Friday, January 25, 2008
Today is the church's commemoration of the conversion of St. Paul, one of the more peculiar commemorations, if you ask me. This is not the day we set aside to remember the life of St. Paul (that occasion falls on June 29, along with St. Peter); today we mark specifically his conversion experience. It makes sense, I suppose, since one could argue, given the amount of the New Testament that comes from his pen or one imitating it, that Paul's was the most famous conversion of all time. It has become more than a turning event in world history. It is held up as the model conversion. When people talk about a "Damascus Road" experience, they are borrowing a metaphor from this event. When people say they've "seen the light," they are making reference to Paul's blinding vision of Christ, when, ironically, everything began to become clear to him. I've even heard people use the image of "scales falling from their eyes" to explain suddenly understanding something for the first time. Again, thanks to Paul.
Conversions are usually thought of in terms of changing directions, changing beliefs. Old Saul was a fierce persecutor of the church; after his conversion, he is Paul, its biggest champion. Churches and missionary outposts have typically measured their growth by number of converts: people who have left off with an old belief system and grabbed hold of the gospel. This can often make conversion sound like something we do, as if converting is a point we reach when we have considered all the facts or have beaten our heads against the wall too many times. Conversion sounds like a moment of strength, of purpose, of power: "I figured it out. I changed. I finally made the jump."
Wasn't Paul's conversion, however, a moment of intense weakness, powerlessness? Didn't he fall to the ground in a heap of fear, not wrestle his way to a new point of view? Afterwards he spent many days convalescing at the home of Ananias. It wasn't until this encounter with a relative nobody that Paul came back to his senses and started regaining his strength. Think on this: we're commemorating not simply Paul's glorious turnaround. We're mainly commemorating his crouching in fear! We're commemorating his moment of humiliation, the point at when God's grace makes his power look ridiculously small and stupid.
So, here on this commemoration of Paul's conversion, I'd like to suggest we think about our own weaknesses, our own moments of despair and frustration that, like Paul's stop on the Damascus Road, seem like dead ends. I'd like to suggest that we give thanks not only our own renewed purpose upon these encounters with God, but primarily for God's ability to do something with our weaknesses in the first place. Because that is what will help the scales fall from our prideful eyes time and time again. We really can do nothing to thwart God's love for creation in Jesus. At the same time, even when we feel most impotent, God sees infinite ways to work through us.
(image: "The Conversion on the Way to Damascus" by Carravagio)