill him.

I am reminded of Saint Paul’s words in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter seven: “For godly sorrow produces salutary repentance without regret, but worldly sorrow produces death. For behold what earnestness this godly sorrow has produced for you, as well as readiness for a defense and indignation and fear and yearning and zeal and punishment.” Saint Paul shows us that only sorrow leading to repentance is of God, while sorrow producing death is of the world, a stumbling block to impede us from following God’s will. Let us never allow any regret, any shame or any sorrow inhibit our willingness to be converted.

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One thought on “Reflections on the Conversion of St. Paul

  1. Pingback: Celebrating Saint Joan of Arc with Monte Cristo Sandwiches | The Inked Archives

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