He suffered the stigmata. He had a vision of heaven. He was once blinded in a dazzling encounter with Christ.
Some medieval mystic? Or perhaps a desert monk? Or maybe one of the Eastern anchorites?
No, it is one of the most recognizable yet nonetheless strangely unknown figures of Christianity: St. Paul.
St. Paul wrote most of the New Testament over a series of epistles. Because of that and because he was not writing about himself, we tend to lose sight of the saint behind these Scriptures. And that may be by design: Paul was self-deprecating and extremely self-conscious in his writing. (“See with what large letters I am writing to you in my own hand!” he once exclaims in Galatians 6:11.) In describing one of his visions, he refers to himself in the third person so as to avoid any of the glory going to him.
Paul was being humble, but we cannot help but see the giant of faith and love that loomed behind those giant letters. The profile that emerges is surely one of the greatest—and surely the original mystic—of the Church.
The conversion story of Paul itself is familiar: his confident march down Damascus, the blinding light, the resurrected Christ asking why Paul was persecuting Him. Of course, given Paul’s humility, we are indebted to Luke’s for the story, rather than Paul.
But on other occasions, Paul himself discloses to us his inner journey to God:
For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better (Philippians 1:21-23.)
Likewise in Galatians 2:20 Paul writes,
I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.
While still in the flesh, Paul experienced intense suffering. Paul accepts these physical trials as necessary humbling lest he should think too highly of himself for all that he has seen:
Although if I should wish to boast, I would not be foolish, for I would be telling the truth. But I refrain, so that no one may think more of me than what he sees in me or hears from me because of the abundance of the revelations. Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated (1 Corinthians 12:6-7).
Paul unites His sufferings to Christ crucified:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church (Colossians 1:24).
In describing his suffering Paul sounds like St. Antony of the Desert. His sense of participation in the sufferings of Christ also has echoes in stigmatics like St. Francis of Assisi. But is this to read too much into Paul? Not at all, elsewhere he is more explicit about union of His suffering with Christ:
From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body (Galatians 6:17).
Like many mystics was a saw and worked wonders. He glimpsed heaven—describing it enigmatically as the ‘third heaven.’ In Acts 19, cloths or aprons that touch Paul are used to heal the sick. In the next chapter, he raises someone from the dead.
Paul exhibits two characteristic marks of mysticism: the sense of a hidden life and conviction that such a life has been united with God. (See, for example, definitions of mysticism here and here.) Both aspects are covered in the related word mystery. Perhaps not surprisingly, Paul uses this word more than any other New Testament writer—a total of 20 times, compared to just 7 total among the remaining authors. Remember that includes all the gospels and one of the most mysterious books ever written, Revelation.
The Greek word mysterion has this sense of something secret, hidden, and divine (according to this dictionary). Paul’s letters are suffused with this conviction that all the mysteries of God have been laid up and disclosed in Christ. Here is just one example:
To me, the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the plan of the mystery hidden from ages past in God who created all things (Ephesians 3:8-9).
But the unveiling of God’s mysteries in Christ is itself mysterious in a twofold manner. Christ, who was God-made-manifest in the flesh, died and his soul passed on to the beyond the land of the living. Then, Christ rose from the dead only to ascend to heaven. His presence became again mysterious and remains so to this day—veiled in the Eucharist, the priesthood, and the Church.
For Paul, this high theology has practical everyday implications for his readers. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” he writes in Colossians 3:3. Our baptism is a participation in the death of Christ, he declares in Romans 6:3. And it is Paul who, in 1 Corinthians 6:19, informs us that our bodies are really temples—places of sacrifice—to the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the Church is really the Body of Christ, according to 1 Corinthians 12:27.
Paul’s own obscurity becomes an invitation to us to enter into the true mystery of Christ. In seeking the hidden saint may we reach the hidden God.
image: Conversion of St Paul by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)