By LORRAINE V. MURRAY | Published January 23, 2020
St. Paul was a scoundrel before his conversion. As Saul of Tarsus, he was known for “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He participated in the gruesome death of Stephen, the first martyr and also hunted down many other Christians, who were then tortured and killed.
But Saul’s story didn’t end there, because he had an amazing conversion experience on the road to Damascus. As a child, that’s all I knew about this man, who seemed quite holy, but somehow distant from my everyday life.
However, when I read St. Paul’s letters as an adult, I began to see him as a human being and came to love him.
I love him because he accepted God’s will without hesitation on that fateful day. Blinded by the light, he falls down and hears a voice: “I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.” He immediately asks Jesus what he should do. “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
He reacted like the apostles, who dropped their fishing nets and abandoned their old lives when Jesus called them. They didn’t tell him they were busy or ask him to wait. What a huge act of faith it was for St. Paul to drop his vendetta against Christians and follow Jesus.
I also love St. Paul because he was in a dark place before his conversion, which sounds familiar to me. You see, I persecuted Christ, although in subtler ways, when I was teaching philosophy in college.
In my own college days, professors quickly dismissed arguments in favor of God’s existence and strongly defended atheism. Years later, I followed suit with my own students, hammering home that the world’s suffering was sufficient evidence that God doesn’t exist.
Unlike St. Paul, I didn’t have a road to Damascus experience, where light suddenly flooded my dark life. Instead, the Lord patiently pursued me throughout the years and finally called me back to him.
My third reason for loving St. Paul is that he is a symbol of hope. He didn’t try to hide his bleak history but instead humbly admitted: “I went to extremes in persecuting the Church of God and tried to destroy it.”
Still, with God’s grace, he overcame a tarnished past and refused to dwell on it: “I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead.” These words remind us that Jesus always offers hope for the future, no matter how bleak our past may be.
Finally, St. Paul’s life reveals that Christ’s followers aren’t promised a “get out of jail free” card, when it comes to suffering. After his conversion, Paul was beaten with rods, stoned, thrown in jail and shipwrecked. He suffers thirst, hunger and cold, but as long as he has Christ’s love, he can accept these afflictions.
He also had a mysterious weakness he called a “thorn in the flesh,” which could have meant physical pain, spiritual temptation or emotional anguish. He begged God three times to end this suffering, but that wasn’t the divine plan. Instead, St. Paul received God’s grace to bear this cross.
As a child, I didn’t understand that St. Paul’s conversion underscores Jesus’ words, “With God all things are possible.” With Jesus, lepers are cleansed, blind men see and the dead live again. With Jesus, wine becomes precious blood and bread becomes sacred flesh. And with Jesus, even the most hardened sinners find light and love and mercy.
Artwork, “Conversion of St. Paul,” is an oil painting by Jef Murray. Lorraine’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org .