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The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

Christianity is unique among the world’s great religions in this: that its founder is to His closest followers not merely a prophet, pattern of conduct, or Divine figure revealed in the historic past, but the object here and now of an experienced communion of the most vivid kind.

Evelyn Underhill

The most vivid kind indeed…

Detail from Caravaggio’s The Conversion of St. Paul. 1601

Paul of Tarsus, arguably the most important figure in the development of early Christianity, was knocked off his (proverbial) horse by an experience of the risen Christ so vivid as to render him blind and dumb for three days. This experience turned him from a fearsome terror and persecutor of Christians, with “threat and murder” on his breath, to the celebrated saint who would pen some of the most glorious words of Christian literature:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

And if I shall dole out all my goods in food, and if I deliver up my body that I may be burned, but have not love, I profit nothing.

Love has long patience, is kind; love is not emulous [of others]; love is not insolent and rash, is not puffed up, does not behave in an unseemly manner, does not seek what is its own, is not quickly provoked, does not impute evil, does not rejoice at iniquity but rejoices with the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:1-8 (Darby Bible Translation)

It is interesting that Paul doesn’t use the word ‘conversion’ to describe his experience on the road to Damascus, for by his own confession Paul can’t recall a time when he didn’t love God. His conversion wasn’t from unbelief to belief. His was a radical transformation from violent zeal for God to cruciform love in response to his traumatic encounter with the risen Christ. His was a transformation from patriarchal, exclusionary tribalism to egalitarian inclusivity, from law to grace, from judgment to mercy, from death to life. It was a paradigm shift so profound that it took roughly 14 years of solitary reflection to unpack the epiphany’s significance enough to even begin a public ministry – for mystic experience always begins with the grace of an apprehension but equally demands the hard work of comprehension and articulation.

In her brilliant book Mystics of the Church, Evelyn Underhill argues that the first word of Christianity is the word of mysticism – that is, a direct encounter with the divine, revealing “deep regions of truth and beauty” otherwise beyond our reach. Paul’s initial encounter with deep regions of truth and beauty did not result from reading the accounts of those who knew Jesus in the flesh, for the Gospels had not yet been written at the time of his encounter. In fact, all the letters attributed to Paul were written well before the letters and accounts written by the other apostles. The placement of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) at the beginning of the New Testament gives one the impression that all the letters which follow flow from them. In truth, the first word of Christianity, and the astonishing implications of that word, precede eyewitness accounts of Jesus in the flesh. Paul’s account is the result of his own personal encounter with the risen, cosmic Christ whose astonishing words “Why are you persecuting me?” revolutionized humanity’s understanding of its relationship to the Creator, and by extension, to all that God has made. From this simple question Paul conceives and bears forth his theology of the Church as the Body of Christ through which God restores God’s relationship with all creation through his very self: that loving tri-unity of mutually constituting love and grace from which creation flows in the first place.

We first encounter Paul (a.k.a. Saul) in the biblical account of the stoning of Stephen, the first deacon of the Church and also its first martyr. Deacons were set apart especially to assist and assure that the poor and the marginalized (mostly Hellenized widows) were cared for – already a sign that the Christian community ran a counter-narrative to the dominant culture, which would have interpreted poverty and social marginalization as the judgment of God rather than the unspoken conspiracy of the privileged. Indeed, the early Church intuited and gave witness to the radical view of human dignity Paul would eventually lend words to: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Yet long before these words were penned, Paul was the attending, shadowy figure at Stephen’s murder, silently standing while the mob laid their cloaks at his feet before turning on their victim, quite possibly at Paul’s command. It must have been unsettling, even jarring, to hear the words of forgiveness from Stephen’s lips as the stones pummelled flesh and bone until he no longer breathed. We can never know how much this event preconditioned Paul to later receive the revelation of Christ. But it is safe to assume that a dying martyr’s declaration of forgiveness and love could shake up the most self-righteous of zealots, preparing him for a conversion that will eventually change the world.

Sure enough, as Paul journeyed down the road to Damascus, Christ appeared in a flash of blinding light, stopping him in his murderous tracks, and transforming the course of his life and, consequently, of Christianity itself.

We live in an age where violent religious zeal seems to be on the rise at the same time as the Church (in the West, anyway) seems to have lost confidence and courage in her story and in her gift to the wider society, which is, among other things, the gift of cruciform love that challenges and dissipates cruel zealotry by absorbing hatred and violence rather than confronting it on its own terms.

The story of Paul’s transformation seems more important than ever as Christianity seeks to renew itself for the sake of the world, and ultimately, for Christ’s sake. May Christ toss us off our horse that we might see his light, hear his voice and rise from our deaf muteness to utter the words of life.

St. Paul
by Malcolm Guite

An enemy whom God has made a friend,

An enemy whom God has made a friend,
A righteous man discounting righteousness,
Last to believe and first for God to send,
He found the fountain in the wilderness.
Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,
A prisoner who set his captors free,
A naked man with love his only garment,
A blinded man who helped the world to see,
A Jew who had been perfect in the law,
Blesses the flesh of every other race
And helps them see what the apostles saw;
The glory of the Lord in Jesus’s face.

Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,
And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.

Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year (Canterbury Press, 2012), 24.