Conversion of St. Paul

Scripture Readings: Acts 22:3-16; Mk. 16:15-18.

The present climate of change and instability in our society has forced many organizations to examine how they can best prepare themselves for the future.  A whole field of management and leadership education has opened up.  Leadership has become synonymous with creating a vision, a view of how the world and this organization will be better for the steps that are taken now.

While the ultimate effectiveness of this approach has varying degrees of success, there is a subtle danger that we begin to place all our concentration on changing organizations and systems and neglect the calls to personal change.  We can continue to preserve our personal maintenance systems while we wait for structural solutions.  We may be purpose-driven, but the purposes reflect our own needs and anxieties.  The intensity and energy are channeled into self-promotion and self-preservation.  Instead of a vision, we are satisfied with “selfies”, self-confirming projects and actions.  We might not think this quite qualifies as zeal, but it comes close to that single-minded integration of all our energies which actively excludes any interference or competition.  Paul would recognize it.  St. Benedict recognizes zeal – of both kinds.  Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life.  He doesn’t need to identify the forms of envy, jealousy, contentiousness, bitterness, contempt, animosity, and pride that wicked zeal can take.  He does take time to describe manifestations of good zeal in which no one pursues what is better for himself. 

There are remarkable people who have somehow broken through the opaque veil of what Pope Francis calls “practical relativism.”  They are people who manifestly draw life and energy from a depth which eludes most of us.  Jean Vanier, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Gandhi.  They all lives extraordinary lives and they all said they were only doing what anyone can do.  They lived a whole-hearted zeal which was motivated by a vision to be inclusive and make universal the gift and call they received. Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.  They show us what it is to be human.  The illumination becomes the fire that we will pray for after our communion.

We are invited to become members of the communion of saints.  Lawrence Cunningham has described a saint as a person so grasped by a religious vision that it become central to his or her life in a way that radically changes the person and leads others to glimpse the value of that vision.  Saints have been grasped by a vision of how the world is meant to be and that vision has converted and radically changed their lives.  Paul didn’t work his way into the vision he was given.  He was grasped by it and it threw him to the ground, shattering the foundations which had given him assurance and authorization.    It was a world of wicked zeal and practical relativism that distanced him from the living God.  Pope Francis has described this practical relativism as living as if God did not exist, living as if the poor did not exist, living as if those who do not agree with you do not exist.  It is creating a neutralized and anesthetized world around you.

In our opening prayer, we asked that God would draw us nearer to you through the example of him whose conversion we celebrate today.  That is a dangerous prayer.  Drawing near to God means having the world of self-preoccupation shattered by a grace that can hurt, by a grace that undercuts our certainties and convictions.  We asked to pass through the way of conversion and radical change that Paul experienced.  It is a dangerous way.  With Paul, we have to ask continually Who are you, Lord?

Jesus of Nazareth is not an abstraction, not a system, not an organization.  He didn’t even say I am the Pantocrator or I am the Hypostatic Union.  He identified with the persecuted, the neglected, the obnoxious, the person next to you.  As Pope Benedict has said, Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but an encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and direction.  Who are you Lord

 

Conversion of St. Paul

Scripture Readings: Acts 22:3-16;  Mk 16:15-18 

Psychologist William James, in his book Varieties of Religious experience, says that most conversion experiences are of the “educational variety.” This is the kind St. Benedict’s prologue describes. They develop slowly over a period of time. Usually, friends notice a difference in the person long before she does. Eventually, though, the person realizes she has undergone a profound alteration in the way life affects her. Furthermore, she realizes that this change was not and could not have been brought about by her alone.

Then there is the kind that St. Paul had on the road to Damascus: sudden and resulting in a huge shift in perceptions and affections in the interior foundation of one’s life. In fact, since conversion is typically a turning to God, and Paul was already devoted to God, scholars think of it more as repentance, a change of the way he thought and behaved about Jesus Christ. Many also consider it a “Call”, rather than a conversion.

A person’s god is that to which he gives his life, that on which he sets his heart. That turn to Christ began for Paul when he was suddenly overcome by “a great light,” that knocked him to the ground.

A man sprawled on the ground symbolizes a failure. So conversion begins with personal failure. For most that light and its effect comes gradually, “like the dawn from on high. He will give light to those in darkness.” In scripture, darkness represents ignorance; light represents good and it symbolizes knowledge. That knowledge is the knowledge of what God is really like. Jesus showed this. It is a change in what one believes. It is given… for free! It is not earned. It is, perhaps, badly needed, but not earned.

Then, the person is called by name. “Saul, Saul…” This means he or she is called by his or her total life experience, by an old world-view, an old ways of being affected. These have failed. All things now will be new.

This change is not therapeutic; it is not about making the person feel good. Instead, it is about giving her a mission. Mission always goes along with conversion or call. In short, it changes the way and the reasons one behaves. Paul’s first experience of humility is asking, “What should I do, Lord?” In that question we find the last element of conversion or repentance: he prays. Prayer and mission always go together.

The repentant person receives a shift in what delights her, in what she cares about. She no longer settles for pleasure, stuff, and status. She has experienced the presence of God and everything, EVERYTHING gets its worth from that.

It is not that her judgment is errorless or that she never becomes upset. She still must make the daily surrenders of those who submit to God’s will.  It is that nothing delights her like the presence of God.

The Psalter begins with the words, “Happy indeed is the one whose offense is forgiven.” Failure is transformed; it becomes ones greatest asset. One’s community is comprised of those who share this experience. Those who discount it are strangers. This is because one cannot forget: what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now.

For her, it is being called out of Egypt.  That is what it is like on the inside!

 

Conversion of St. Paul

[Scripture Readings: Acts 22:30-16; Mk 16:15-18 ]

Psychologist William James, in his book Varieties of Religious experience, says that most conversion experiences are of the “educational variety.” This is the kind St. Benedict's prologue describes. They develop slowly over a period of time. Usually, friends notice a difference in the person long before he or she does. Eventually, though, the person realizes he has undergone a profound alteration in the way life affects him. Furthermore, he realizes that this change was not and could not have been brought about by himself alone.

Then there is the kind that St. Paul had on the road to Damascus: sudden and resulting in a huge shift in perceptions and affections in the interior foundation of one's life.

In both instances conversion is the turn of the soul from “things” to God. A person's god is that to which he gives his life, that on which he sets his heart. That turn began for Paul when he was suddenly overcome by “a great light,” that knocked him to the ground.

A man sprawled on the ground symbolizes a failure. So conversion begins with personal failure. For most that light and its effect come gradually, “like the dawn from on high. He will give light to those in darkness.” In scripture, darkness represents evil and it represents ignorance; light represents good and it symbolizes knowledge. That knowledge is the knowledge of what God is really like. It is a change in what one believes. It is given… for free! It is not earned. It is, perhaps, badly needed, but not earned.

Then, the person is called by name. “Saul, Saul…” This means he is called by his total life experience, by his old world-view, his old ways of being affected. These have failed him. All things now will be new.

Conversion affects a person in such a life-changing way that this display of God's compassion and mercy is called God's greatest power. It is so powerful that it persuades a free, self-willed, and prideful creature to accept what he knows he does not deserve and to agree to receive what he cannot possibly pay for.

This change is not therapeutic; it is not about making the person feel good. Instead, it is about giving him a mission. Mission always goes along with conversion. In short, it changes the way and the reasons one behaves. Paul's first experience of humility is asking, “What should I do, Lord?” In that question we find the last element of conversion: he prays. Prayer and mission always go together.

The converted person receives a shift in what delights him, in what he cares about. He no longer settles for pleasure, stuff, and status. He has experienced the presence of God and everything …EVERYTHING gets its worth from that. It is not that his judgment is errorless or that he never becomes upset. He still must make the daily surrenders of those who submit to God's will. It is that nothing delights him like the presence of God.

As we chanted yesterday, “Happy indeed is the man whose offense is forgiven.” Failure is transformed; it becomes one's greatest asset. This is because the converted cannot forget: what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now.

For him, that is what it is like to be a Christian… on the inside!

Conversion of St. Paul

[Scripture Readings: Acts 22:3-16; Mk 16:15-18]

St. Benedict, in his Rule, describes monasteries as a workshop where we are to toil at the task of living by good works. In the formation of a monastic conscience, then, he lays the foundation of monks listening to the voice of Craft. This is appropriate to a Rule for beginners. Learning a craft develops slowly over a period of time. That is how conversion happens for most of us. Usually, friends notice a difference in us long before we do. Eventually, though, we realize we have undergone a profound alteration in the way life affects us. Furthermore, we realize that this conversion was not and could not have been brought about by oneself alone.

Then there is the kind that St. Paul had on the road to Damascus: sudden and resulting in a huge shift in perceptions and affections in the interior foundation of one's life.

In both instances conversion is the turn of the soul from “things” to God. A person's god is that to which he gives his life, that on which he sets his heart. That turn began for Paul when he was suddenly overcome by “a great light,” that knocked him to the ground. A man sprawled on the ground symbolizes a failure.

So conversion begins with personal failure. For most that “great light” and its effect comes gradually, “like the dawn from on high. He will give light to those in darkness.” In scripture, darkness represents evil and it represents ignorance; light represents good and it symbolizes knowledge. That knowledge is the knowledge of what God is really like by finding out what self is not. It is a change in what one believes. It is given … for free! It is not earned. It is, perhaps, badly needed, but not earned.

Then, the person is called by name. “Saul, Saul …” This means he is called by his total life experience, by his old world-view, his old ways of being affected. These have failed him. All things now will be new.

Conversion affects a person in such a life-changing way that this display of God's compassion and mercy is called God's greatest power. It is so powerful that it persuades a free, self-willed, and prideful creature to accept what he knows he does not deserve and to agree to receive what he cannot possibly pay for.

This change is not therapeutic; it is not about making the person feel good. Instead, it is about giving him a mission. Mission always goes along with conversion. In short, it changes the way and the reasons one behaves. Paul's first experience of humility is asking, “What should I do, Lord?” In that question we find the last element of conversion: he prays. Prayer and mission always go together.

The converted person receives a shift in what delights him, in what he cares about. He no longer settles for pleasure, stuff, and status. He has experienced the presence of God and everything … EVERYTHING gets its worth from that. It is not that his judgment is errorless or that he never becomes upset. He still must make the daily surrenders of those who submit to God's will. It is that nothing delights him like the presence of God.

Psalm 32 begins with the words, “Happy is the man whose offense is forgiven.” Failure is transformed; it becomes ones greatest asset. One's community is comprised of those who share this experience. Those who discount it are strangers. This is because the converted cannot forget: what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now.

For him, that is what it is like to be called out of Egypt … on the inside!

Conversion of St. Paul

[Scripture Readings: Acts 22: 3-16; Mk. 16: 15-18]

I suspect that when we hear the word “conversion” many of us are influenced more or less consciously by the image of a dramatic conversion from a life of serious sin to belief in Jesus Christ and life according to the gospel. These examples of conversion can be edifying in the best sense of the word, but I think conversion covers a wider range of experiences. While conversion can result from an insight into areas of sinfulness in our lives, it can also be an experience of moving away from a largely routine and unreflective practice of religion to recognizing that faith and the behavior that flows out from faith should have a more central place in our lives. There is also a repeated experience of conversion which comes from gaining insight into the areas of our lives where the Holy Spirit is calling us to grow. Preoccupation with the more dramatic forms of conversion can hide the more prosaic and more prevalent calls to conversion that most of us experience.

The account of St. Paul’s conversion is unquestionably dramatic and it is too easy to stop at the level of admiration and gratitude for God’s intervention in his life, but not see it as having any application for our own situations. One feature of this morning’s account of St. Paul’s conversion that stands out for me is the harm that can come from misdirected zeal. In Paul’s mind he was defending God’s cause in upholding the traditions of his people. But that very dedication kept him from seeing that God was entering into the lives of his people in a new and unexpected way. In less dramatic ways our zeal for how we see God acting in our lives can prevent us from seeing that the Holy Spirit is calling us to something new and unexpected. A misdirected zeal can also prevent us from seeing Christ in the other members of his body who think and act in ways that are different from ours.

We certainly need enthusiasm for living according to the gospel, but we need an enthusiasm that humbly recognizes our own limitations and our fallibility. Paul was not called to give up his zeal, but to redirect it in the service of Christ and in the service of the members of Christ’s body whom he had been persecuting. From the time of his encounter with Christ the source of Paul’s zeal was his love for Christ and his love and compassion for his brothers and sisters in Christ. This is an example of zeal that we all can and should imitate. Christ is calling each of us to turn away from zeal that has its source in self-will to zeal that has its source in gratitude for our reconciliation with God in Christ and in compassion for those Christ is calling us to serve.

Conversion of St. Paul

[Scripture Readings: Acts 22:3-16; Mk 16:15-18]

“Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” In my bible, this double emphatic calling of Saul’s name is followed twice by exclamation points. Jesus is shouting. Is Jesus shouting because Saul is hard of hearing? Or is Jesus shouting because he is in pain? “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” Whatever the cause of Jesus raising his voice at this moment, it is the voice of Jesus that points us toward the mystery we are celebrating on today’s Feast of the conversion of St. Paul. Paul’s person and life were transformed because he heard this voice, the voice of Jesus crying out to him. What is happening here? What is the revelation given to Paul at this moment? I would suggest that Paul’s rude awakening; the thing that really shocks and transforms him is his discovery that by his persecution of the Christian people he has initiated a personal encounter with Jesus Christ Himself. Paul has just realized that when you stretch out your hand and touch any member of Christ’s Church, and I do mean any member, from the most obscure person sitting in the last pew to the bishops of the church, or the Pope himself; when you stretch out your hand and in any way make contact with a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, you touch the body of Jesus Christ, and you initiate a personal encounter with the Risen Lord Himself. Jesus does not say, “Saul! Why do you persecute my church?” He says: “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute – me?” The Church is the body of Christ. Saul didn’t know that. Harassing, arresting, and terrorizing the members of Christ’s church, Saul is touching; he is engaging an intimately personal encounter with the risen Lord Himself, and so, to his horror and amazement, suddenly hears Jesus Himself cry out: “Saul! Saul! You are hurting me!” This moment is the “conversion of St. Paul”.

Brothers and sisters, I wonder if, on this day when we remember Paul’s conversion, we might take the occasion to be more attentive to how we ourselves talk about the Church of Jesus Christ. It’s unlikely we have with us here this morning anyone guilty of persecuting Christians, and yet, it can be surprising and a little disconcerting, to listen to how some people today talk about the Church of Jesus Christ. One sometimes hears, these days, the actions of certain finite and culpable representatives of Christ’s church summarily attributed to “the Church” — the Church itself. Some people talk as if the stupid, scandalous, and sinful behavior of certain human representatives of the church were expressive of the whole mystery of the Church which is the Body of the risen Lord! In a recent article in the journal “Doctrine and Life” one reads, and I quote: “To many people today, the Church appears hypocritical and morally bankrupt.” Oh my. And again: “The Church . . . acts like a corporation fighting for survival at the expense of what is right.” And a few lines down: “In the midst of the sex abuse crisis, how can a Catholic justify remaining in the Church?” And finally: “The Church has lost its way.” Brothers and sisters, the sins of some priests and bishops in our day are a source of true scandal and of deep confusion for the people of God, and precisely because this confusion is so serious, we desperately need to be assured that Christ is present to us and cares for us. Maybe some of us are in need of a conversion like St. Paul’s and to be more aware that contact with Christ’s church brings one into intimate contact with the living Lord Himself. The Church is a sacrament of Christ’s personal presence in our midst. When representatives of the church prove to be culpable and irresponsible, we need more than ever to know that Christ is near us, but the church is how Christ has chosen to make himself bodily present to us. In light of this, what kind of conversion experience might a person have if, declaring that “The Church is hypocritical and morally bankrupt”, that person suddenly heard the voice of Jesus shouting his name twice and saying: “Sorry to interrupt but, are you talking about me?”