The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
[Scripture Readings: Acts 22:3-16; Mark 16:15-18.]
It has been a while since I’ve heard the merits of “zeal” being publicly promoted in the community. It used to be the hallmark of a real monk. Certain monks would be singled out for their zeal for the office, their zeal for work, their zeal for obedience. It was a wonderful and mysterious energy that seemed to spring form inner commitment and was opposed to all forms of acedia: lethargy, laziness, passivity, or malingering. A zealous novice was the joy of the novice master and procurator and the bane of those of us more moderate, measured and reserved in our approach to life. But in several places in the Rule, Benedict advocates forms of good zeal – so it obviously has its place in the canon of monastic practice.
You don’t have to read the newspaper beyond the headlines to know that our world is full of zealous people. They are utterly convinced of the rightness of their positions; they have no doubts or questions; they are filled with an intensity that directs all their energies in the service of THE CAUSE. Theirs is usually a world of clear lines between right and wrong, black and white.
Paul was clearly such a man. He gloried in the self-description of being “zealous.” “I was zealous for God.” He was devout, committed, orthodox. “I was educated strictly in our ancestral law.” An earlier account of his conversion in chapter 9 of Acts describes him as “breathing murderous threats.” From all that we know of him after his conversion, there is no reason to think of him as having become tranquil, cool, and unflappable in all circumstances. He remained a zealous person. What, then, was his conversion? Did he suddenly succumb to a superior external force which had the power to throw him to the ground and blind him with its light? External disruption and even crisis can sometimes be the occasion for conversion, but there is no guaranteed relationship. We have known too many losses and defeats which only deepened us in the path we were stubbornly pursuing.
The pivotal point in this mysterious scene of conversion seems to lie in the conversation between Saul and the Lord. That Saul’s question should be “Who are you, sir?” indicates that he realized he was in the presence of another person and not an anonymous force. This intervention was personal, and it opened up that internal source of his own energy, zeal, and identity. Zeal, activity, energy, commitment – all these can hide and even distort the real roots of our desire and longing. Saul was addressed by name, taken out of the web of social allegiances, justifications, legitimations, alone in his responsibility even among his companions. He was thrown to the ground with only the humble dignity of his humanity, and none of the social status of an armed emissary of the authorities in Jerusalem. Real communication and dialogue with the Lord only rise from an unadorned and unpretentious posture.
“I am Jesus the Nazarene whom you are persecuting.” To understand this statement is, I think, to be illumined by that same light which illumined and blinded Saul. It is to understand that the world in which we are immersed and which we treat so casually and even contemptuously is itself the milieu in which we are confronted by Jesus the Christ. The body of humanity is itself his body. We want immediately to anesthetize this with verbal distinctions and metaphoric analogizing. To allow ourselves to hear this statement is to be knocked to the ground off our social constructions of what is evidently true and reasonable. It is to understand that the zeal and convictions which carry us on the highways of life may be misguided and misplaced. What if we were to hear personally from Jesus that we are persecuting him in our behavior and way of life? Would that cut to the quick of our spirits and heart? Could Jesus possibly say such a thing to us? Is there no one who suffers because of the way we live? Is no one excluded from the circle of our respect, love, and acceptance? Do we reap no benefit from the labor, poverty or injustice done to others? Is no one the object of our sustained animosity can contempt, no one cut off from the pale of our understanding of the human? Maybe not. Maybe we have fulfilled those verses of chapter 72 of the Rule of Benedict in which he describes “the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love. They should each try to be the first to show respect to each other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weakness 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.” Maybe our zeal has already been transformed into this good zeal. Then we can join company with the converted Paul and say it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
[Scripture Readings: Acts 22:2-16, Mk. 16:15-18]
“There’s a stone in the middle of the road, in the middle of the road there’s a stone.” And Saul, the persecutor, is heading down that road. I hope you won’t mind if I borrow the image Fr. Brendan used to illustrate two of his homilies. Archbishop Hanus once told me that during the silent period after he gave an eloquent homily a young boy looked up to his father and asked, “Daddy, what did he say?” The boy needed a concrete image to capture his imagination and memory.
Saul was a young man around 25 years old when the Lord captured not only his imagination, but his whole person: as he later told the Philippians, “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3:12). Saul’s journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, 150 miles away, gave him plenty of time to think about the violence he was using against followers of Jesus — raging against them, casting them into prison, voting to put them to death. They were like stones in the middle of the road and he was determined to get rid of them all. But he had to kick against the wise counsel of his gentle teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel, who said, “Let them alone. If this undertaking is of men it will fail; if it is from God you will not be able to overthrow them.” (Acts 5:38f) Saul was about to find out that it was from God.
Like the proud, unsinkable Titanic heading full speed toward a giant iceberg, Saul went crashing headlong into a stone in the middle of the road that flattened him to the ground. The rock was Christ. When Paul describes his experience to the Galatians he does not call it a conversion. He calls it an apocalypse (Gal. 1:11 & 16), an experience of revelation, a tearing away of the veil over his mind to let him see the risen Lord. From then on he counted everything else as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.
Writing to the Corinthians he compared God’s gift of revelation to the creation of light at the beginning of the world. “It is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6)
Having captured Saul’s attention, while he was still lying on the ground, Jesus said to him, “Why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” Another veil was torn away. Saul suddenly understood the mystery that was hidden for ages, that God’s plan is to unite everyone to Christ. All those little stones Saul despised are divinized by Christ, they are one body with the risen Jesus. Saul could not destroy the body of Christ any more than he could flatten snowcapped Mount Hermon around which he had just passed along his way to Damascus. This apocalypse, this revelation, uncovered the splendor of the Lord’s glory and of his Mystical Body. It also filled Saul with terrible shame and deep anguish for having persecuted Jesus in his members. He said to the Corinthians, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.” (1 Cor 15:9) “I am the foremost of sinners.” (1 Tim 1:15).
For the next three days Saul could not see, eat or drink. It was as if he had died and was buried in his sinfulness. Then on the third day Ananias came, told Saul to rise up, baptized him, nourished him with the Eucharist and strengthened him with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Saul became better known as Paul, a Greek name meaning “the little one,” for he considered himself the very least of all the saints (Eph. 3:8). Paul spent the rest of his life proclaiming the mystery that was now unveiled: Christians are not isolated stones in the middle of the road. They are members of God’s household, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
John Cassian draws an important lesson for us from Paul’s apocalyptic experience. He writes, “When Christ himself called and spoke to Paul even though he could have revealed to him the [whole] way of perfection then and there, he willed to send him to Ananias, an old man, to be instructed by his teaching.” Paul received an extraordinary revelation, but his greatest grace, reception into the mystery of Christ, came to him in the same sacramental way as it does to all Christians, and it was through obedience to Ananias that he learned what he must do. The man Saul would have cast into prison became the brother who revealed God’s will to him. Paul’s story teaches us that when we rely too much on ourselves to discern God’s will, we risk ending up doing our own will, or even opposing God. As with Paul, God urges us to use obedience to discern his will for our lives.
As living stones in the heavenly temple of Christ’s body, let us celebrate this Eucharist with gratitude because God has made us an apocalyptic people, a people for whom his plan has been uncovered, revealed to us through the prophets, apostles, evangelists, and St. Paul.