Learning from the Conversion of St. Paul
St. Paul was a tireless, dynamic preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ—and perhaps the most unlikely. Saul of Tarsus was a highly-educated Pharisee who persecuted the first Christians with a burning zeal. His vision of Christ on the road to Damascus flustered his original purpose: to arrest Christians at Damascus. Saul’s reputation preceded him to the extent that Ananias, called by Jesus Himself to baptize Saul, feared to approach him.
And yet Saul, who went by a Greek version, Paul, of his Hebrew name Saul, spent the rest of his life preaching Christ’s gospel.
St. Paul’s conversion presents us a model for wherever we are at, as well as an intercessor for us at every stage in our life of faith. In need of conversion? Great model. Unsure of committing fully to Our Lord? Not only did Paul live in complete opposition to Jesus, but he spent the latter half of his life trying to draw people to Christ. Gripped by fear of COVID and the state of the world? Paul knew what it was to fear for his life and deal with a debilitating “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Wherever we are on our journey toward Jesus, St. Paul is a worthy model.
First Step: Falling Down Before the Lord
The famous account of Paul’s journey on the road to Damascus is found in Acts 9:1-11. Although it makes for a great artistic metaphor, Scripture never says that Paul was knocked off his horse. Rather, when the “light from heaven shone around him,” he fell to the ground. The Bible has many instances of people falling to the ground in fear and awe of God. One of the most famous Elijah hid his face when God passed by the opening of his cave (1 Kings 19:12-13). Saul was simply acting like a well-trained Jew who believed in and feared God. So powerful, so beautiful, such pure love and goodness! If nothing unclean can enter heaven (Revelation 21:27), it’s not a stretch to think that a fallen, sinful man could behold perfection.
The conversion lesson to us is that no conversion can take place without falling before God in humility. Sometimes God steps in dramatically in our lives—our own road to Damascus—but not always. We can’t expect or wait for a blinding flash of light, or hold in envy those that do have extraordinary conversions. The essence of conversion is available to every single person: humility.
Second Step: Encountering Christ
One interesting point is that the travelers with Paul did not see the light, but heard the voice (Acts 9) and were rendered speechless. What was that conversation like, the rest of the way to Damascus? Did they leave Paul at the house of Judas, blind and helpless? Were they with Paul when Ananias showed up out of the blue? Scripture is silent on the reactions of Paul’s companions, but St. Luke did not note any baptisms other than Paul’s.
We can see a couple of spiritual lessons in this. First and most obviously, Our Lord speaks to different people in different ways. Jesus doesn’t appear to everyone in a flash of heavenly light. Second, not everyone responds to the revelation of Jesus. To the heart that has encountered Jesus, not pursuing Him is ludicrous. To those who have not encountered Jesus, giving up one’s life makes no sense.
Building on the first step, we can best encounter Christ when confronted with our weakness and/or littleness. Paul was rendered nearly helpless by his initial encounter with Our Lord. This doesn’t mean we can’t encounter Christ in situations of spiritual consolation, but Jesus often knocks at the doors of our heart at moments of humility.
Third Step: Seek Out the Church for Reconciliation with Christ
Paul did this the extraordinary way: through baptism. This mirrors what Peter said on the first Pentecost. After his preaching (Acts 2:14-36), the crowd was convicted and asked Peter what to do next. And Peter responded, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Without knowing it, Paul followed those instructions exactly: Ananias came to Paul that he “may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). Paul regained his sight, rose, and was baptized.
Jesus never intended us to come to faith on our own, nor did He intend for us to practice it alone. There are seven fantastic reasons to unite ourselves to the Catholic Church: the sacraments. Out of the seven, three in particular are especially powerful. And worth the price of admission! Through baptism we become one with Christ. Grace cascades into our souls and makes us new. In the sacrament of reconciliation, we can know with the certainty of Jesus Himself that our sins are forgiven. On Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the apostles in the upper room, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). In the sacrament of the Eucharist, heaven and earth unite. The Body of Christ worships God the Father through Jesus and in the Holy Spirit—in other words, in the midst of the Holy Trinity.
Fourth Step: Come to Know the Lord
Paul’s baptism was only the start of his conversion. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul adds an interesting note: after leaving Damascus, he went to Arabia. Then after three years, he went to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles. In order to come to know Jesus, Paul essentially went on an extended retreat. He doesn’t say much about his time in Arabia, but he gives us another important lesson in conversion of heart.
How can we commit to faith in a Lord we don’t know? How do we enter into a relationship without talking with the other person? Whatever the level of our faith, it’s vital to always return to the Lord. We can never exhaust the riches of that relationship. There are several keys to building a life-giving relationship with Jesus: prayer, Scripture reading, regular participation in the sacraments, and living a life of charity. This applies to the most learned person—like Paul, who had studied the Scriptures all his life before meeting Jesus—and to beginners.
“If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink,” Jesus tells us (John 7:37). The water is living water and the well will never run dry!
Fifth Step: Go, Tell the Good News
Paul shocked a lot of people on both sides of the Christian/Jewish divide when he went straight to the synagogues right after his baptism, “immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, ‘He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). Paul’s zeal was too much to hold in. Imagine the passion and joy of a Jewish rabbi, telling his countrymen that the long-awaited messiah had finally come.
Catholics today aren’t known for their missionary zeal, yet the annals of Church history overflow with missionary saints. St. Paul clued us in on why he gave everything to preach the gospel:
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.” -Philippians 3:7-8
All of his gains in life were no better than trash in comparison to gaining Christ? We can’t focus on what we lose, but what we gain.
The End and the Beginning
Does this outline look familiar? This is the Mass. In the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, we recite the Confiteor, owning up to our sinfulness and falling down before the Lord in humility. When the readings are proclaimed, we encounter Christ in His Word and in the homily. Through the ministry of the Catholic Church and through its apostolic authority, we spiritually assist at Mass in Jesus’ saving work of salvation. When we receive Holy Communion, we come to intimately know the Lord. At the end of Mass, we are sent after the final blessing.
Encountering Jesus was the end of part of Paul’s life, and the beginning of another. Let us invoke his intercession, that we may always walk the road that leads to Christ!