Friday, January 25, 2008
Conversion of Saint Paul
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Conversione di San Paolo) 1601. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.
5 As the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the ancients: from whom also receiving letters to the brethren, I went to Damascus, that I might bring them bound from thence to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 And it came to pass, as I was going, and drawing nigh to Damascus at midday, that suddenly from heaven there shone round about me a great light:
7 And falling on the ground, I heard a voice saying to me: Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
8 And I answered: Who art thou, Lord? And he said to me: I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.
9 And they that were with me, saw indeed the light, but they heard not the voice of him that spoke with me.
― Acts of the Apostles xxii.
Our lives can gather from reflection upon the liturgical year, now we are in the first interlude of ordinary time. Today is celebrated the conversion of Saint Paul, no one else’s is so commemorated. Supra he describes the moment of his conversion. An event he refers and alludes to again in scripture, and scripture is a minimum of all recounting for the faith . Paul must have regaled people again and again in this illuminating and rapturous episode. This is the most dramatic moment of his life and it is one that brings him joy.
We are called to convert. If we are believers on some plane of mental acceptance, acquiescence, assent or acknowledgment, it is not enough. We need a deeper and more thorough acceptance, one with a full welcoming. A mere admiration of Christ at a distance is not enough.
The spectacular moment most probably will not come to us. Some may begin their road to Damascus as did Paul, an angry, hateful, persecuting zealot. Remember, he admits to holding the cloaks of those who martyred Stephen, and his intent, was to go to Damascus, to gather more christians to try and kill. Divine intervention altered his path. For Him and those he persecuted, he would travel, further still and continuously. Paul would be beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned and finally beheaded. The drama did not stop. This moment on the road to Damascus changed his itinerary. What of ours and others? Now, Saul of Tarsus was a fervent enemy; Paul of Damascus, several cities of Greece and Rome was a steadfast friend, even when in fear and trembling.*
To those who are converted, the more likely route is a slow travel towards conversion. This event, that encounter, this visit, that word brings the destination to Jesus, his church on earth, and then in heaven.
Supra Caravaggio, in oil and pigment†, focuses our attention. The picture is not cropped, it is tight and crowded. Paul supine and outstretched with the light above him. The horse and an old man, perhaps a groom, are there ― not particularly challenged or involved. It is Paul who is changed.
As Paul came to Damascus to persecute christians, to-day christians are fleeing persecution in Iraq and they are on the road to Damascus. What shall they find?
In Cleveland, Ohio, there was a church on millionaires’ row, Euclid Avenue, called St. Paul, an Anglican church, visited by, then president, Teddy Roosevelt for the wedding of the daughter of Mark Hanna, the campaign manager and fixer for McKinley and Roosevelt. The congregation moved to the suburbs and the building sold to the catholic diocese. Three orders of Franciscans can be found there: the Capuchins, the Poor Clares and seculars. The church is now the Conversion of Saint Paul.
*itaque carissimi mei sicut semper obœdistis non ut in præsentia mei tantum sed multo magis nunc in absentia mea cum metu et tremore vestram salutem operamini
Wherefore, my dearly beloved, (as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but much more now in my absence,) with fear and trembling work out your salvation.― ii.12 Philippians
†Paul does not mention a horse, of course, but a horse we all picture. The word 'falling' leads us to that picture.