25 Jan – Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
St. Paul (3-65) was a Jewish Talmudic student and a Pharisee. He was a tent-maker by trade. Saul the Jew hated and persecuted Christians as heretical, even assisting at the stoning of St. Stephen the Martyr. On his way to Damascus to arrest another group of them, he was knocked to the ground, struck blind by a heavenly light, and given the message that in persecuting Christians, he was persecuting Christ. The experience had a profound spiritual effect on him, causing his conversion to Christianity. He was baptised, changed his name to Paul to reflect his new persona, and began travelling and preaching. He died a martyr for his faith.
- Patron Saint Index
Paul said to the people, ‘I am a Jew and was born at Tarsus in Cilicia. I was brought up here in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was taught the exact observance of the Law of our ancestors. In fact, I was as full of duty towards God as you are today. I even persecuted this Way to the death, and sent women as well as men to prison in chains as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify, since they even sent me with letters to their brothers in Damascus. When I set off it was with the intention of bringing prisoners back from there to Jerusalem for punishment.
‘I was on that journey and nearly at Damascus when about midday a bright light from heaven suddenly shone round me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” I answered: Who are you, Lord? and he said to me, “I am Jesus the Nazarene, and you are persecuting me.” The people with me saw the light but did not hear his voice as he spoke to me. I said: What am I to do, Lord? The Lord answered, “Stand up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told what you have been appointed to do.” The light had been so dazzling that I was blind and my companions had to take me by the hand; and so I came to Damascus.
‘Someone called Ananias, a devout follower of the Law and highly thought of by all the Jews living there, came to see me; he stood beside me and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight.” Instantly my sight came back and I was able to see him. Then he said, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Just One and hear his own voice speaking, because you are to be his witness before all mankind, testifying to what you have seen and heard. And now why delay? It is time you were baptised and had your sins washed away while invoking his name.”’
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation. He who believes and is baptised will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned. These are the signs that will be associated with believers: in my name they will cast out devils; they will have the gift of tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and be unharmed should they drink deadly poison; they will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.’
“I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.”
The circumstances around Paul’s conversion are anything but usual, but this story gives us confidence in God’s divine plans for all of us. Paul was a zealous Pharisee who intensely persecuted Christians prior to his conversion. In his account of his conversion, a white light from heaven flashed around him, and he heard the voice of God instructing him to be God’s witness to all people. Paul then went on to be a powerful missionary of Christ, spreading the Gospel both near and far.
It struck me as beautiful that God would choose to call someone such as Paul to become one of the Church’s saints. I’ve encountered people in my life whom I felt would never change their ways, yet Paul’s story reminds me that our God can work to soften the hardest hearts and to instill in anyone the fervor to do His will. Usually, it is the most broken, and long-suffering people who become the greatest advocates of transformed ways of existence. Think of ex-smokers who suffered health scares, the Yellow Ribbon Project, and people with failed relationships. Their past experiences, as awful as they may have been, give them a reference against which to compare their new lives in Christ. While those testimonies are beautiful, I wonder if our transformations always have to be this way? Just as a journey of a thousand miles has to begin with one step, oftentimes, God does not call us to do immense things at every turn. Rather, our ‘conversion’ can be an evolving process of doing things slightly differently, and incrementally better every day, with our eyes firmly set on God’s guiding light and heightening our awareness to God’s call.
Paul was lucky. God’s call to him was not easy to ignore and I struggle to think of anyone who could avoid listening to such a call to action. Yet, I wonder how many of us are missing the more subtle ways God tries to nudge us into action in our lives. Be it through Whatsapp messages from caring friends, the nagging of our families, the strangers that come into our lives, or the situations we face that require our intervention, God may be reaching out to us, but we are often too numb (or prone to denial) to notice. I have tried very hard in recent times to be more sensitive to the stirrings of God in my life and have found the Ignatian idea of ‘finding God in all things’ very helpful. It is only after truly acknowledging that God’s hand touches everything, everybody, and every circumstance around us that I began to see my world through His lens and realize that He is with us always as we soldier on for Him.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, how are you persecuting Jesus in your daily lives, and in spite of that, how is God touching your heart?
Prayer: Dearest Lord, soften our hearts and open our minds to hear your calls to us over the rowdiness in our lives.
Thanksgiving: We thank you Father for the chances you give us in our lives for new beginnings. We are so very grateful for your tireless persistence in drawing us ever closer to you.