On the Feast of the Conversion of Paul, Are We Growing Bitter or Better?
Saul's experience on the way to Damascus and His ongoing life of responding to the invitation of Jesus Christ form a framework for his ongoing conversion as well as his apostolic mission.
Today we commemorate the Feast of the Conversion of the Apostle Paul. At my confirmation I took his name as my own. I wish I could say I did so at that early age because I was inspired by his example - but it would not be true. I had to write a report on the Saint I chose and I could find the most on Paul. Or so, at least that was the reason I THOUGHT I chose the name Paul. The Lord had other plans. As the years of my life have unfolded, the impact of Paul's conversion, his life and the legacy which he left us in his letters to the early Church, have shaped my own vocation and informed my way of life as a Christian. They continually challenge me to say yes to the Lord at a deeper and deeper level.
Or so, at least that was the reason I THOUGHT I chose the name Paul. The Lord had other plans.
As the years of my life have unfolded, the impact of Paul's conversion, and his life and the legacy which he left us in his letters to the early Church, have all shaped my own vocation and informed my way of life as a Christian. They continually challenge me to say yes to the Lord at a deeper and deeper level. After all, my life, your life...just like Paul's life,is a call to continuing conversion.
Our readings for daily Mass tell us of his conversion on the desert passage to Damascus (Acts 22, Acts 9). After participating in the martyrdom of the Deacon Stephen, and while still breathing murderous threats against the followers of the Way (the name which was used to describe Christians until they were called Christians, See, Acts 11:26) this Rabbi named Saul encounters the Light of God, Jesus Christ, who speaks to Him.
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."
As far as we can know Saul had never physically met Jesus, at least during Our Lord's earthly ministry. Yet, so identified was Jesus with the Church,which is His Body, that He asked this profound question of Saul. When Saul persecuted the members of the Body of Christ He persecuted Jesus Himself. Jesus and His Church are one.
Saul's experience on the way to Damascus and His ongoing life of responding to the invitation of Jesus Christ form a framework for his ongoing conversion as well as his apostolic mission in the Lord and for His Church.
Saul, whose name was changed to Paul after this encounter, heard the call of the Lord which was proclaimed in the Gospel set aside for this day (Mk. 16:15-18) He responded to the call and went into the whole world and proclaimed the Good News. He continued the redemptive mission of the Lord as Jesus worked in and through Him. He meant it when he asked "Lord, what shall I do?"
And, through it all, Paul continued to respond to the invitation the Lord had given to him in that first encounter by living a life of continuing encounter and response to the voice of the Lord. One might think that, given his initial extraordinary conversion, Paul's life was gradually freed from struggle and difficulty.
If so, one would be absolutely wrong. In fact, it seems that precisely the opposite occurred. Because Paul entered into the ongoing ministry of Jesus, he also entered into the ongoing struggles and difficulties which such a life of discipleship entails. The Lord allowed Paul to share in his suffering and struggle. What changed was not the circumstances of his life- but the man himself.
St. Paul lived an ordinary human life, just as we do. An Apostle who was raised up "out of the ordinary course", he accomplished great things for the Lord as he eagerly responded to His calling to build the Church and, through her, to change the world.
A man so profoundly close to the Lord he followed that he had literal mystical experiences, telling the early Christians of once being caught up into 'the third heaven" (2 Cor. 12:2). These arose out of his genuine interior life, his intimate communion with God.
However, he also experienced such mundane human things as financial hardship and deprivation. He was able to encourage the Philippians to learn the secret of simplicity and contentment through such experiences:
I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need (Philippians 4:12).
One might think that his heroic virtue and courage in service to Jesus Christ and his church would have brought him the esteem of his fellow leaders but, again, one would be wrong - at least as it pertains to some in Corinth who thought they were leaders.
They considered themselves to be "super-apostles" and filled the Christians of that community with doubts about Paul. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he takes on this corrosive undermining of his ministry. Yet, notice what he "boasts" about in this brief excerpt as he addresses the leaders undermining his apostolic roles:
Are they ministers of Christ? .I am still more, with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death. Five times. I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, .on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led to sin, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:22-29)
Paul suffered and underwent deprivation in daily life. He was misunderstood and betrayed by brethren. He experienced intense emotional, economic and physical hardships. He had reasons to become bitter. He did not. He became better. That is our challenge as we embark on our own Christian life.
Because of his close communion with Jesus, the One who had called him in the desert, Paul had the interior strength that only comes from living a fully surrendered life. The Lord who called him had changed him in the encounter. This is reflected, as is often the case in the biblical accounts of vocational callings, with the change of his name from Saul to Paul. But this change, the ongoing conversion, continued as Paul learned to empty himself so that he could be filled with God.
So it is meant to be in our own lives.
In our own lives, we will suffer, we will be misunderstood, betrayed by friends, shipwrecked, at least figuratively, and we will suffer the instability that often accompanies the struggles of daily life. Paul shows us the way to choose the better way, the way of discipleship.
When we make that choice we will find the path to contentment and the way of peace. Bitter or better? The choice is ours. Let us choose the way of following Jesus Christ in the footsteps of St. Paul and learn to boast of our own weakness and live in God's strength.
I end with one of my favorite sections of his first letter to the Christians in Corinth for our reflection as we prepare to receive the bread of heaven to strengthen us for our own response to Gods continuing call to live and spread the Good News. Paul reminds them and us:
The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.
God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, "Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord."
© 2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for March 2014
Respect for Women: That all cultures may respect the rights and dignity of women.
Vocations: That many young people may accept the Lordís invitation to consecrate their lives to proclaiming the Gospel.
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