Thursday, January 25, 2007

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Apostle
God of Surprises!

Readings: Acts 22:3-16 or Acts 9:1-22; Psalm 117:1bc, 2; Mark 16:15-18

It is possible to celebrate today’s feast and to listen to the story of St. Paul’s conversion as if it were simply an incident that happened to someone else a long time ago. It is, of course, a crucially important event in the history of church. It led to the spread of Christianity far beyond the original circle of Jewish followers of Christ. It’s at least arguable that, if not for Paul, we all might not be Christian. But is that really the full extent of its importance? Is that the only reason why the story of Paul’s conversion is recounted no less than three times in the Acts of the Apostles alone? Is there not something more we can gain by meditating upon Paul’s story? Can we not, for example, learn something about what conversion means for us?

It is perhaps important first to notice what Paul’s conversion was not. It wasn’t really a turning from an ungodly life to a godly one. Although, before he met Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus was persecuting Christians to the death, he was doing it out of religious zeal. He thought he was actually serving God by doing so. His conversion was thus not so much a turning to God as an embrace of a new vision of God in Jesus Christ and his Body, the church. How did this happen?

Saul was struck to the ground by a light that came from heaven.

God disrupted his journey – derailed his plans – even as he was doing what he thought was his God-given duty. God surprised him. And where Saul at first thought that he could clearly see what God wanted of him, he was now blinded by the bright light of God’s new intervention. He needed others to help him to see again, to help him embrace this new vision of God in his life.

Doesn’t something similar also happen to us sometimes? For a time, we may be happily, even enthusiastically, praying to God and working for God and then something happens. God invites us to see things differently. We may be struck down, surprised, even blinded for a while, because our eyes need time to adjust to the bright light of God’s new presence. This could happen in our work, in our prayer, in our relationships. God invites us to see something new, to relate with him and his people in a new way. And it doesn’t just happen once in a person’s life, does it? Consider the experience of Ananias.

Like Saul, he too was surprised by the Lord. He too was invited to see things differently. How might he have felt when the Lord called him to go to Saul to lay hands on him and instruct him in the faith? He protests, Saul has only come here… to arrest everybody who invokes your name. But the Lord offers him a new vision of who Saul will be. You must go all the same, because this man is my chosen instrument…

Quite clearly, it isn’t Saul alone who is converted in this story. In a sense, so too are Ananias and the rest of the Christian community. And it is only when they all allow themselves to be converted, to be continually surprised by God that the Good News comes to be proclaimed to the whole world with great signs and wonders.

In our own journeys, how might the Lord be surprising us today?

1 comment:

  1. The conversion of Paul never fails to engage me. Like Fr Chris says, the event is not monumental merely because it heralded the start of the spread of Christianity among the gentiles, but because a conversion, dramatic or obscure, never fails to inspire.

    Like Fr Chris says, it's not that Paul was a pagan and then "saw the light of day", recanted of his misguided motivations and turned to the True Light. Paul did not abandon the zealousness with which he persecuted the Chrstians before his conversion; instead he turned that into the service of God's Kingdom. The same with St Ignatius of Loyola. A brash young soldier before his conversion, he retained his burning zeal for fame and glory, but now re-directed for the greater glory of God. Isn't it amazing, the power of conversion? It doesn't radically change the individual's character, but rather re-focuses it in pursuit of higher goals? God builds on the person / character that He created.

    Paul's conversion was spectacular. In a matter of minutes, it was over. He was zapped into a new being. For many of us, it is often a slow, arduous process. Like all growth, the process can be painful or uncomfortable at best. Why? Because it means that we're morphing into a new person with fresh ideals and fresh commitments. We're dropping everything that is counter-Christian. And this is when the support of fellow believers and pastors is crucial.

    Have you witnessed for yourself a conversion in your family, your neighborhood group, in the Parish, your work place? I have. And everytime I meet that person, I say "So-and-so, forget about the spinning sun and rosaries turned into gold in Medjugorgye. You are a living testament of a miracle (conversion) that Almighty God has blessed me with". May we all be more and more open to grace and the friendship of fellow believers to bring about a gradual conversion in our own lives.