Feast of Conversion of St. Paul

[Scripture Readings: Acts 22:2-16, Mk. 16:15-18]

There was simply too much noise.” A third grade teacher was trying to engage his rambunctious class in the story about St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. He had them act out Saul’s experience by lying on the floor to hear the words of Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” But then things started to get really rowdy.

As the noise level increased, he raised his voice in exasperation. “Okay,” he said, “I want you to do two things. First, make as much noise as you can for two minutes. Then, be absolutely quiet for two minutes. Can you do it?

Joyfully they began making an unholy racket, yelling, shouting and clapping. The odd thing was, they couldn’t keep it up at top volume. After a very short time some covered their ears with their hands and began to look expectantly at their teacher, “Can we stop now?” He shook his head, “Not yet.” Finally, after two minutes, he raised his arms and said, “Silence.”

They laid their heads back and closed their eyes, their hands came down and they were blissfully quiet. No snickering, no kicking, no laughing. There was such silence he could almost hear their hearts beating. When the time was up they kept on being quiet. He asked, “Do you feel closer to God now, or when you were making all that noise?1

That’s what happened when Saul the Persecutor was bearing down on the followers of Jesus in Damascus, urging his companions onward, shaking their fists in the air, shouting out threats about beatings and imprisonment. They were making a lot of noise. Then Saul was knocked to the ground, blinded by such a great light that he could see nothing else except Jesus. He was plunged into such a deafening silence that only he could hear Jesus saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …. I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” At this moment, blinded and silenced, he was much closer to God than ever before. Sometimes Jesus not only knocks on our door; sometimes he has to knock us down so that we will be still and listen.

Flannery O’Connor writes that “It is the business of an artist to uncover the strangeness of truth.” She asks, “What could be stranger than a God who decides to suffer with us?2 God, the greatest Artist, Author and Composer, unveils the strangest truth, revealing to Saul that he is persecuting Jesus, and that Jesus is the Lord.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “It seems to me that all good stories are about conversion, … The action of grace changes [us]… All my stories are about the action of grace on [different] characters.3I write the way I do because, and only because, I am a Catholic. I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything. … I have never had the sense that being a Catholic is a limit to my freedom as a writer, but just the reverse. … I feel that being a Catholic has saved me a couple thousand years in learning how to write.4 That’s what happened to Saul the Persecutor.

He calls his conversion on the road to Damascus a revelation, an unveiling of the Truth with a capital “T“. The action of grace changed him, made him a Christian, a Catholic. He writes, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but one that comes through faith in Christ… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own (Phil. 3:7-12) .

Like Flannery O’Connor and St. Paul, we are so tremendously enriched, given new life by being Catholics. The action of grace gives us faith, hope and love, and has saved us thousands of years in learning how to live, how to be really alive. Now we know that whether we eat or sleep, or work or play all this is for Jesus, with Jesus, in Jesus, and from Jesus. When we laugh or cry, or sing or pray it is because we are Catholic, because grace has changed us so that we “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, … towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14) .

That is the meaning of Saul’s conversion and ours. As he writes to the Ephesians, “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ , has blessed us with every spiritual blessing,… he chose us in Christ… and made known to us the mystery of his will, … a plan to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph 1:3-10) . Can you be still, and listen? “If the singing of birds and the humming of insects could be formed into a chorus, and if the rustling breeze and the tinkling rain could have a voice, and if the roar of the oceans could be put into words, they would all have one thing to [sing]: ‘We were made for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.‘”5