Monday, January 25, 2010

The Conversion of St. Paul

The Conversion of St.Paul:

The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul is celebrated every year on January 25, which concludes the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity every year – an eight-day event that has been celebrated by the international Christian community since 1908. St. Paul's conversion caused him to become a great advocate for Christian unity, for which he worked so tirelessly, and the Church now remembers and celebrates that wonderful event every year.

Paul had spent the early years of his life studying in Jerusalem and persecuting Christians for going against the Temple, possibly as a Zealot. He was even a part of the stoning to death of St. Stephen, the Church's first martyr. Sometime around 35 or 36 AD, however, he met Christ on his way to Damascus, who asked why he was persecuting Christ through Christ's followers, and told him to go into the city where he would be told what to do.

At that point, Paul was blinded for three days, and was taken into Damascus where the Lord told Ananius, a disciple, to go to Paul and heal him. At that point, “something like scales fell from Paul's eyes,” he was healed and he became baptized, and started preaching about Jesus in the synagogues.

His sudden switch confused the Jews, who subsequently grew angry with him and tried to kill him, or have him killed, several times. Paul nevertheless continued preaching to them as well as to the Gentiles, trying to spread the Gospels to everyone at any cost. His conversion, dangerous though it may have been for St. Paul, had a hugely positive effect on the life of the Church. He became one of the Church's great evangelizers, helping to bring many people into the Church. While most saints have feast days based on their date of death, St. Paul is one of the only saints who has a feast day commemorating his conversion.

This conversion shows that anyone can be forgiven and brought to a life with Christ, even those who previously were on the completely opposite side of Christianity. It is an event that the Church wants to remember and celebrate because of its great importance for Christians everywhere.

Saul the Pharisee:

Saul was a Jew and a Pharisee, so proud of both that he wrote of himself: "Hebrew, son of Hebrews . . . Pharisee, son of Pharisees; according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee." And as a Pharisee he was educated well and painstakingly in all the exactness of the law. It was said that ten thousand regulations had been appended to the Law of Moses. The strange thing about the Pharisees, even the best of them, was that for all their religion they had little humility, and it went against their grain to think that the Messias would come in any but the most fashionable manner.

So when Jesus of Nazareth arrived and with His followers began to preach a New Law which would be the crown and fulfillment of the Old, it was men like Saul who set out to put a stop to the thing and quickly. The first sight we catch of Saul in the New Testament is in that scene where he stands over Stephen holding the coats of the men who stoned him to death (Acts 7). That done and approved, he sought permission to follow the Christian Jews who had fled to Damascus, and here is the scene of this feast.

It was 180 miles to Damascus, and ordinarily it would take men on horseback about seven days to make it. But Saul was in a passion and he would have none of the ordinary pace; both men and horses drove themselves to the breaking point. High noon that day they were riding wildly when suddenly a light brighter than the sun fell upon them. Their horses screamed in fear, rose in the air, and Saul was dashed, blind, to the ground. Where he had been scanning the distance to Damascus there was blackness, and he heard for the first time the voice of his Enemy.

"Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute Me?"

Imagine the terrible impact of the fall, horror of sounds, stamping, fright, cries, gritty dirt in his mouth, blood on his tongue, all shattering the driving, driving, driving toward murder. Like a child he must have whimpered when he asked: "Who art thou, Lord?"

"I am Jesus, whom thou art persecuting."

And there is the doctrine of the Mystical Body again. It cannot be said too often or with too much emphasis that the lesson of this feast is Our Lord teaching this doctrine Himself Christ had ascended into Heaven. Paul knew that. He was chasing Christians, and Christ said to him: "Why dost thou persecute Me?" We are part of Christ in His Mystical Body, the Church, and when Saul hunted Christians he hunted Christ.

This is his first meeting with the doctrine that as St. Paul he would preach so eloquently, with so much love. He was biting the dirt when the knowledge came to him. Our Lord added: "It is hard for thee to kick against the goad." It was a tender rebuke, one we might imitate — or try to, when we rebuke our children, and there is a lesson for children in it too.

It would be easier for them to understand it if we said: "It is hard for you to pull against the bit." Little boys who know about horses know about bits; the more a horse pulls away from the direction his master wants him to go the more cruelly is his mouth cut by the bit. He explained things such simple ways, Our Lord did. And He knew so well about anger. It is evil, and the more we give in to it the uglier and more evil we grow inside, and all the time miserable, until finally we are hating everyone and the world as well, and we go about kicking things and taking our meanness out on people who have done us no wrong.

Surely Saul, who loved the Law, could hardly have forgotten: Thou shalt not kill. But his sense of propriety had been offended to hear the Apostles preach from every street corner that Jesus, the stable-born One, was King of the Jews. He became angrier and angrier until his temper was wild and he risked his soul on an errand steeped in murder.

Now he knew. Blind and helpless, he whispered: "Lord, what wilt thou have me do?"

We must use this feast to teach our children that submission to God's will is not weakness, but a chance to begin again. In one flash of light, Paul's life was undone, his works rubble. Not knowing how he was to take one step and follow it by another, now he waited to be told what to do.

Paul teaches the little boy who defies authority that it is not worth it to continue to scream and save face. Give in, turn back, be sorry — and there will be forgiveness and love and help. He teaches the adolescent girl who balks parental cautions that there is wisdom in obedience and love beneath the intolerable restrictions.

So many lessons for the whole family to learn from Paul.... But back to that day. He was given a mysterious direction. "Arise, and go into the city, and it will be told thee what thou must do."

So they made their stunned way into Damascus leading by the hand the one who had always been so sure. For three days he waited without food or water, and prayed.

Now there lived in Damascus a disciple named Ananias. As Our Lord spoke to Saul, He also appeared to Ananias and told him about Saul waiting in the house on Strait Street. But Ananias was doubtful. He recalled Saul's reputation, and then Our Lord told Ananias something of the future of this violent ugly little man — that he would go to preach His name "before Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel."


That was enough. Ananias went right out to find him. Entering the house where he waited, he laid his hands on Saul's head and restored his sight. Far more wonderful, he baptized him. Saul, stopping only long enough to break his fast, rushed (he always rushed) out to the steps of the synagogue and started to preach Christ crucified.

The people were dumbfounded. Here was the man always so full of hate suddenly so full of love. It didn't take them long to gather their wits, however, and soon it was whispered that men lay in wait for Saul to kill him before he could slip through the city gates. But God had plans.

One night when the city was sleeping and the enemy keeping watch by the gate, a silent group of men made their way to the city wall carrying a rope and a large basket (perhaps some good wife's clothes-basket). They climbed to the top, tied the rope to the basket, and tucked someone in, and then — as in Peter and the Wolf — they "carefully lowered it down" and saw him land safely and scurry off in the direction of Jerusalem.

Maybe one day later on, a message arrived from the city: All comes out in the wash. Who knows? It was the kind of thing the early Christians did. They were not above using code messages and symbols, cryptograms and signs to communicate right under the noses of their enemy.

There is more to the story of St. Paul, but this is the beginning and the episode we celebrate with this feast. The children must know, in addition to all this, that he was a tentmaker by trade, and why, if he was named Saul, he is called St. Paul.

Tarsus was a city governed by Roman law, and Paul was as proud of being a Roman citizen by birth as he was of being a Jew. Paulus was the Roman (Latin) for Saul, and he liked to be known by that name.

St. Paul:

Paul’s entire life can be explained in terms of one experience—his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus. In an instant, he saw that all the zeal of his dynamic personality was being wasted, like the strength of a boxer swinging wildly. Perhaps he had never seen Jesus, who was only a few years older. But he had acquired a zealot’s hatred of all Jesus stood for, as he began to harass the Church: “...entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment” (Acts 8:3b). Now he himself was “entered,” possessed, all his energy harnessed to one goal—being a slave of Christ in the ministry of reconciliation, an instrument to help others experience the one Savior.

One sentence determined his theology: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5b). Jesus was mysteriously identified with people—the loving group of people Saul had been running down like criminals. Jesus, he saw, was the mysterious fulfillment of all he had been blindly pursuing.

From then on, his only work was to “present everyone perfect in Christ. For this I labor and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me” (Colossians 1:28b-29). “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and [with] much conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5a).

Paul’s life became a tireless proclaiming and living out of the message of the cross: Christians die baptismally to sin and are buried with Christ; they are dead to all that is sinful and unredeemed in the world. They are made into a new creation, already sharing Christ’s victory and someday to rise from the dead like him. Through this risen Christ the Father pours out the Spirit on them, making them completely new.

So Paul’s great message to the world was: You are saved entirely by God, not by anything you can do. Saving faith is the gift of total, free, personal and loving commitment to Christ, a commitment that then bears fruit in more “works” than the Law could ever contemplate.


Paul is undoubtedly hard to understand. His style often reflects the rabbinical style of argument of his day, and often his thought skips on mountaintops while we plod below. But perhaps our problems are accentuated by the fact that so many beautiful jewels have become part of the everyday coin in our Christian language (see quote, below).


“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Read more about St. Paul's conversion and this feast day here, here, here, here & here.


bryn said...

my favourite depiction of paul is the Caravaggio pic

christian soldier said...

The master art works that you have included are awesome...some I have never seen!!!
and--the producer of the video (you've had others by the same) adds master works that truly bring the message to life...

Carlos Echevarria said...

Bryn, the Caravaggio pic is my favorite, as well.

CS, thanks I try to google image and obtain the rarer depictions, with a preference for Byzantine/Orthodox ones.

As for Father James Kubicki, he can be found here: