Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
[Scripture Readings: Acts 22:3-16; Mk 16:15-18]
The words we use can slowly change their meaning for us under the influence of culture and experience. One such word is “zealous.” Someone was once held up as a good example because they were zealous. They were energetic, enthusiastic, committed, focused, and turned on by what they had given themselves to. But the zealous person could easily turn in to a “zealot”, a fanatic. We skeptically bided our time until we would see the burnout, the loss of motivation. Or we would see nothing but ambition and task-orientation. It is not a positive, but a lack. A lack of balance or moderation, a lack of due proportion.
But perhaps this reinterpretation and demythologizing of observed zeal is a result of our not wanting to admit the force of zeal within ourselves. We push it underground and our “moderation” becomes an acceptable name for apathy, indifference, mediocrity or even acedia. We don't acknowledge our capacity to be set on fire, to become ardent about anything.
Paul called himself “zealous.” “I was zealous for God, just as all of you are today.” He wasn't converted from his zeal, but within his zeal. He was zealous before his conversion and zealous afterwards. He was uncompromising, insistent, and even annoying. St. Benedict frequently refers to zeal or its many cognate terms in the Rule. He expects that the monk will be led by care, concern, solicitude, single-mindedness, and even love. These are forms of the good zeal which “separate from evil and lead to God.” But he was equally aware of the toxic form of bad zeal—what he calls the “wicked zeal of bitterness.” Bitter zeal can infect the capacity to see and experience reality around us. It becomes contagious. It breeds jealousy, envy, disparagement, criticism and contempt. It lives off its very negativity and hostility. It draws its meaning and strength from its opposition to others. It needs enemies.
Paul was converted from his pharisaism which has been defined as the “unconscious but active conviction that in religious matters one must takes one's destiny into one's own hands.” He was a man who came charging with full credentials and authorization to punish all the followers of the Way. He was certain of the ground on which he stood. Until the real God opened that space and filled it with his light to reveal his Son to him. Paul's conversion was not his own work, but the result of God's drawing near to him. We prayed in the collect, “Draw us near to you, through the example of Paul whose conversion we celebrate today.” Conversion is God undercutting those certainties and solidities that “separate us from God and lead to hell.” We are drawn closer to God's own jealous love.
The scene from Acts is composed of four stages of this encounter. God addresses Saul as a person, now lying on the ground of reality with only the dignity of his own humanity. “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul realizes he is being addressed by a person to whom he can respond, even only with a question “Who are you sir?” He is confronted with the Jesus who is not a remote deity or who can be approached through systems or abstractions. “I am Jesus the Nazarene whom you are persecuting.” He is immediately affected in the actions and lives of the followers of the Way. Pope Francis has addressed the evil zeal which seeks to neutralize and anesthetize that living space of encounter with God. “This practical relativism consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist…. They fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission.” The final stage in this encounter and conversation is Saul's asking “What must I do?” What is the new way of living in the spirit and zeal that flows from our baptismal incorporation into Christ? Benedict's answer: “This then is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another's weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead what he judges better for someone else.” The way of constant Christian conversion is that which “separates from evil and leads to God and eternal life.”
Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
[Scripture Readings: Acts 22:2-16, Mk. 16:15-18]
Ceaseless prayer is at the heart of Christian and monastic life. In Jesus’ parable about the widow and the unjust judge, our Lord taught that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart”. After St. Paul’s mystical encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus he was always aware of the presence of Christ. Every one of his letters is centered on Jesus. This year’s theme for the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, that ends today, is taken from St. Paul’s teaching: pray constantly. But do you know in what letter St. Paul teaches this? If Fr. Brendan or Fr. Xavier were home we might ask them.
Instead, I hear Fr. Alberic saying, “It’s in First Thessalonians.” Br. Paul Andrew replies, “No, it’s in his letter to the Romans.” Then Br. Joseph says, “I believe it’s really in Colossians.” Br. Ephrem’s voice rises above the others, booming out, “I know for certain that this teaching is in the letter to the Ephesians.” And Fr. Bernard, who has a phenomenal memory, responds in his gentle voice, “It’s in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, chapter 5, verse 5.” Fr. Kenneth says, “That’s right.”
And so it is. Echoing the teaching of Jesus himself, St. Paul tells Timothy, “The true widow continues in prayer night and day.“ But now I see Br. Ephrem opening his Syriac New Testament and in a voice that needs no microphone, he reads from Ephesians 5:19, “…always and for everything give thanks.” And Fr. Tom adds his piece, “Don’t forget Ephesians 6:18, “pray at all times.” Fr. Thaddeus waits for a moment of silence and then quotes Colossians 4:2 from memory, “Continue steadfastly in prayer.” Br. Cyprian, with a look of surprise on his face, replies, “Why those are almost the same words Paul uses in Romans 12, verse 12: ‘…be constant in prayer.'” At this point Fr. David captures our attention with a commanding glance and has the last word, saying definitively, “The classic text has always been First Thessalonians 5:17, ‘Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.‘” Br. Robert smiles with delight and adds a fervent, “Yes!”
Br. Walter, marveling at the realization that they are all correct, exclaims, “That means not once, but six times,” and he repeats it for emphasis, “six times, St. Paul tells us to pray always.” Fr. Jim says, “He really means it!”
At this point Br. Nicholas, who is young in age but able to present wise and difficult questions, asks, “Why then does St. Benedict teach in chapter four of the Holy Rule, ‘To devote oneself frequently to prayer;’ why does he say frequently and not always?“1 Brothers John, Paul, and Albert look around to see who will reply.
But there’s a shuffling of feet as many others look down at the floor, communicating non-verbally, “Don’t ask me!” After an awkward silence, Fr. Neil who teaches classes on the Holy Rule, offers a solution. He says, “St. Benedict uses the Latin phrase, ‘orationi frequenter incumbere,’ which literally means ‘to prostrate frequently in prayer.’ He is inviting us to frequently interrupt our reading or our work to pray prostrate on the ground. It would be impossible to bow down or kneel or lie prostrate on the ground all the time. So he does not write, ‘orationi semper incumbere,’ but, ‘orationi frequenter incumbere.’ By means of these frequent exterior prostrations our holy legislator wants us to foster and sustain the spirit of ceaseless interior prayer. That’s what he teaches in the first degree of humility, urging us to ‘keep the fear of God before one’s eyes and beware of ever forgetting it.’” Hearing this, Br. Gilbert replies with a respectful, “Thank you.”
Then Fr. Stephen, aware of his weakness, laments out loud saying, “But for us who are lazy, ill-living and negligent this teaching is a source of shame and confusion. I’m afraid the lofty height of ceaseless prayer is beyond me.” Brothers Felix and Placid, Dennis and Tobias sympathize with him, saying, “Yes, who can do it?”
Thank goodness for the wisdom of our seniors! Fr. Daniel, speaking from one hundred years of experience, most of them as a monk, comes to the rescue. He chuckles out loud and says, “You have to put both feet on the ground. Remember what the 17th century Carmelite, Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, teaches about the practice of the Presence of God. He writes, ‘God does not ask much of us, merely a thought of him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes asking for his grace, sometimes offering him your sufferings, at other times thanking him for the graces past and present that he has bestowed on you, and in the midst of your troubles to take solace in him as often as you can. The least little remembrance will always be most pleasing to him. One need not cry out very loudly. He is nearer to us than we think.‘”2 Fr. Daniel glances around saying, “Isn’t that right?” Br. Kevin, showing how much he agrees with this word of wisdom, supports him with a quote from the letters of a great spiritual director, Dom John Chapman, saying, “Yes, pray as you can, not as you can’t.”
Our newest members, Brothers Julian and Michael, Jeff and Marcelo, and Fr. John, Peter and all our guests take heart at these comforting words, finding hope that with small beginnings they might someday receive such a great grace to pray always, to fulfill the teaching of Jesus that is repeated so many times by St. Paul on ceaseless prayer.
Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
[Scripture Readings: Acts 22:3-16 (or Acts 9:1-22); Mk 16:15-18]
A man was into gambling vice for almost a decade. He justifies it as his legitimate recreational outlet. With his friends, at the betting table or slot machine, he would take extra bottles of booze. Oh, he would lose quite a sum! Soon his pockets, health and family were hurting. He knew he had to change but he did not know how. Whenever he was back to his friends, all resolve for a better life was gone.
One day, he went on a mountain hike with some comrades in work. Happily he led the way to the heights taking with him not bottles of water, but cans of beer. A beautiful panorama of the sea with its clear waters and reefs was to the right of the cliff they were passing by.They stopped to admire the beauty of the place. While he pointed to his companions the scenic view with a can of beer on his hand, he slipped and lost his balance. He started to fall into the deep waters. Luckily, his backpack with a tailing rope got stuck on a tree branch on the side of the cliff. He was sweating profusely as he hanged on to his dear life. Soon the branch was breaking loose. He screamed for help as he was falling when…suddenly he woke up. He was lying on the floor of their living room, clutching on the edge of the sofa with a beer can in the other hand. He stood up and thanked God that it was but a dream, but it seemed so real. When he got hold of his former high school buddy who became a priest, he asked him what this meant. The friend simply said, “Why delay? Get up and kick off the vices you are in. God is awakening you to a better life.”
Paul who was formerly known as Saul was reticent about the details of the Damascus experience he had. He spoke about it in his letter to the Galatians as God’s intervention in view of his mission to the Gentiles,It was rather Luke, the author of Acts and a likely companion in his missionary journeys who describes more vividly that incident. Was it for real or was it only a dream? Was it an accident or was it God-planned?
Luke narrates the incident in Damascus three times in chapters 9, 22 and 26. Evidently, as Paul was zealously pursuing the Christians in Damascus to persecute them, he fell when a very bright light shone around him and heard Jesus telling him that he was actually persecuting Jesus the Nazorean. He got blinded for the next three days. When Ananias a devout Jewish Christian touched him, scale-like things fell from his eyes and he began to see, . The man explained to him the meaning of the event and urged him to act at once. He told him, “Why delay then? Be baptized and wash away your sins,” . Thus began the conversion process for Paul in serving as the Lord’s servant and witness before the Gentiles.
We may ask whether it really happened. Most likely, Paul met the Lord on his way to Damascus in a unique vision. But how did that happen? That is where Luke supplies us with graphic details as in a cinema take. What matters though is not so much the actual details but the significance of the experiencefor Paul and for us who hear about it. Paul got blinded and after three days, he saw again. That was a unique experience of dying and rising like his master Jesus. His death was marked by living in darkness. His getting blinded only expressed what has been going on in his life. He was an ardent Jew who has become very fanatical and blinded about the Law as his means of salvation. He was ready to kill and bring into God’s judgment whoever did not conform to his way of thinking. Like Jesus, he had to go through death for three days and on the third day he would rise again. Seeing light anew meant life for himthis time in the light of Christ. No longer is the Law the focus of his life. It is already Christ. Years later, he kept saying, “I have been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me,”. New life for him meant new interests and new concerns that gave him more peace and enabled him to share it with others. Paul attests, “Those things I used to consider gain I have now reappraised as loss…in the light of the surpassing knowledge of Christ. For his sake, I have accounted all else rubbish so that Christ may be my wealth,” . With Christ as his newfound treasure, and no longer the Law, he was able to sacrifice himself for the mission planned for him, treading lands and crossing oceans to preach Christ to all peoples.
There is evidently a changed Paul after Damascus. He was no longer the uptight and bigoted persecutor of Christ’s disciples; he was more relaxed, calm and patient apostle of the Lord who was ready to be persecuted for Christ. To others called like Paul through an earth-shaking experience, it may mean a moral conversion, like giving up dependencies in an abusive life as in drugs, alcohol, sex, ambition or pride. To other searchers, it means giving up old beliefs to a liberating one in Christ. Be it ontological, moral or spiritual conversion, a Damascus experience means “repenting one’s sins and believing in the Gospel of Christ,”.
After spending a few minutes of sincere prayer, it gives us a nice feeling of peace and quiet. After listening to a lecture or inspiring homily on the need to renew one’s life, we feel the desire to change to a better course. After making a personal or directed retreat of a few days, we are more determined to be faithful in our spiritual life. And yet, after a few steps back into the world, the resolve seems to readily disappear. Ananias told Paul on his experience: “Why delay then? Be baptized and wash away your sins.” It could mean receiving baptism in the church. It could mean going for the sacrament of Reconciliation and Eucharist. To a couple living together, it could mean having the relationship blessed in Matrimony. It could mean spending extra time in apostolate or works of mercy. It means that the Lord calls us to a deeper life of love and mercy with Him.
I found an interesting letter of Paul to a beloved disciple. There he pours out his heart with a deep sense of gratitude and humility before the grace of God. Let me read it to you: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me, made me his servant and judged me faithful. I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance… Because I did not know what I was doing in my unbelief, I have been treated mercifull…with overflowing measure. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I myself am the worst. But on that account, Jesus Christ displayed all his patience in me as an extreme case. Now I hope to become an example to those who would later have faith in him and gain everlasting life,” . Lovingly yours, Paul.
Through this letter, Paul rightly serves as the Lord’s mouthpiece of His mercy and love. We know that this touching letter was addressed “to Timothy, my own true child in faith.” However, as we read it more closely, it is addressed also to you and me, who are equally loved by God. Shall we not love Him ardently in return? Why delay then?