Published January 25, 2007
For Saul, the drama involved being blinded for three days.
This Saul fellow was quite the scoundrel. He was trying to destroy the early Christian church, arresting Christians and arranging for their deaths.
But then, on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians, Saul sees a great light and falls off his horse. He hears a voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
When he asks who is talking, Saul hears the shocking reply, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Act 9:5).
Saul spends three days in total darkness, without eating or drinking, and then his sight is restored.
On Jan 25, when St. Paul’s conversion is commemorated, it helps to realize that this is a resurrection story of the best sort: A man who was waging a vendetta against Christianity embraces Jesus and is baptized in His name.
Most of us don’t get such a spectacular call from God, but there may be an event in our lives that makes us begin re-evaluating everything.
Perhaps we go from the ordinary routines of daily life to suddenly being an invalid.
If you have ever been laid up for weeks at a time, you have plenty of time to think things through.
Maybe your conversion takes place quietly in your own heart: You stop inventing excuses and start going to Sunday Mass regularly. Other conversions are more obvious:
An alcoholic gives up dependency on the bottle. A ladies’ man stops philandering, and settles down.
Some of us may relate to the days before Saul’s conversion, when he enjoyed harming Christians. We may have done the same in our own ways.
In my days as a non-believer, I mocked Christ and laughed at Christians. If people made fun of Jesus at a cocktail party, I joined right in. When I taught college, I did my best to convince students to reject God.
But in the story of Saul’s conversion, there is a telling moment: Jesus doesn’t ask Saul why he is persecuting Jesus’ followers.
Instead, Jesus makes it so personal: “Why are you persecuting me?”
That question calls to mind Matthew 25, when Jesus said that what we do to the weak ones of the world, the prisoners, the hungry and the ill, we are actually doing to Him. “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
On the road to Damascus, this principle is seen in reverse: Jesus suggests that when we harm people, we are hurting Him.
This suggests that the landlord who cheats tenants, the CEO who sneaks more than his fair share of the bucks, the woman who neglects her child, and the married person having a fling are not just harming the people involved. They are hurting God.
When I was a child, the nuns told me that Jesus had died for my sins, but I didn’t get it. I wasn’t around when Jesus was crucified, so I had not sinned. What in the world did Sister mean?
Many years later, I found the answer in a book called “The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God.”
The author, Gerald Vann, points out that Jesus suffered for all the sins of the world—past, present and future. That includes the sins that we commit each day, large and small.
When we mock Jesus, when we lead people astray, and when we surrender to our addictions and commit other sins, we are driving the nails deeper.
Strangely, even those who are professed Catholics can deny Him by ignoring the rules of the church He established on earth.
We may call ourselves Catholic but sleep in on Sundays instead of going to Mass.
We may belittle and criticize Catholic dogma whenever we can, forgetting that Jesus speaks through the church, and loves her.
Saul’s story reminds us that even the worst life can turn around. The man who describes himself in his letters as a former blasphemer becomes known as St. Paul, the greatest evangelizer of the faith.
His story contains the heart of every conversion: the moment when we are knocked off our own high horse … the moment when Christ pours His mercy upon us, and we are willing to take the next step.
On the day marking St. Paul’s conversion, let’s seek God’s forgiveness for the times we have persecuted Him in others. And let’s pray for a true change of heart, so we may always walk in the light.
Artwork in print edition by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com). Lorraine and her husband work in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University and live in Decatur. Readers may write Lorraine at email@example.com.