Tag Archives: conversion

Musical Mystagogy: Conversion of St. Paul

Carolyn Pirtle
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today we celebrate an unusual feast: the conversion of St. Paul. There are countless stories of other holy men and women who experienced profound conversion: St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Francis of Assisi, and in our own day Blessed Oscar Romero and Servant of God Dorothy Day. Indeed, one does not become a saint without experiencing not simply a momentary conversion but a lifetime of conversion, a continual turning away from sin and turning toward Christ. And yet St. Paul’s is the only conversion that appears on the liturgical calendar. Why? Because when Paul left Saul behind—the one who had made it his life’s mission to wipe out Christian communities—the entire trajectory of Christianity changed. After his conversion, Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles, traveling and teaching and dying for the sake of spreading the faith to all peoples in all corners of the world, and in his epistles, he continues to draw souls to Christ even to this day.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Caravaggio, c.1600–1601)
Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Caravaggio, c.1600–1601)

In the first reading for today’s feast, we hear Paul himself relate the story of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, a scene that has been famously depicted by many artists (twice by Caravaggio alone). In many cases, these paintings focus on the moment in which Saul falls to the ground as the catalytic moment of his conversion. This moment was indeed the beginning: Saul sees a blinding light, falls to the ground, and hears a voice he does not know asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 22:7; see also Acts 9:3ff). Yet, this moment was only the beginning. Saul did not rise from the ground as the fully-fledged Apostle to the Gentiles he would become. On the contrary, he was rendered blind and helpless by his encounter with the light of Christ, and it was only with the assistance of his companions that he was able to reach Damascus at all. Then, it was only with the help of Ananias that he regained his sight, discovered the truths of Christianity, and was initiated into the community through Baptism. In other words, Paul’s conversion that we celebrate today was not a just singular moment that could be captured in a painting or a snapshot; rather, beginning from that singular moment, his conversion encompassed a lifetime of turning away from his old ways in order to follow the way of Christ, the way of the Cross.

Felix Mendelssohn, 1809–1847
Felix Mendelssohn, 1809–1847

Felix Mendelssohn’s musical depiction of St. Paul’s conversion in his oratorio Paulus, op. 36 helps to capture this ongoing sense of conversion in a way that perhaps a painting cannot. Musical performance by its nature involves a journey through time, and as such, it can serve as a powerful metaphor for one’s journey through life. The story of St. Paul’s conversion unfolds over several movements in this oratorio, beginning in the fourteenth movement. This movement consists of two parts: in the first part, Acts 9:3–6 is proclaimed in a recitative (sung speech) by a tenor narrator, a baritone (Paul), and a three-part treble chorus (the voice of Jesus). The jagged tenor melody soars at the moment the narrator describes the blinding light. The strings create tension-filled harmonies through a technique called tremolo (literally meaning “trembling”). The hesitant baritone melody conveys the fear that must have overcome Saul. All of these elements work together to create an incredibly dramatic moment, translated from the German below:

And as he journeyed, he came near unto Damascus
when suddenly there shone around him a light from Heaven: and he fell to the Earth;
and he heard a voice saying unto him:

Saul! Saul! Why persecutest thou me?
And he said: Lord! who art thou?
and the Lord said to him:
I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutes.

And he said, trembling and astonish’d:
Lord, what wilt thou have me do?

The Lord said to him: Arise and go into the city,
and there thou shalt be told what thou must do.

What is perhaps most striking about this section is the way in which Mendelssohn chose to set the words of Jesus by using a three-part treble chorus, a marked departure from the model set forth by the Passion oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach (who greatly influenced Mendelssohn), where the words of Jesus were sung by a bass soloist. The effect is stunning: the drama described above melts away as Jesus speaks; the tension is dissolved and the voice of the risen Christ is heard as something utterly luminous, radiant. Whereas in Caravaggio’s paintings we see the light enveloping Saul through the beauty of chiaroscuro, in Mendelssohn’s setting of Jesus’ words, we hear this light pierce through the darkness, and its radiance penetrates the listener’s heart just as it must have penetrated Saul’s. When we hear or read Jesus’ words proclaimed in Scripture, we might interpret his question to Saul as accusatory, as judgmental; but here, these words are set in such a way that we hear Jesus genuinely questioning this lost son of his. This is the Man of Sorrows speaking, the Good Shepherd himself reaching out to a lost sheep so that he might be brought into the fold. In setting the words of Jesus this simple, vulnerable way, Mendelssohn makes a profound theological statement, calling to mind to the self-emptying love of Christ wherein power is made perfect in weakness. In a way, the unexpected vulnerability of this music hearkens back to the Incarnation itself, when the eternal Word stripped himself of glory to be born of the Virgin, as well as the Passion and Death of Jesus, when the Word made flesh emptied himself all the more for our sakes by enduring a horrific and humiliating death in order to redeem the world from sin.

It is this gentle, merciful beauty that attracts, that draws Saul in, that illuminates his heart even as his eyes are blinded; it is the beauty of his encounter with Christ that provides the catalyst to Saul’s conversion. Yet neither Saul’s story nor Mendelssohn’s oratorio ends with this moment of conversion; Saul must arise and follow the command of Jesus by proceeding into Damascus to find Ananias. Saul must become Paul. And to do this, he needs the love of Christ shown forth in the merciful witness of those around him.

It is at this point that Mendelssohn’s music itself turns, transitioning into a triumphant choral response to the narrative that has just unfolded. Throughout the oratorio, the chorus is designated in the score as Stimme der Christenheit, or the Voice of Christendom, and so it gives voice to the Christian community, encouraging Paul on the road toward Christ. The text Mendelssohn set for this movement (Is 60:1–2) also makes a theological statement by providing a beautiful complement to what has preceded it:

Arise, shine! For thy light is come,
and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness [thick clouds] the people.

But shall arise upon thee, the Lord,
and his glory shall be seen upon thee.

This is the moment of Paul’s illumination; he has been visited by the very light of Christ, the glory of the Lord has shone upon him, and the Christian community is now exhorting him to arise (as we hear in the glorious ascending melodies) and follow that light (as we hear in the intricate imitation and echoes) so that God’s glory might be seen not only upon him, but through him as well. And for us listening, this music can provide a moment of illumination as well. Just as the Scriptures are never read as a simple story but are proclaimed so that they may take root in our hearts, so too is this music a moment meant to serve as a proclamation, reminding us that we are on our own road to Christ, that we must allow his light to heal our spiritual blindness and be converted ourselves. This music serves as a reminder that, in our Christian journey, we are both Paul and the chorus: called to lifelong conversion and called to encourage others along their path of discipleship.

As we listen to the voice of Christ and the voice of our fellow Christians represented in the chorus, may we pray for the grace of continual conversion for ourselves, and for the conversion of those who continue to persecute Christ in the members of His Body throughout the world. May we hear in this music the radiance of Christ’s light and allow it to permeate our hearts all the more deeply, so that we, like St. Paul, might continue on our journey toward Christ.

St. Paul, pray for us.

Pope Culture II: Darkness and Light in Caravaggio

Jessica MannenJessica Mannen
Master of Divinity Candidate,
University of Notre Dame


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“‘From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of The Calling of St. Matthew, by Caravaggio. That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.’ Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for:
‘It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me:
he holds on to his money as if to say, “No, not me! No, this money is mine.”
Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.’”
–Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Pope Francis

In this series, I have assigned myself the task of experiencing and reflecting upon those works of art that Pope Francis names as his favorites in the recent interview appearing in America magazine. I find the disclosure of these preferences to be a uniquely beautiful insight into Francis’s heart, and offer these reflections as a way to pray with and for the Holy Father.

See also:
Pope Culture I: Mozart’s “Et Incarnatus Est”

Caravaggio full

Pope Francis mentions Caravaggio several times throughout his interview, and reveals in his description of the Calling of St. Matthew a beautiful knowledge of himself as sinful but beloved. When I first read Francis’s reflection on this painting, I felt a smile of familiarity spread over my own face. The one art class I took in college was on Italian Baroque art, and Caravaggio was the very first painter we studied.

Hearing Caravaggio’s name immediately brings to mind the art term chiaroscuro, one of the most easily recognizable characteristics of his work. The word is a combination of the Italian chiaro (light or clear) and oscuro (dark or obscure). Caravaggio’s paintings are remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is the sharp contrast and dramatic interplay between light and darkness. The contrast is used to highlight characters and carry the eye through the story told in each painting.

Darkness and light—an image for the forces at play in every human life, and one that seems appropriate for the lives of many of the Apostles. I love that the Gospels’ portrait of the Apostles does not overlook their human imperfections but rather brings to the fore the cowardice of Peter, the thirst for honor of James and John, the constant misguidedness of the group as a whole. God calls these imperfect people and enables them to do great things. Perhaps awareness of oneself as a sinner, as demonstrated by Pope Francis, is an underrated mark of apostolic succession.

Caravaggio Christ detailIn the story of Matthew’s calling by Christ we see again this interplay between darkness and light:

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew
sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him. (Mt 9:9)

This man Matthew, who lives by extortion and embodies greed to his neighbors, is called by Christ. In Caravaggio’s image of this moment, light from an unknown source follows the gesture of Christ to the man who at this moment is called to forsake his former darkness for the Light Himself. The position of Jesus’ hand mimics that of Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam tableau in the Sistine Chapel, recalling the biblical image of Christ as the Second Adam. Creation of Adam, detail-MichelangeloIt also makes me think that Matthew’s calling is a moment not just of conversion but also of re-creation. As at the moment of creation, God is here reaching out to human beings, calling us along with Matthew to step into our intended roles as God’s beloved sons and daughters. Matthew’s responding expression and gesture represents well the reaction portrayed in many biblical call narratives: he is unprepared for what he is being asked to do. We can almost hear him ask, “Who, me?” This reaction is shared by many of us when we realize what God wants of us, which is to be nothing less than saints.

This painting beloved by Pope Francis is housed alongside two other works by Caravaggio in the Contarelli chapel of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. The chapel tells the story of the evangelist’s life in just three snapshots of critical moments: the Calling, the Inspiration of St. Matthew, and the Martyrdom of St. Matthew. The Calling is flanked by the two others; it shows the initiation of Matthew’s journey of faith and is also the centerpiece of it. Caravaggio Matthew detailIt is this moment, when Matthew first hears the calling of Christ, which will lead eventually to the evangelistic writing that tradition attributes to him and to his martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel he helped to preserve.

The traditional symbol for Matthew as evangelist is a human being. The Gospel traditionally attributed to this Apostle begins with a genealogy of Christ, reminding us that God really became human in the Incarnation. What hope there is for humanity in this mystery: the union of divine and human enables our ascent from darkness to light. The life of St. Matthew, whose surprise at his calling was transformed into total acceptance of it, is a model for us (and for Pope Francis) of how we might embrace our undeserved vocations as children of God.

“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation, Penitence, and Self-Giving Love

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor

Master of Theological Studies Candidate,
University of Notre Dame

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Previous posts in this series:
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Notre Dame, Liturgical Formation, and the New Evangelization
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation from the Outside Looking In

“God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.”
—Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 169

In this day and age, it is dangerously easy to veil our imperfections through carefully maintained Facebook profiles and superficial conversations via text and email rather than face-to-face interactions. Consider me guilty as charged! In order to receive God’s mercy and attain the promise of salvation, though, we must be willing to admit our faults. Because they do not weigh quite as heavily as grave mortal sins, it is all too simple to overlook our deep-seated grudges, white lies, and daily flashes of judgment—even when we’re at Mass. Sin is such an ugly word (and rightly so) that it is incredibly difficult to admit how very susceptible we are to it. Sin—our disordered self-love—ruptures our relationship with God, and places us squarely against Him even as we are inexplicably drawn to Him in the liturgy. This means, then, that we regularly attend Mass in a state of revolt against God, which is precisely antithetical to the reasons that beckon us to worship (i.e. complete and total love for our Creator). Our self-obsession clouds our inward gaze, and figuratively obstructs our view of the altar where Christ’s ultimate sacrifice is celebrated. This post addresses the uncomfortable topics of sinfulness and penance, and hopefully provides a few suggestions for how these can positively invigorate our liturgical formation as college and graduate students.

My previous posts have discussed at some length the manner of liturgical formation as it occurs prior to even entering a church, and they exhibited a Eucharistic theology that admittedly did not emphasize sin directly. Indeed, sin and penance play a major role in the unfolding of Eucharistic self-giving love! Dr. Tim O’Malley, Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, speaks magnificently on how the Eucharist is a complete, mutual self-gift of love, infinitely better than I could.[1] For further explanation, I advocate a turn to two awesome resources we tend to overlook when searching for concrete answers to the deluge of life’s difficult questions: the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Daily conversion and penance find their source and nourishment in the Eucharist, for in it is made present the sacrifice of Christ which has reconciled us with God. Through the Eucharist, those who live from the life of Christ are fed and strengthened. It is a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from moral sins” (CCC, §1436).

Return of the Prodigal Son - Rembrandt van RijnAfter reading this passage from the Catechism, I’m beginning to think that we may have to deepen our idea of liturgical formation to include the notion of “conversion”—the kind that allows us to approach God humbly and reverently in the Mass and in our daily prayer, that results in a longing for the Eucharist as a reparation for and preservation from our sins. The Penitential Act of the Mass, neatly sandwiched between the opening hymn and the Gloria, acts as an impetus for our conversion within the liturgy itself, for “every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sins” (CCC, §1437). From the very beginning of the liturgy, we are called to sincerely confess our sins and undergo a conversion of heart so that we may become worthy to receive the exquisite self-gift of Christ’s love that is the Eucharist.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal[2] addresses the rubrical aspect of this element of the Mass: “The Priest calls upon the whole community to take part in the Penitential Act, which, after a brief pause for silence, it does by means of a formula of general confession. The rite concludes with the Priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance” (GIRM, 51).

Of course, any discussion of sin whatsoever must address and encourage participation in the Sacrament of Penance. St. Cyprian famously wrote: “God does not accept the sacrifice of a sower of disunion, but commands that he depart from the altar so that he may first be reconciled with his brother. For God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace. To God, the better offering is peace, brotherly concord, and a people made one in the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (De Dom. orat. 23: PL 4, 535-536). Pope Francis hears a confessionHowever, this post focuses rather on how to cultivate a truly penitential character in the midst of the liturgy itself. Regular confession and absolution in the Sacrament of Penance is the most cathartic and wondrous way to restore our broken relationship with God, but for those of us intimidated by the prospect of sitting face-to-face with a priest and baring our very souls in the confessional (myself included), the first step is cultivating this penitential character in a more general manner.

The exquisite idea to contemplate during the Penitential Act of the Mass is that, “at the very hour of darkness, the hour of the prince of this world, the sacrifice of Christ secretly becomes the source from which the forgiveness of our sins will pour forth inexhaustibly” (CCC, §1851). It makes perfect sense that we are drawn to Mass in order to shed the weight of sin, for Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the Cross ensured our reconciliation with God and the inexhaustible forgiveness of our transgressions.

The Penitential Act, when we examine it more closely, contains a huge blessing for our liturgical formation. It points to the underlying force that compels us up the aisle to receive Christ’s Body and Blood every Sunday. During the liturgy, we are stripped bare of all our dissembling before God. Here, we might think to offer our sins as our contribution to the sacrifice of the Mass. Like the Eucharist, the offering up of our sins can be considered an “unbloody sacrifice”—and so, there is a real, tangible connection between cultivating a penitential character and our participation in the Eucharist. Our inexplicable attraction towards the altar is really an act of reconciliation and restoration of a thoroughly and tragically broken relationship with God. I often think of the first verse of Psalm 42 as an allusion to this desire for reconciliation and union with God in the Eucharist: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” Our sins desiccate the fertile fields of our faith and ignite a burning thirst for the living God; our souls gasp and fight for breath, cut off from their source of Life. The union of our lives, prayers, joys, sufferings, and praise with Christ and his total self-offering quenches our spiritual thirst, though, and we revel in the beauty and joy of our divine communion. Cultivating a penitential character may pale in comparison to the sanctifying mystery of the Incarnation, but it is the second step towards deepening our formation in the liturgy.

[1] For one of many examples of O’Malley’s life-changing expositions on the Eucharist as a sacrament of self-giving love (especially in an academic environment), see: http://sites.nd.edu/oblation/2013/08/27/the-eucharistic-heart-of-the-catholic-university/, and also Msgr. Heintz’s beautiful Holy Thursday reflection on the Eucharist and the sacrifice of love: http://sites.nd.edu/oblation/2013/04/03/the-eucharist-and-the-sacrifice-of-love-a-homily-from-holy-thursday/

[2] If you’ve never heard of the GIRM before, or would like to explore in more detail, it is online for your perusal: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/general-instruction-of-the-roman-missal/

Liturgy: The moving image of That image (part 4)

Christy MaChristy Ma, a Chinese Orthodox, an independent scholar, has received graduate degrees from evangelical, Roman Catholic and Orthodox theological institutions.


Also in this series:
Liturgy: The moving image of That image (part 3)
Liturgy: The moving image of That image (part 2)
Liturgy: The moving image of That image (part 1)

Liturgical Asceticism: A Journey of Recovering Our Vision of Faith

People are unable to see the liturgical celebration as meaningful because they look only at anything visible or ‘pragmatic’. There is inseparable link between the visible sacraments and the invisible reality that they symbolize. When one detaches this link, one loses the objective ecclesial understanding of this mystery.

Baptism is an act of passage from this world into the kingdom of God that first requires conversion of heart as the beginning of a journey of repentance. One must change in order to be befitted for a new life in Christ as an authentic worshipper of God. Right worship is an ongoing re-Creation of our new humanity in Christ.  Right worship is inseparable with our way of living, our way of relating to others and the world.  We cannot adore God in the right manner without continuous repentance because our experience of love is fallen. We must encounter the Source of true worship repeatedly and continuously with faith, love and hope. Only in Christ can we find the true knowledge of God, theologia.

The Body of Christ conceives her offspring with this true knowledge intrinsically, but the receptor of knowledge, or nous,[1] needs to be dusted off because the human heart is an abyss where divine inspirations and ‘serpents’ mix.[2]  The heart needs purification in order to receive God’s divine knowledge; as Jesus declares: The Virgin of the Host - Ingres“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God” (Mt 5:8). Impurity of mind manipulates and distorts the knowledge of God.  The divisions within God’s kingdom are not caused by matter of the world, which has been mislabeled as profane and desacramentalized.  It is we, the fallen human family, who divide the Kingdom of God by misusing free will and failing in the priestly vocation of all the baptized. Contemplation developed in liturgical asceticism purifies the mind (heart) or nous so that we may recover the purity of heart necessary to see the presence of God in the world.  Contemplation is an unceasing encounter with God that nourishes us well in a world marked by forgetfulness, and gears us to live a vigilant life for Christ.

Almsgiving, praying, and fasting are the basic pillars of liturgical asceticism.  All three ascetical strands help us to reconcile with the self (fasting), with God (praying), and with others (almsgiving). Prayer and fasting Fasting from food reminds us of our finitude; establishing physical boundaries sets us free from illusion of ‘playing God’ and re-orients our desires so that we may learn to depend on God alone.  Fasting and prayer are inseparable; during times of vulnerability, we call out to God for strength. Finally, almsgiving is an act of self-giving; we share our subsistence with those in need.  In fulfilling the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31), we strengthen each other to live in the reality of being the Body of Christ and become a reflection of the image of God to our neighbor.

Liturgical asceticism is a discipline, not a self-help guide.  It is inseparable from the ecclesial teaching, capacitating us to walk as faithful disciples of Christ.  Asceticism thus becomes a symbol of vigilance that keeps the disciples of Jesus on the “narrow path” to salvation (cf Mt 7:13-14).  Only through true obedience are we transformed as the sacrament of Christ.  This is our adoration and worship to God, the right relationship of the creature to the Creator.  “Humanity is fully humanity when it is this response to God, when it becomes the movement of total self-giving and obedience to Him.”[3] Prayer of the Church is thus the actualization of Christ in us, the true worship pleasing to the Father.

[1]The Greek term, nous may refer to mind or heart.  This word has not been used in a consistent fashion.  Thomas Spidlik used it in reference to the word ‘organ.’ The author here has used the term to mean both heart and mind in reference to the word ‘receptor’.

[2] Spidlik, 24.

[3] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, (NY: SVS Press, 1973), 85.

Into the Desert

Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today, millions of men, women, and children will have the Sign of the Cross traced in ashes on their foreheads as they embark on the Lenten journey. Each year, the Church gives us this holy season as a time of conversion, a re-turning of heart and mind to the Source of all things. We follow Jesus into the desert—a place of silence, solitude, starkness. In the abundant foliage of Eden, Adam and Eve attempted to hide from God in an effort to conceal their sin; in the vast nothingness of the desert, Jesus confronts temptation openly so that He might become an example to us in our own struggles against that which would lure us from God.

In his final Ash Wednesday address today, Pope Benedict XVI contemplated Jesus’ temptation in the desert, stating:

…the core of the three temptations that Jesus is subjected to … is the proposal to exploit God, to use Him for his own interests, for his own glory and success.
So, in essence, to put himself in the place of God, removing Him from his own existence and making him seem superfluous.
Everyone should then ask: what is the role God in my life?
Is He the Lord or am I?

In the solitude of the desert, one focuses more intently on cultivating a relationship with God. In the silence of the desert, one listens more readily for God’s voice. In the starkness of the desert, one realizes that God is the creator and source of all life, that in fact all life is completely and utterly dependent upon God.

May we enter the desert of this Lenten season, not to exploit it for mere self-improvement or to use it for “[our] own glory and success,” but to follow the example of Jesus as we strive to overcome temptation. May these words of the Holy Father resonate within the silence of our hearts as we strive to “turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.”

In this time of Lent, in this Year of Faith, we renew our commitment to the process of conversion, to overcoming the tendency to close in on ourselves and instead, to making room for God, looking at our daily reality with His eyes.… Conversion means not closing in on ourselves in the pursuit of success, prestige, position, but making sure that each and every day, in the small things,
truth, faith in God, and love become most important.

Encounter, Illumination, and Conversion: On the Road to Damascus

Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

In celebrating the lives of her saints, rarely does the Church bestow more than one feast day on the same person. Even more rarely does she celebrate specific events in the lives of those saints other than the day of their birth into eternal life (the die natale). Therefore, tomorrow’s celebration – the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Apostle – is one that deserves our contemplation.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” The pithiness of the statement doesn’t belie its essential truth, and we see this readily in the story of St. Paul, or Saul, as he was known prior to his conversion. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that Saul avidly persecuted the first Christians, that he was not only present for the martyrdom of St. Stephen, but that “Saul was consenting to his execution” (Acts 8:1). At this point in the story, we would do well to pause and pretend that we don’t already know what happens next. That way, the intervening grace of God will take us by complete and utter surprise all the more.

Saul was party to an execution; he was, for all intents and purposes, an accessory to murder (assuming he didn’t actually assist in the deed itself). And he was hell-bent on continuing his war on the followers of Jesus in the city of Damascus, as we continue reading in Acts: “Now Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains” (Acts 9:1-2). We know how the story continues from there: en route to Damascus, a blinding flash of light knocks Saul from his horse, and a voice from the sky says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4b). The voice identifies himself as Jesus, and instructs Saul to continue to the city, where he is to be met by a disciple named Ananias.

In one of the most dramatic accounts of the New Testament, Saul encounters the Risen Christ – not in physical form as the Apostles did after the Resurrection, but as a voice resounding from the midst of a blinding light. Since he had taken it upon himself to persecute Jesus’ followers, Saul no doubt had heard of Him; perhaps he had even heard Him preach in the synagogue in Jerusalem. Yet, until that very moment, Saul’s heart had been hardened to the possibility that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, to the point where he was ready to kill in order to prevent the spread of the Good News. This is hardly the kind of man we would imagine God to want on His team, and hardly the kind of man we would imagine capable of playing for that team. However, “nothing is impossible for God” (cf Lk 1:37), and the light of grace pierces through what seemed to be an impenetrable darkness surrounding Saul’s heart. Physically, Saul enters into the darkness as he is struck blind; spiritually, the illumination of his soul has just begun.

Following the encounter on the road, Scripture says that “for three days [Saul] was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). I imagine this time as a period of ascetic penance: Saul demonstrated remorse for the sins he had committed against the followers of Jesus and contemplated how his life would have to change in light of what had happened on the road to Damascus. In his hunger, thirst, and blindness, Saul longed for fulfillment and enlightenment, and slowly came to the realization that they could only come through Christ.

Indeed, it is only after Saul has been stricken blind that he is able to see clearly for the first time. The resounding voice of Jesus on the road serves as a death knell to his former way of life, and the three days he spent in darkness parallel the three days Christ Himself spent in the darkness of the tomb. After three days, Ananias heals Saul of his physical blindness and he emerges from this experience an entirely changed man, one who has been made new in the light of Jesus the Messiah. The scales falling from Saul’s eyes symbolize a sloughing off of a former way of life, a casting away of the blindness that kept him from seeing the truth: that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, the One who saves the human race from sin and death. Indeed, he is so far removed from his former way of life that he is no longer known as Saul but as Paul; even his name has been made new in the light of his identity as a follower of Jesus. The light of Christ shatters the darkness of Saul’s soul and grants to him a new vision, one that will impel him to spend the rest of his life (and beyond) leading others to Jesus.

Another pause in our story so that we may contemplate the person of Ananias. He had heard of Saul, of the horrible things he had done to the disciples of Jesus, and of the fact that he was at that moment on his way to Damascus to continue wreaking havoc. For Ananias, seeking out this man’s company undoubtedly would have resulted in imprisonment or worse. If I had been in his sandals, I would have kept a low profile in Damascus until Hurricane Saul moved on. But such is not the will of God for Ananias. God calls to Ananias, who shows fidelity in his discipleship by responding immediately… until he hears what it is that God actually wants him to do. God wants Ananias to lay his hands on Saul so that he may regain his sight. Perhaps Ananias felt that Saul had gotten what he deserved, and that his reign of terror over the Christian people might finally be at its end. Surely he must have thought it a key strategic error to heal the man who had been causing such harm, and he expresses his concerns to God. Nevertheless, God insists, saying, “This man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15b). Again, if I were Ananias and had heard all of that, I still would have been tempted to say, “Really? Him?” Fortunately for Saul, and fortunately for us, Ananias displayed more trust in God, and although he still might have been afraid for his life, he accepted God’s will and sought Saul out, healing him of his blindness and initiating him into the Christian faith through baptism. Without the cooperative faith of Ananias, Paul might have remained in the darkness; he might have remained Saul. Ananias, too, underwent a conversion – a turning away from his previous assumption of how God works and an embracing of a new vision, a new understanding that God’s ways are not our ways. As Paul would later attest in his first letter to the Corinthians, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God” (1 Cor 1:27-9).

In celebrating the conversion of St. Paul, we might be tempted to wish for a blinding flash of light that would knock us to the ground and eliminate our desires for those things in our lives that lead us from Jesus. I know that I’ve certainly wished for the clarity Paul seemed to have in the immediate wake of his encounter with Christ. However, it’s important to remember that Paul’s conversion was no one-time-only event; it continued for the rest of his life. As we see from his writings, Paul continued to struggle with temptation, fatigue, frustration, and persecution; yet he continued to turn his face toward Christ, continued to say “yes” to the will of God and “no” to that which clouded his vision, and in so doing, he fulfilled the command of Christ to “proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15), and forever changed the course of human history.