Morning Prayer: Ps. 19 | Isaiah 45:18-25 | Philippians 3:4b-11
Evening Prayer: Ps. 119:89-112 | Ecclesiasticus 39:1-10 | Acts 9:1-22
The account of the conversion of St. Paul is one of the most famous conversion narratives in the history of Christianity, and with good reason: Saul of Tarsus, sworn enemy of the nascent Christian Way, bound to Damascus with the authority to cleanse the synagogues of Christian heretics, encounters none other than the Risen Christ in the form of a heavenly light and voice. From that moment on, Paul becomes the greatest Christian evangelist, travelling throughout Asia Minor and Greece and ultimately to Rome, spreading the Jesus movement beyond its base in Judea and Galilee to the Jewish diaspora and Gentiles as well.
In appropriate fashion, given Paul’s theology — or at least Paul’s theology as interpreted by Augustine and the Reformers — his moment of conversion is one marked by a sort of irresistible grace, an irruption of the Divine into his life. At portrayed in the the Acts of the Apostles and as Paul himself recalls (see Galatians 1), there is no question of Paul desiring such a profound reorientation of his life – he was on the road to Damascus to rout the Christians from the synagogues there! – or participating in it in any particularly meaningful way; he is literally “cast to the ground” by the power of the Resurrected Jesus, able to utter nothing more than a terrified “Who are you, Lord?”. There is no spritual quest here. No Augustine, moving from Manicheanism to Neo-Platonism to Christianity, driven by an urgent desire for wisdom and peace. No Luther, obsessed by his sinfulness, wracking his brains for ever-more-trivial sins to confess to an exasperated and concerned confessor until at last stumbling onto the doctrine of salvation by faith through grace. No: we simply have a zealot who is quite literally knocked off his path by God.
What, then, does this mean for how we should be? For someone like me without the experience of a profound, nigh-instantaneous conversion, this story is at first glance difficult to relate to beyond the reminder that God can work in unexpected and even disconcerting ways. To be sure, this passage could be enlisted to do some work for a doctrine of God or of grace or of election, but it is rather hard to divine a moral lesson from the Road to Damascus, unless one seeks to read a (dubious, in my opinion) profound openness to God’s reorienting work in Saul’s exclamation “Who are you, Lord?” Saul is a passive agent here; he doesn’t really do anything so much as have things done to him.
If one is looking for a moral examplar in this story, the person who springs most to mind is not St. Paul but rather Ananias. Saul, remember, is headed to Damascus to persecute Ananias and those like him. Small surprise that Ananias is originally none-too-pleased about the notion of going to see Saul to heal him from his blindness. He had plenty of reasons to feel that way. Ananias may simply have been concerned about his own survival. Stephen’s martyrdom must not have been far from his mind — could one fault him for imagining a similar ending to his encounter with Saul? Or perhaps, looking at things pragmatically, he figured that Saul was likely the greatest enemy of the church and a blinded Saul was a less effective persecutor than one with full use of his senses — so , if through simple inaction, morally blameless by any typical standard, he could save his fragile community, few would fault him and many would praise him. Yet he goes. Goes to the house of the man who was likely his greatest enemy, a man he had good reason to be fearful of and a man he had no reason to aid, and prays that he may be healed and that the Holy Spirit may come upon him, trusting in the God who improbably promised him that Saul “is a chosen instrument” of His.
There are, to my mind, several lessons to take from this. All of them are rather difficult, especially for someone like me with a rather belligerent politics and a suspicion of the ways in which the preaching of Christian love of enemies by rich to poor, whites to blacks, and so on have aided in legitimating an unjust social order. The first and most basic lesson has to do, simply enough, with loving your enemies. It is remarkable to me, and a testament to both his trust in God and his charity, that Ananias consented to do good to Saul at all, given his numerous good reasons for wishing him ill. Now, the application here is not necessarily straightforward; the question of the sort of aid you are obligated to render your enemies, particularly when your enemies are more powerful than you and when providing certain kinds of aid may put you and your community at risk is a complicated one. It’s worth noting that Ananias does not go to heal Saul until he is told by God that Saul is His instrument to spread the Gospel. But regardless it is clear that Ananias is willing to love his enemy.
This love of enemy goes beyond simply wishing him well (hard enough for me!) and even doing well by him (yet harder!). In praying that he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, Ananias goes beyond caring for his persecutor to welcoming him into his own community. In my experience, people who have suffered for their politics or religion are often less than gracious at welcoming newcomers, particularly former opponents of the community. There’s often a sense that these newcomers haven’t paid their dues, or that they’ve won the benefits of belonging without the blood, sweat, and tears of their predecessors. Certainly I have felt this way over my organizing career. Now, even on a purely pragmatic level, this is clearly a self-defeating attitude. Any good trade unionist will tell you that over the the course of a union drive or a contract campaign, you’re going to need to win over workers who were originally tepid on the union or opposed to it, and many have treasured stories about formerly staunchly anti-union workers who became union militants. Yet it is one thing to recognize it as a self-defeating impulse, it is quite another to conquer it. But Ananias does. I want to be part of a church and part of a labor movement that, like Ananias, has conquered this impulse, has figured out how to genuinely welcome enemies (be they enemies of the Gospel or of the Movement) into our parishes and locals. Repentance and conversion are important, of course, but so is a joyous welcome on our part rather than suspicion or petulance. We don’t want to be like the obedient son angry at the welcome the prodigal is returning; we should seek to be like Ananias.
To conclude, I want to move briefly from the moral sense to the typological (I believe — I’m a little rusty on my types of Biblical allegory!). Be aware that this is a bit less tightly argued — I’m riffing here! — and will focus on Saul’s blindness and sight in relationship to the trajectory of his conversion. The motif of blindness to sight in which this story in the broadest sense fits is a common one in depictions of the spiritual life (“I was blind but now I see,” etc.). But even the more specific trajectory of Paul’s vision — first, seeing normally, next seeing God and being struck blind, and then having his sight restored — is one not without precedent. The experience of both darkness and light in the encounter with God (or, better put, a journey from the normal light of human reason into the darkness of God – often a darkness caused by God’s brightness – and perhaps through the darkness into light) was a commonplace in the medieval theological tradition, especially those aspects of it we now (rather unhelpfully) call “mysticism” or “mystical theology.” To the best of my knowledge, however, Saul’s blindness was not usually used as a type for the spiritual journey in medieval theology; the ascent to Mt. Sinai (where God appears in the darkness of a cloud) was much more commonly used. (I would be excited to be proved wrong on this point, though!) Non-Christian theological and philosophical systems also make use of the motif: think of Plato’s allegory of the cave, where once the man ascends from the cave (where he can see, he thinks, normally) into the light of the sun, he is blinded by its brightness and only gradually retains his sight.
In light of all this (see what I did there?), I want to offer a rather loose typological account of the Conversion of St. Paul: Dramatic irruptions of the Divine into human life occur. They may tend to occur to disciplined religious practitioners (Saul was certainly an expert practitioner!) but, as the unearned, unpredictable gift of God, they can occur to anyone (Saul was an enemy of Christ!) and certainly are due no one. One cannot earn them (think The Cloud of Unknowing here). Yet by themselves, these experiences simply produce blindness. Staring God face-to-face does not actually help you make sense of the cosmos and your place in it, and perhaps even fails to help you make sense of God — in the face of God’s awesome divinity, the most natural result is to be overcome, to be blinded, to be cast down on the ground. It is through the ministrations of the Church (as represented by Ananias) that sight can be restored; a community of faith, especially one that includes spiritual elders, is needed to make sense of ecstatic, ‘mystical,’ experiences, to integrate them into the story of the work God is doing in the world and to equip the ‘mystic’ to tell her or his story for the edification of the Church and the evangelization of those outside it.