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Saint Paul's conversion — marked by the Church on Jan. 25 — is a favorite feast day for many people, as well as a favorite subject for artists. But its dramatic portrayal on canvas has at times left the erroneous impression that the once-prolific persecutor of the faithful experienced instant spiritual transformation.
In his epistle to the Galatians, we hear St. Paul talk about this transformation. He explains how he went from being a zealous practitioner of Pharisaic Judaism to becoming a staunch believer in Christ. He went full circle, from persecuting Christians to being persecuted — even being martyred:
For you heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I persecuted the Church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it, and progressed in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my race, since I was even more a zealot for my ancestral traditions. But when God, Who from my mother's womb had set me apart and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me, so that I might proclaim Him to the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; rather, I went into Arabia and then returned to Damascus. Then, after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to confer with Peter and remained with him for fifteen days. (Galatians 1:13-18)
Saul, as he was known before his conversion, was not a man who woke up one morning from a dream and decided to put an irreligious life of sin and debauchery behind him. From his youth, he was a devout Jew who practiced his faith religiously and, as far as he was concerned, lived an exemplary life up to his conversion.
All of us know people who, like Saul, are so confident in themselves that they never once question the validity of their beliefs. It's often clear to everyone around them that they, in certain respects, "have blinders on."
Our Lord's summons to Saul, which manifested as a bout of blindness, aptly describes Saul's spiritual state at the time as well as his physical state. The conversion described in Scripture was not a moment of revelation that made Saul instantly different; it was a catalyst that began God's relationship with him.
Saul's conversion was about coming to a deeper understanding of who God is and that Jesus is God. The moment he was touched by God was merely the beginning.
Saint Luke, who knew the great Christian persecutor well, describes in Acts 9:1-8 the specifics of his friend's conversion:
Now Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that if he should find any men or women who belonged to the way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" He said, "Who are You, Sir?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.
Over the centuries, artists like Peter Paul Rubens and Caravaggio depicted Paul, or Saul as he was then known, falling from a horse when he heard God calling his name. While this characterization is intended to illustrate the drama of the moment, the biblical record doesn't support it.
Probably the most accurate depiction was in Domenico Morelli's painting "The Conversion of Saint Paul" (1876). It depicts Paul writhing on the ground, blinded and trying to grasp what was happening to him. Far from being transformed, he had a long way to go. Scripture reveals much the same.
In the New Testament, Paul's great letters, written after his conversion, give witness to the saint's deep transformation of faith. Paul's letters illustrate that he was a good learner who, over the course of his lifetime, gradually came to understand more about Christ and divine truth.
Many faithful Catholics, when reflecting on their relationship with Our Lord and discerning what God wants of them, get discouraged if they don't experience a sudden transformation or a dramatic sign from God. During many sessions offering believers spiritual direction, I've reminded directees that "Rome wasn't built in a day."
Despite Saul's encounter with Jesus on his journey to Damascus, many years transpired before he was trusted by the Christian communities and before he began sending the world's most important letters to key Christian communities of the time. Eleven years passed between the time he heard God's call on the road to Damascus and when he set out on his first apostolic journey with St. Barnabas, his faithful travel partner.
The name Barnabas means "son of encouragement," and he was known to encourage Paul to preach to suspicious Christian communities who were well aware of Paul's history of persecution.
From more than one perspective, Paul's life journey teaches us to avoid discouragement and stay the course. It teaches us to give ourselves time to grow in the Holy Spirit. His story reminds us to turn ourselves over to God, to give and receive encouragement and to persist in the Faith of the Apostles. It reminds us to listen to God's call and to allow His revelation to transform our thoughts incrementally.
Paul's feast day is unique because instead of marking the day of his death — as is often the case for saints' feast days — it marked the first day of his spiritual rebirth. It celebrates how a stubborn man was changed, all in God's good time.