Saint Paul and the School of Conversion

Of the Church’s expanse of saints, St. Paul has the distinction of a feast day celebrating his conversion. As with all the rest of her liturgy, the Church seeks to teach through her feasts; such is the case for St. Paul’s Conversion.  What, then, does the Church desire to teach us?

Let us look at three possible themes.

The Mystical Body of Christ

The Conversion of St. Paul begins when Paul was Saul, a devout son of Israel (Phil. 3:6).  Saul hunted his theological enemies, the Christians, wherever they resided.  He witnessed and approved of the murder of St. Stephen.  He was on the way to Damascus to arrest more Christians when a bright light knocked him to the ground.  A voice asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  When Saul asked this victim’s identity, the voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  This was the moment of conversion, the moment where Saul ceased and Paul proceeded.  No argument convinced this master of the Law; it was an encounter with the risen Christ, whom Saul had been persecuting in his war against Christians.

The effects of this encounter appear in every epistle of Paul’s, where we hear the echo of Christ’s identification with His Church.  From this encounter, Paul developed his theology of the Mystical Body of Christ.  In Paul, we learn that we are “one body” in Christ, adopted into Him by our baptism, with our Eucharistic communion as the sign of our spiritual union (see Romans 12, among others)

That is the first lesson the Church seeks to teach us in this feast. No matter who we are, sinners or saints, we are all united in Christ.  Our Church has continually, since the cross, faced division and disagreement. Such was not the wish of He who prayed that his disciples “be one” (John 17:21).  So the Church holds up this feast of Paul’s Conversion as a reminder that we are meant to be united in Him who suffered and died for us. It is a reminder that we should offer prayers for Christians throughout the world who unite their sufferings with those of Our Lord. “Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer” (Romans 12:12).

Continual Conversion

Whether born into the Faith or converted later in life, this story of Paul’s Conversion reminds us of our continual need for conversion.  Paul’s life prior to the Damascus road point to this fact.  Saul was as upstanding as one could be in first century Judaism.  A Pharisee, Saul followed the Law with devotion, learning from the great Jewish teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).  Yet despite this devotion, he needed to turn back to God.  He knew the teaching of the Law, but did not yet know the Lawgiver.  Thus his need for conversion (he said as much in Philippians 3).

Now most of us will not have as dramatic a conversion as Paul did.  However, at some point we need a return to God.  For many, this will be a sort of second conversion, a deepening of our life in Christ.  Yet these conversions do not happen in some grand moment of Faith.  We have continual smaller conversions, little turns towards the Lord every day.  It could be as simple as taking to heart the words of a profound confessor or as searching as contemplation during a solitary Holy Hour.  Either way, these continual conversions will bring about a stronger love of God in us.  Like the conversions of Paul, our little conversions will prepare us for God’s call and His sending forth.

Don’t Worry: God is in Control

Paul’s Conversion is filled with reminders that God, not man, is in control of the universe.  In an age so obsessed with new achievements of humanity, we need to remember that, ultimately, we do not control our lives.  We do not beat our hearts nor work our lungs.  God keeps us alive in His love.  His hand guides the momentous in history and the intimate in our own experiences.

Both of these facets of what we call Providence appear in Paul’s Conversion story.  On the one hand, Paul’s conversion is pivotal to the spread of the Gospel.  Paul is, after all, the “Apostle to the Gentiles” who spread the Faith throughout the Mediterranean world, from Greece to Spain.  In his preaching and his epistles we have the inspired (not merely inspiring) words of a master theologian reflecting on the role of God in preparing the world for His Incarnation.  It is because of his Conversion that Paul could connect the Old Covenant, the love of his youth, and the New Covenant, for which he died in his old age.  He saw his Conversion as part of God’s plan “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4) to bring to others the Gospel, the “good news” that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11).  His Conversion, thus, had macro-historical significance.

Yet Paul’s Conversion also provides clear examples of a person’s reliance on God for our daily concerns.  Paul’s blindness, the result of his vision of Christ, dramatically shows this need for trust in God.  Christ sends Saul forth (“Now get up and go into the city,” Acts 9:6) to Damascus not in anger but in love, reminiscent of His sending Balaam in Numbers 22 and the prophet Jonah (both of whom were sent to do God’s will after a conversion of sorts).  Christ calls on Ananias to heal the blind man, but Ananias is hesitant, worried because of Saul’s reputation.  Our Lord’s response is telling: “Go, for this man is a chose instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites” (Acts 9:15).  Paul’s Conversion is a lesson not only for the convert but also for all Christians, who need to be reminded that God can transform even an enemy into a great saint.  So we trust in Our Lord, for He, ultimately, is in control.

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Matthew B. Rose received his BA (History and English) and MA (Systematic Theology) from Christendom College. He is the chairman of the Religion department at Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School in Arlington, VA. Matthew also runs Quidquid Est, Est!, a Catholic Q & A blog, and has contributed to various online publications. He and his family live in Northern Virginia.

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