THE CONVERSION OF SAINT PAUL THE APOSTLE
Readings of the day: RB 7:1-4 HumilityMass: Acts 22:3-16 or Acts 9:1-22; Resp. Psalm 117; Mark 16:15-18
Caravaggio, Conversion of St Paul
Today we are gifted with the choice of two readings from the Acts of the Apostles, both accounts of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. Yet another account is presented in Acts 26:2-23. All three accounts mention a light; none of the accounts mentions a horse. Some time ago, I asked: ‘What happened at the moment of Paul’s encounter with the Risen Lord to set Paul on a new spiritual path?’
What about the light? In the three scriptural accounts of Paul’s experience, there seems to be evidence to suggest that there must have been some energy, some cosmic event that brings Paul into relationship with someone he has never met before. While on the road with his companions, Paul experienced a ‘light from the sky that suddenly flashed around him’. This was no ordinary light but a light which forces his body and the bodies of his companions to the ground. In fact, the light is so brilliant that it blinds Paul. As a result, ‘for three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.’ In all three accounts, Paul is called by his Hebrew name, not once, but twice, ‘Saul, Saul’, and then asked, ‘why are you persecuting me?’ Paul, with utmost respect, asks, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord replies, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’ In a flash, literally, Paul’s life makes a 180-degree turn. Pope St John Paul II provides insight into Jesus’ response to Paul’s question and the effect it had on Paul:
In saying this [I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting], the risen Christ identifies himself with his disciples; he identifies himself with the Church. Paul instantly understands all this. It makes a dazzling impression on his soul and becomes the source of all the inspiration that he was later to express in his letters. One could say that at that moment, he received the full light of the gospel through revelation and was converted (Rising in Christ: Meditations on Living the Resurrection, p. 38).
The person of Jesus, whom Paul met on the road to Damascus now animates all his behavior and is the inspiration for Paul’s spirituality. Paul’s mind was set on persecuting Christ when he set out for Damascus. Now Paul proclaims,I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord…I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life (1 Tm 1:12-16).
Pope Francis offers the following:Encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus radically transformed the life of Saint Paul. Henceforth, for him, the meaning of life would no longer consist in trusting his own ability to observe the Law strictly, but rather in cleaving with his whole being to the gracious and unmerited love of God (First Vespers, Solemnity of the Conversion of St Paul, 25 January 2017).
We are unlikely to be dazzled by a brilliant light and thrown off our horse, or out of our car even. One never knows. Still, we can be dazzled by the light of Christ if we are open to the Light that comes. We may be overwhelmed. With grace, we, like Paul, can undergo conversion; be radically transformed—in a flash even—and set out on a new spiritual path, or at least make a few turns. We can be inspired to go bear fruit that will last. St Paul, intercede for us.GO OUT INTO THE WHOLE WORLD AND PROCLAIM THE GOSPEL.