25 January: The Conversion of St. Paul

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. (Acts 22:6-11)

In Caravaggio’s masterful depiction of today’s liturgical commemoration, Saul of Tarsus is dressed in the proud attire of a prominent Roman citizen, adorned with breastplate and helmet, on his way to raid the Christians of Damascus and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.  But somewhere along the road, the future Apostle is thwarted, struck down by a heavenly vision. Saul literally falls from his high horse and lies helplessly on his back as the animal towers over him.  His brilliant and boastful red garments lie strewn around his body like flowing blood, and Saul’s sword is is likewise bathed in the scarlet robe– a wonderful artistic foreshadowing of the man’s ultimate fate.  Against the background of darkness– in the manner perfected by Caravaggio– a singular beam of light illuminates the foreground, placing in vivid relief the image of the defeated Pharisee, robbed of his sight, vainly trying to reach and grope his way toward some tangible and familiar object.  But even in the presence of his horse and companion, in this dramatic moment, he is utterly alone, drowning in the black abyss of his sin, like Peter who while sinking into the sea of Galilee called out, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:29-30).  Only that singular beam of light– Christ himself, the “Light of Revelation unto the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32)– can vanquish the surrounding darkness, make visible our state of sin, and lead us on the road toward salvation.

Yet while Saul remains upon the ground, a significant reversal of roles has occurred.  Whereas the great Pharisee once rode atop the horse, secure in the spot of authority, he now seems dwarfed by the size of the beast.  The horse, with eyes are fixed on Saul, nonchalantly raises a leg as if to avoid some lesser pest.  Saul is vanquished, trampled underfoot by his own anger and pride.  From hence he no longer takes the name of a famous king, but instead takes the name “Paul”, meaning “little one”.  In later years, he writes to the Hebrews in a letter that is just as much a rebuke of his past self: “How much more severe punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:29). Now Paul himself has been humbled and trampled underfoot, and after having received the punishment of blindness, he is therefore called to carry the Light of Christ to the Gentiles.

The glory of God is so great that Moses had to veil his face when it passed him, and when he descended from Sinai, Moses’ “face shone brightly”.  Paul, who beheld that glory unveiled, lost his vision of the physical realm.  Through this blindness, he became painfully aware that he cannot not take hold of God as a possession by virtue of his extensive knowledge of the Law; rather, he himself needed to be possessed by God.  On the road to Damascus, Paul “saw” the fundamentally passive aspect of revelation: the Lord shines his grace on his people, and his people do not approach his glory without having been moved first by grace.  Here, the Psalm takes a fresh meaning: “Send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy mount and to Your dwelling places” (Psalm 43:4).  Christ is that Light and that Truth, and one must be led by Him unto the tabernacle of the Lord.

“Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light, I was led by hand by my companions and entered Damascus,” says the Apostle.  Physical blindness has stripped Paul of all arrogance, making him recognize his “littleness”– his Paul-ness— before the majesty of God.  Thus he can tell the church at Corinth,  “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7), for although he was blinded, grace led him to Damascus, where Ananias would heal him, and where he will learn to see not through eyes of flesh, but through eyes of faith.

Paul’s conversion is fundamentally a story of God’s wisdom and power: the Almighty can take the unworthiest things and fashion them into instruments of his will.  He chooses Matthew, a notorious extortionist, to bring the gospel to Ethiopia; he chooses Thomas, who doubted the resurrection, to bring Christ to India; he chose Peter, who thrice denied the Lord, to be the Church’s foundation; he chose Paul, who stood guard while Stephen was murdered, to evangelize the Greeks.  All these examples in which God perfects what is grossly imperfect are ultimately small manifestations of God’s unfathomable, ineffable might– the same might by which he took hold of death itself and opened it to eternal life.  Like Paul, we Christians must continuously undergo our own conversion, to turn our face to the Lord, to let ourselves be overwhelmed by his immense power so that, even when we are trampled underfoot by the Prince of This World, we will be led by Light and Truth unto the Lord’s holy mountain and into his dwelling.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply