St. Paul: Conversion and Transformation

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.

conversion-of-pauThat 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.

Seven Blessings

In the Spirit of St. Francis of Assisi

Blessed are you, brother clouds,
Who cover our modest sister sky —-

clouds

Blessed are you, wind,
Who gently carries leaf and snow to visit me far away —-

Blessed are you, sweet creatures of air and earth,
Who people our lonely places —-

Saint-Francis-preaching-to-the-animals-Hans-StubenrauchTwice blessed are you, furry creatures,

Who companion us in our solitude —-

Blessed are you animate creatures
Who sacrifice your life to feed our hunger:
You are our little Christs who nurture us,
Bringing us strength and life —-

Blessed are you grasses and fruits,
Whose colors entice us, whose sweetness gladdens us —-
grass and fruit

Blessed are you, water and wine, slaking our thirst,

Transforming us for the wedding
of our Soul with Love.

Spiritual union

Thérèse and Her Little Way

“Holiness does not consist in this or that practice;
it consists in a disposition of the heart, which makes us always little in the arms of God, but boldly confident in the Father’s goodness.”           Thérèse , 1897

Born into a family utterly devoted to God and Christian holiness, Thérèse Martin was early shown her destiny. Walking one evening with her father, she looked up at the sky where she saw stars in a T-formation. “Look, Papa! My name is written in heaven!”

Her short life of 24 years was one continuously in communion with God. She realized that she could never aspire to a “great” vocation, such as being a priest or a missionary, so she contented herself with what was available to her. She was gifted with a total commitment to divine love that led her to seek constantly little ways of showing God how much she loved Him, and by total abandonment to God’s loving will. She chose to live this life of commitment in the Carmelite monastery in the town of Lisieux, France.

Here she taught herself to accept with joy the many little opportunities to show her love. Here are a few that have always struck me for their unimportance.

During quiet prayer in community, one of the nuns would rattle her rosary beads. At first, Thérèse found this annoying and distracting, but she applied herself to not only accepting this nuisance but even anticipating it with joy. And again, while doing laundry it was not unusual to feel a splash of soapy water on her face. She would refrain from wiping it off!

10-laundry-1894
The Saint, second from left, 1894

These were the kinds of sacrifices that had the added benefit of being totally unnoticed. There was no way that anyone would realize she was doing anything that could be called good, much less holy.. So hidden were her practices of self-denial that one of the sisters remarked, as Thérèse lay dying, “What ever will we say about Sister Thérèse in her obituary? She hasn’t done anything!”

In this way, Thérèse  was able to maintain a humility that was her  “little” way of spiritual childhood as Christ taught: Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Pope Saint John Paul validated  Thérèse’s little way to holiness by naming her a Doctor of the Church in 1997. Thérèse’s  Memorial Mass is celebrated October 1.

I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses.

rose-1

Audio: Chansons des Roses. Words by Rainer Maria Rilke;
Music by Morten Lauridsen

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Celebrating Mother Teresa

We always knew Mother Teresa was a saint, but now it’s official. This week Pope Francis, representing the whole Church, formally recognized her life of heroic holiness, through her dedication to the poorest of the poor, the abandoned of Calcutta.

Not long after her death, letters to her spiritual director were published, as required to review her cause for canonization. To those unfamiliar with the journey of the the spirit, it was thought that Teresa had “lost her faith” when she described her experiences of  apparent abandonment. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Her persistent service to the poor, in spite of her lack of inner consolation only served to prove her heroism.

There’s an important trait of Mother Teresa’s that we don’t hear much about, but which is, in my humble opinion, an essential aspect of holiness: a sense of humor, the handmaid of fidelity. This anecdote illustrates Mother Teresa’s ready wit.

About 30 years ago, I was watching newswoman Diane Sawyer interview Mother Teresa on TV. By that time, reports written by journalist Malcolm Muggeridge [author of Something Beautiful for God] had brought Mother Teresa to world wide attention. Diane Sawyer was clearly in awe of her. In quite a breathless voice, she asked this question:

“Mother Teresa, is it true that you talk to God?”

With a chuckle and a big smile, Mother Teresa made the motion of picking up a phone and said, “O yes! I say, ‘Hello, God!”Mother Teresa

Poor Diane! I can’t remember a thing that was said after that exchange. May we always joyfully remember that the Gospel is Good news.

To hear Mother Teresa’s acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, follow the link.

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On the First Day of the Week

 Mary Magdalene at the Tomb

A mutilated body,
Once strong and noble,
Lies in cold aloneness and emptiness.
Nothing good could come out of Galilee.

The great stone, pregnant with uncountable fears,Mary at the tomb
Big with hosts of indifferent hearts,
Bars entry to the cave:
The tomb of dead hopes and desires.

A weak and weeping woman comes.
Flaming tears of faith melt stone,
And cause explosions of love.

Faith bursts throughout the globe.
Hope is resurrected!
Fear dies, extinguished by Trust!

July 22, 2016