Let’s face it. Given a choice, most of us would choose to have the conversion experienced by St. Paul.
Here’s how Acts 22 describes the sudden conversion of the great apostle, which we celebrated on Sunday:
On that journey as I drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I replied, ‘Who are you, sir?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.’ My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me. I asked, ‘What shall I do, sir?’ The Lord answered me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told about everything appointed for you to do.’ Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light, I was led by hand by my companions and entered Damascus (Acts 22:6-11).
Paul soon regains his sight and is baptized. As far as conversions goes, his has the feeling of an instantaneous experience—a sudden turn in his life that can only be explained by a radical encounter with the risen Christ. Saul, the Pharisee who had persecuted the Christian Church and overseen the stoning of its first martyr, St. Stephen, was transformed into Paul, one of its most zealous missionaries, prolific writers, and greatest saints.
Most of us know someone who has had a Damascus experience: a sudden turn in their lives away from a life of sin, despair, or unbelief into one of holy discipline and loving devotion. We think of the alcoholic who was freed from his addiction or perhaps a drug dealer or gang member who one day walked away from their dark trades.
That is the conversion experience many of us want—a sudden, instant transformation, an irrevocable turn towards Christ. And for those among us who have not experienced it, whose journeys have been more gradual, full of as many twists as turns, sometimes there is a temptation to question the authenticity of our faith. The more dramatic the conversion, the unsaid assumption goes, the more reliable is one’s faith. This is especially true in evangelical Protestantism, but the sentiment carries over into the Catholic Church.
But there is another great New Testament model of conversion: St. Peter.
If we follow Peter through the gospels his story seems to be a series of near conversions followed by cringe-inducing falls from faith.
Consider the story of Peter fishing all night to no avail. In the morning, Jesus gets into his boat tells him to put out one more time and cast his nets yet again. There are so many fish the nets start tearing and the boats are at risk of sinking. Peter falls in front of Jesus, saying, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:3-8).
The address “Lord” is loaded. In the Jewish culture of that time, Lord could be a synonym for the sacred unspoken name of God, Yahweh. Peter’s admission that he is a sinner unworthy to be in the presence of such a holy One seems to reinforce that interpretation.
But then, about a year or two later, Peter fails a profound test of his faith when Christ calls him to walk on the water. Peter gets only so far before losing sight of Christ, looking at the wind, and sinking into the waves. (Read the story in Matthew here.)
Then again, one of Peter’s brightest moments comes after the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, where Jesus explains that his flesh must be eaten and his blood consumed in order to be saved—certainly a hard teaching to accept, then, as it remains today. Walking on water was one thing, but this teaching was a bridge too far for many disciples, who decided to leave the company of Jesus. Peter not only is adamant that he will remain with his Lord, he confesses his deity: “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69).
After this confession, Christ tells Peter He will build His Church on him (in Matthew 16). Could we imagine a more extraordinary confirmation of Peter’s faith? But then Peter almost immediately stumbles. Christ goes on to foretell His death and resurrection and Peter declares that such a thing should never happen, earning perhaps one of the harshest rebukes of all the gospels. In the space of five verses, Peter has gone from being hailed as a rock of the Church to being called, literally, the devil (Matthew 16:23).
Sometime later Peter is one of three disciples to witness the Transfiguration, a manifestation of Jesus is his glorified state that might be comparable to what Paul saw on the road to Damascus. Surely this must be the final turning point for Peter? But alas, it is not. Instead, Peter seems utterly lost and confused by the whole event, offering to pitch tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. (Read Matthew’s account here.)
Peter next enters onto the scene in the events immediately leading up to and during the Passion of the Christ. Here we see him at what is easily the lowest point in his story: his thrice denial of even knowing Christ. (Read the account in Matthew 26).
It is only after the resurrection that Peter begins to make the definitive and final turn towards Christ: he is the first to run into the empty tomb and Jesus appears to him before the others.
Even then, however, Peter’s conversion seems gradual. Christ appears to him and the other disciples several more times. During the second, Christ elicits from Peter a threefold affirmation of his love for Christ—seemingly undoing Peter’s threefold denial. But Peter still doesn’t step into his destined role as the first head shepherd of Christ’s Church. Nor does he step into this role after the Ascension. Instead, we must wait until Pentecost to see him begin preaching and sharing his faith with others.
Incredibly, what had happened to Paul in a matter of days, took years for Peter. (Of course, Paul’s post-conversion life in Christ was no cakewalk, but that’s a topic for another time.)
But rather than being a cautionary tale, Peter’s story is one that ought to encourage us. Here is a man who denied Christ not once, but three times—and this after seeing God Incarnate walking on water, healing the sick and raising the dead, and manifested in a glorified state. Again: even after witnessing the empty tomb, the resurrected Lord, and the Ascension, here is a man who remained reluctant to proclaim the good news!
It’s something for all of us to keep in mind whenever it seems that our entrance into the fullness of the faith is taking longer than expected or has even taken an unexpected twist or turn for what seems like the worse. Remember: both Peter and Paul were apostles, authors of Scripture, and great saints in their own ways. But only one became the rock of the Church.