Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle
Reading 1 ACTS 22:3-16
Paul addressed the people in these words:
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia,
but brought up in this city.
At the feet of Gamaliel I was educated strictly in our ancestral law
and was zealous for God, just as all of you are today.
I persecuted this Way to death,
binding both men and women and delivering them to prison.
Even the high priest and the whole council of elders
can testify on my behalf.
For from them I even received letters to the brothers
and set out for Damascus to bring back to Jerusalem
in chains for punishment those there as well.
“On that journey as I drew near to Damascus,
about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me.
I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me,
‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
I replied, ‘Who are you, sir?’
And he said to me,
‘I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.’
My companions saw the light
but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
I asked, ‘What shall I do, sir?’
The Lord answered me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus,
and there you will be told about everything
appointed for you to do.’
Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light,
I was led by hand by my companions and entered Damascus.
“A certain Ananias, a devout observer of the law,
and highly spoken of by all the Jews who lived there,
came to me and stood there and said,
‘Saul, my brother, regain your sight.’
And at that very moment I regained my sight and saw him.
Then he said,
‘The God of our ancestors designated you to know his will,
to see the Righteous One, and to hear the sound of his voice;
for you will be his witness before all
to what you have seen and heard.
Now, why delay?
Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away,
calling upon his name.'”
Conversion of Saint Paul, By Caravaggio
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.
On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus,
a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him.
He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
He said, “Who are you, sir?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.”
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless,
for they heard the voice but could see no one.
Saul got up from the ground,
but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;
so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.
For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.
There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias,
and the Lord said to him in a vision, AAnanias.”
He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight
and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.
He is there praying,
and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias
come in and lay his hands on him,
that he may regain his sight.”
But Ananias replied,
“Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man,
what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem.
And here he has authority from the chief priests
to imprison all who call upon your name.”
But the Lord said to him,
“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine
to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel,
and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.”
So Ananias went and entered the house;
laying his hands on him, he said,
“Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came,
that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight.
He got up and was baptized,
and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.
He stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus,
and he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues,
that he is the Son of God.
All who heard him were astounded and said,
“Is not this the man who in Jerusalem
ravaged those who call upon this name,
and came here expressly to take them back in chains
to the chief priests?”
But Saul grew all the stronger
and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus,
proving that this is the Christ.
Responsorial Psalm PS 117:1BC, 2
R. (Mark 16:15) Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Praise the LORD, all you nations;
glorify him, all you peoples!
R. Go out to all the world, and tell the Good News.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
For steadfast is his kindness toward us,
and the fidelity of the LORD endures forever.
R. Go out to all the world, and tell the Good News.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Alleluia JN 15:16
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
I chose you from the world,
to go and bear fruit that will last, says the Lord.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel MK 16:15-18
Jesus appeared to the Eleven and said to them:
“Go into the whole world
and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Conversion of St. Paul by Michelangelo
Who else in our “modern world” said “scales fell from my eyes”?
In November 1934, a man named Ebby Thacher visited Bill Wilson and sat with Bill in the kitchen of the Wilson’s Brooklyn apartment, and talked about the way this new spiritual answer to alcoholism had gotten him sober. Bill W.’s fundamental conversion experience took place while he was talking with Ebby, as “the scales fell from his eyes” and he became willing for the first time to turn to the experience of the holy in prayer and meditation, and let its healing power begin to restore his soul.
The scales fell from the eyes….
Bill’s Story, p.12, Big Book
“Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized.” (Acts 9:18)
Ebby Thacher (on the right) with Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, in 1955
Do you pray? Saint John Paul II said, “No prayer, no spiritual life.” If you aren’t talking to God who are you talking to when you pray? Yourself? See also:
John Paul II Said no faith, no miracles….
“The Catholic Guide to Depression,” by Aaron Kheriaty, MD and Fr. John Cihak, STD.
Fr. Edward Dowling, SJ, a friend of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was convinced that the Spiritual Exercises influenced the 12 Steps of AA (which guide many other 12-step programs). Bill Wilson said he had never heard of Ignatius or the Exercises. He said he sat down at his kitchen table one day and wrote out the 12 Steps in about 20 minutes. To this Fr. Dowling said, “If it were twenty weeks, you could suspect improvisation. Twenty minutes sounds reasonable under the theory of divine help.”
I recently ran across an article Fr. Dowling wrote showing the parallels between the Exercises and the 12 Steps. A sample:
St. Ignatius starts with a presumption that our power of faculties are bound by sinful tendencies and addictions to the wrong things. The Spiritual Exercises, therefore, work on the soul in both a negative and positive way. The first section, the consideration of my sins and of their effects in hell, is the negative part. It aims by self-denial to release our wills from our binding addictions, to enable the will to desire and to choose rationally.
The second part of the Spiritual Exercises, start in with a consideration of the Incarnation and going through the Passion and Resurrection, is an effort to see how Christ would handle various situations.
A priest alcoholic, who has written with discernment on the Spiritual Exercises, first pointed out to me the similarity between them and the twelve steps of A.A. Bill, the founder of A.A. recognized that those twelve steps are pretty much the releasing of myself from the things that prevent my will’s choosing God as I understand Him.
Like the Spiritual Exercises, like Christian asceticism in general, the twelve steps are not speculative ideas. They are practical steps. May I suggest some of the parallels between the Spiritual Exercises and the twelve steps.
If you are interested, read more at:
Jim Harbaugh’s book is the best among several on this topic….
“The Problem of Pain and Suffering,” focusing on:
”(1) Emmet Fox and New Thought: pain and suffering are caused by wrong thoughts. If we change the way we think, the pain and suffering will disappear. As can be seen, Fox preached many radical New Thought ideas, but he had been born in Ireland, was brought up as a Catholic, and had been trained by the Jesuits. God as Creative Intelligence and the power of Being Itself.
(2) Matt Talbot and self-punishment, the very different path taken by another Irish Catholic, a laboring man in Dublin. Wearing chains around his body, sleeping on a bare wooden plank, and so on. We must atone for our sin and guilt by deliberately inflicting pain and hardship on ourselves before God will forgive us. The self-torture game.
(3) In Ignatian spirituality: pain and suffering exist because life in this fallen world is a war. As a good soldier, you must continue to do your duty and fight for the good down to your last breath, even when surrounded on every side by death and horror. The central Ignatian teaching of the Two Standards (Las Dos Banderas), choosing which of these two battle flags you will follow in the war between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. Choosing between the way of Pride and the way of Humility. St. Augustine and the two cities: the City of God vs. the Earthly City, surrender of my ego to God vs. trying to play God myself.”
The overall outline of this 247 page manuscript can be viewed at http://www.hindsfoot.org/inProgr.html and worth reading first.
How do we bring someone to conversion? How does conversion take place? Most of us think that conversion is through understanding. In other words, we must understand in order to believe. Such an approach to life and God of course is not wrong. We must be able to provide good reasons for our belief, otherwise we could be accused of superstition or fundamentalism.
But faith and relationship, and even in other areas of life, cannot be based solely on reason alone. Indeed, many of our decisions and convictions in life are determined not so much by reason, even if it is not excluded entirely. What we are, what we believe and what we stand for are very much colored by our experiences in life. Experiences change our horizon, in the way we look at the world and life, God included. Pope Emeritus Benedict highlights this succinctly in his first pontifical encyclical when he wrote, “We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Deus Caritas est, 1)
Those who reduce faith to mere understanding and cognitive knowledge remain weak in their faith. A cerebral understanding of our faith is built on sand. When the “rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Mt 7:27) Indeed, when tragedy strikes, a terminal sickness, a business failure, a betrayal, God is thrown out of the picture. When times are good, we do not mind believing in God, but when we are down and out, and God seems so far away, we will give up faith in Him. Why should we believe in the existence of God when we cannot feel His love for us?
Clearly, a weak encounter with the personal love and healing grace of God in Christ puts our faith in question and at risk. When we think of our young people in the way they are brought up in their faith, it is all information and knowledge about the teachings of the Church, with very little God-experience in class. No wonder the young people always complain that catechism classes are boring. For many of them, it is just another academic lesson, only that it takes place in the compound of the church and not in school. We have failed to impart a God-experience to them because we do not expose them sufficiently to prayers and worship, sharing of the Word of God, and by our lives of loving concern. We labour under the false notion that if they know more about their faith, they will be good Catholics.
The conversion story of St Paul is a good example to remind us that conversion is not the result of doctrinal input but a personal encounter with the Lord. We read that Paul was a devout Jew. He studied under the most famous Rabbi, 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.” How could such a person, so deeply convinced of Judaism and one who lived so faithfully the Laws, suddenly change his mind towards Christianity and proclaim Jesus as the Christ? Even the Jews were surprised. “All who heard him were astounded and said, ‘Is not this the man who in Jerusalem ravaged those who call upon this name, and came here expressly to take them back in chains to the chief priests?’”
The answer that is beyond intellectual debate is of course his personal encounter with the Lord on his way to Damascus. Whether we agree or disagree with him in intellectual discourse about Christ, we cannot dispute his personal experience of the Risen Lord, symbolized by the bright light. The encounter was so deep, for when he fell to the ground, he 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.’” As far as St Paul was concerned, he heard the Lord clearly and distinctly and he even had a vision. When people speak from an experience, the response can only be one of belief or disbelief. Even those who claim to be visionaries are doubted. Of course, we could investigate using the rational approach, but in the final analysis, it is a question of probability, not prove. Authorities can rule out the experience, but at the end, it is a question of faith.
Indeed, our experiences shape the way we form opinions and decisions. We are all coloured by our daily life experiences. Nominal Catholics are always at risk of changing their faith. They could be going for Sunday masses regularly as a matter of routine or obligation. But if one day they are awaken through a strong religious encounter in another church or even in other religions, you can be sure that he would leave the church for the religious institution that gave him the God-experience. No amount of doctrinal argument or intellectual discourse can convince one who has had a radical experience of God. So we should not be surprised if a member of our family has left the Catholic Church. The fault lies in us because we never afforded or mediated a Christ-experience to them. They are analogous to St Paul before his conversion. They know about the faith and follow the laws but they lack a personal encounter with God.
How do we know that we have had a deep encounter with the living God? How sure are we that we have had a deep religious experience? One way is the need for confirmation from religious authorities. Ananias confirmed the vision for Saul, when he said, “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” But confirmation from authorities is not sufficient to prove that what we have came from God. Even authorities would look for some proof of the effects of our religious experience in our daily life before confirming our vision.
Indeed, in the final analysis, we can be sure that the religious encounter is real only when we have a change of horizon; in the way we look at life. A person who has had an encounter with God is filled with faith and love for God. Not only does he change his values but he also becomes a witness to what he has seen and heard. That was what St Paul did after his conversion. When God heals us or gives us a God-experience, it is not for us to hide it but to share Him with others. Ananias in healing Paul 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.”
And that was what St Paul did. He fulfilled the plan that God had for him. “This man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.” St Paul gave his entire life for the gospel. If we want to the messengers of the Good News, we too need to demonstrate in the power of the Spirit, our own personal conviction of God in our lives of service and love. Equally important, as the gospel suggests to us, is that we must not just use words but signs to “prove” that Jesus is the Christ, the love of God through our works of healing and mercy. “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 lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.”