This past week we celebrated the feast of St. Paul’s conversion. This was truly an astonishing event which ultimately led to the conversion of uncountable numbers of people over the last 2000 years. We honor and thank St. Paul for his responding to God’s great gift to him that opened the path of holiness to nations outside of Israel.
Maybe you and I wonder why God would choose this man for such an extraordinary mission. For this same man, first known as Saul, not only witnessed but approved of the execution of St. Stephen, ardent follower and defendant of the “Nazarene”, and celebrated as the first Christian martyr: Now Saul was consenting to [Stephen’s] execution. (Acts 8:1)
Furthermore, Saul was a ruthless man who breathed murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1). He was on his way to Damascus to ferret out men and women of “The Way” and bring them back in chains to be immediately dispatched. What could possibly change the heart of this merciless man? Such a radical turnaround leaves us gaping with astonishment.
Now, I’m not surprised that God can do all things, even to the point of converting this bloodthirsty man, but why would he choose an outspoken enemy of Christ for a mission totally different from his cruel ways? Why didn’t he choose someone like gentle Stephen who was so good, and who taught Christ with such staunch devotion?
In short, why doesn’t God do things the way I would do them???
Here’s my theory. God, who knows us through and through, knew very well the temperament he gave Paul. Ruthless? Yes. But once touched by the divine hand, once he literally saw the light, that ruthlessness was transformed into a relentless zeal. To be apostle to the gentiles, to face and persuade total strangers, required this kind of radical and unstoppable ardor. In one direction, it was used for intolerance and cruelty. In the other, it was used for conversion to a Way of love.
This is at the crux of how God creates. He gives us by birth and culture exactly what he wants us to have. He then subtly but persistently draws us to opportunities where, in our free will, we can use those gifts either to come closer to him, or to ignore his invitations and use our talents for worthless – even evil – purposes. We are given many enticements to good in the course of our life but only hear them if we’re open and willing to listen.
I often hear people bemoan some aspects of their temperament. I’m too this; I’m not enough that. As if God is a shoddy workman! It’s not a case of our too-muchness or not-enoughness, but rather that we haven’t yet learned to use our unique gifts for the love of God and service to his people, our neighbor.
That brilliantly blinding flash of light Paul experienced was Christ’s irresistible invitation. Christ spoke to Paul not cursing or condemning him, but asking him what he was about, and why. Ironically, Paul’s spiritual blindness had preceded his physical blindness. All it took was one personal experience with Christ to wake him up to a different, loving, and dedicated way of life.
Paul’s letters overflow with his passionate love for Christ: how Christ is truly within us, how he rescues us from a life of selfishness. Paul became all things to all men, recognizing that gentiles needed and would welcome the Christian Way, even though they had lived so differently from the chosen people. His new powers of vision saw how the love of Christ extends over all kinds of people, and how ripe was the harvest. Without Paul’s “ruthless” persistence enduring shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings, and disgrace, we would not be writing or reading of his miraculous conversion today.
Because of St. Paul’s conversion we know that even our most seemingly unlovable traits can be transformed into a loving service to Christ. All we need to do is listen.