|The Conversion of St. Paul|
“It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die
Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”
What makes us change our minds? What makes us change our lives? Henry David Thoreau writes that, “Things do not change; we change.” Yet change can be the thing we fear most. To change, we must first let go of what was, of the way things used to be, of the people we once were. We must free-fall into the unmapped chasm of the future. We must leap and embrace the fall.
Saint Paul, the man after whom I am named, had a major conversion experience in his life. He was Saul, a Pharisee, an observant Jew who studied Mosaic Law and considered himself a zealot for the Chosen People. He hated the reformers who took their cues from Jesus Christ, and actively persecuted them with murderous, predatory fervor.
According to Luke in Acts of the Apostles, Saul’s life changed in an instant on a road in Damascus. He was struck down by a blinding light, and a booming voice of thunder called out to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, sir?” Saul responded.
“I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting…”
His traveling companions witnessed the event, and when they rushed to help Saul, they found him weakened and blind. For three days he lived in darkness, unable to eat or drink.
In another part of the city lived a Jesus-disciple named Ananias who had a vision from God that told him to help Saul, but Ananias was scared. Saul was well known for his cruelty and persecution of Jews who embraced Jesus. However, Ananias did what he was called to do. He put hands on Saul, and “Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.” He was baptized and became Paul, and thus began a most intense mission to spread the good news of Jesus.
It is a great story full of tension and excitement, but it raises issues. Paul might have been an epileptic—there is some indication he was in both Acts of the Apostles and in his epistles. Could his blindness have been the result of a Grand mal seizure? This does not explain what his fellow travelers witnessed with the light and thunderous words.
Could he have actually been struck by lightning? This is intriguing, because he had trouble swallowing food after being hit. A victim of a lightning strike often has difficulty with muscle coordination as well as blindness, amnesia, and speaking. But in many accounts, Paul could speak and he remembered the moment he was stricken.
There is a deeper, more human issue with Paul’s conversion. People rarely change their lives in an instant. Sure, it does happen—a heart attack, an accident, the death of a loved one—but mostly people change over time, or they resist and never change at all. The process is long, reflective in nature, and fraught with missteps, false starts, and a myriad of setbacks. There is fear, uncertainty, trepidation. We don’t wake up one day and change our names, our beliefs, the very foundation of our lives, unless something momentous happens. If we believe Luke, something momentous did happen, but his is not the only account of the conversion experience.
Paul, himself, talks about his conversion as being a quieter, more internal, and therefore a bit more believable change. By all accounts, Jesus was a revolutionary figure who changed the world. He offered Jews a whole new way to live, and the ripples he caused spread throughout the Roman Empire. Over time, Paul had a gradual realization. He grew up with Hellenistic philosophy in a multi-cultural society. He studied the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Cynics. He stood outside and inside Judaism, and his experiences must have opened his mind to the Messianic ideas presented by Jesus, even though the two never met.
A third global religion was born, and Paul helped with the delivery. It would be years before the word, “Christian,” entered the lexicon, but Paul became a voice in the burgeoning movement within traditional Judaism. Saul of Tarses disappeared. A man named Paul took his place.
So, I was reading Paul’s words and thinking about a conversion experience. Rilke writes, “You must change your life.” But how does a person do that? Is it a dramatic fire in the sky and the booming voice of a god? Is it the dawn’s early light sneaking over the horizon in the east waking us up to the gradual recognition that we must live differently now?
For me, it is subtle, a long ripening to fruition. It is a tentative process after much heartache and disappointment. I am the dog who chases his own tail. I slash and burn and torture myself. I sit in the eye of the storm and try to sweep away the clouds. I forget the lesson that clouds and storms are necessary. Only through the wind and rain can new life begin and we can be transformed from the people we once were to the people we wish to become.
Sometimes, the blinding light comes in an instant. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. But come it will, on the road to somewhere or in the middle of the darkest of nights. The change will come.