LESSONS FROM THE APOSTLE OF THE GENTILES – Conversion and rebirth

Conversion on the way to Damascus by Caravaggio (Image by Wikipedia)

– Aurelio Porfiri

One of the images most impressed in the collective imagination regarding Christianity is that of the conversion of St Paul, which the Church celebrates on January 25th. Not wrongly. In fact, this dramatic image of a man who, from persecuting Christians, became a Christian himself makes us think. We will surely think of the beautiful painting by Caravaggio, with St Paul fallen from his horse but illuminated by a supernatural light. You will notice that the horse has a hoof raised as if to strike the man on the ground, Paul. And this paw is illuminated. It makes me very much think that to illuminate the scene there is a supernatural light cast upon a man on the ground and a probable threat. I do not think it is an over-interpretation of Caravaggio, as he was a man that lived his life in a dramatic way. I do not think it is a coincidence that he wanted to transfigure in a supernatural light also the dark side of his life, like that of St Paul.

Piero Bargellini on santiebeati.it observes about this liturgical feast: “Since the martyrdom of the Apostle of the Gentiles is commemorated in June, today’s celebration offers the opportunity to consider closely the multifaceted figure of the Apostle par excellence, who wrote of himself: ‘I have worked more than all the other apostles,’ but also: ‘I am the least among the apostles, an abortion, unworthy even to be called an apostle.’ He himself puts forward the credentials that guarantee him the right to be considered an apostle: he has seen the Lord, the Risen Christ, and is therefore a witness to the resurrection; he was also sent directly by Christ, like the Twelve: vision, vocation, mission, three requisites he possesses, for whom that miracle of grace occurred on the road to Damascus, where Christ forces him to an unconditional surrender, so that he cries : ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?’ In the words of Christ the secret of his soul is revealed: ‘It is hard to rile against the goad.’ It is true that Saul sought ‘in all the synagogues to compel Christians with threats to blaspheme,’ but he did so in good faith and when one acts for the love of God, the misunderstanding cannot last long. Then emerges the restlessness, that is ‘the goad’ of grace, the flicker of the light of truth: ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’ This mystical irruption of Christ in the life of Paul is the chrism of his apostolate and the spark that will reveal to him the admirable truth of the inseparable unity of Christ with believers” (my translation). It seems interesting to me to observe that Jesus often takes the most vulnerable, those who are stained with great sins. Fulton Sheen said: “Conversion capacity is greater in actually wicked individuals than in those who are satisfied and self-loving.” And here the Lord does not take Paul to make him only a Christian, but to make him the apostle of the Gentiles.

In the liturgy for the feast of the conversion we read this story in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 9:  “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. For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.” Jesus converted him but also identify him: he was his persecutor.

I think there is a pedagogy of 25. What does this mean? December 25 is Christmas, January 25 is the conversion of St. Paul, March 25 is the Annunciation. In a certain sense we follow it upside down: from the Annunciation there is conversion, and from conversion a birth (or rebirth). In St Paul the announcement was not heard and therefore the conversion was dramatic. The rebirth is announced in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. This life in the flesh, I live it in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The converted man tries to live his new life as worthily as possible, but does not remain exempt from his sins, sometimes even serious. It’s like going from one apartment to another: even if the new house is beautiful, spacious and in full light compared to the previous one, you always bring something from the previous apartment that you cannot throw away, maybe useless, but from which you cannot separate. The new man may not immediately be able to have a new behavior worthy of his call but what is important is that he has a new heart that also gives a new look. God enlightens you even when you’re on the ground, as in Caravaggio’s painting, but as in his painting your face, though immersed in blindness and your hands tend to the sky.

In his Homilies, about the conversion of St. Paul, St John Chrysostom said: “What man is and how much the nobility of our nature, how strong is this thinking being, shows it in a very particular way in Paul. Every day he rose higher, every day rose more fiercely and fought with ever greater courage against the difficulties he encountered. Alluding to this he said: I forget the past and I lean towards the future (see Phil 3:13). Seeing that death was imminent, he invited everyone to the communion of his joy, saying: ‘Rejoice and rejoice with me’ (Phil 2: 18). He also exults in the face of the dangers looming, offenses and any injuries and, writing to the Corinthians, says: ‘I am happy with my infirmities, insults and persecutions’ (2 Cor 12: 10). He adds that these are the weapons of justice and shows how the greatest fruit comes from here, and is victorious of the enemies. Wrought everywhere with rods, hit by insults and offenses, he behaves as if he were celebrating glorious triumphs or raising high trophies. He prays and thanks God, saying: May they be given thanks to God who always triumphs in us (see 2 Cor 2:14). Therefore, animated by his apostolic zeal, he liked more the others coldness and insults than the honor, of which we are so greedy instead. He preferred death to life, poverty to wealth, and he desired much more the trouble than rest. One thing he hated and rejected: the offense to God, to whom he wanted to please in everything” (my translation).

St Augustine said: “In prayer the conversion of the heart to the One who is always ready to give if we are able to receive happens. In conversion then comes the purification of the inner eye, when the things that are temporally craved are excluded, and this so that the pupil of the heart can bear the simple light that shines without sunset or mutation; and not only endure but also dwell in it; and live there not only without annoyance but also with ineffable joy, in which life truly and genuinely blessed consists” (my translation). In conversion there is a process of adaptation that can last many years and in which we are not yet able to fully live in the light of which the saint of Hippo speaks to us. And this process of transition from conversion to full conversion is long and tiring, just as it is also from atheism to faith.

Monsignor Antonio Livi in an interview said: “We do not pass from atheism to faith, we pass from the natural knowledge of God to faith, only through the praeambula fidei, if we seek salvation and we have the possibility to understand the rightness of the message of Christ.” And here is the important work of many apologists who offer all of us so many reasons to believe, to confirm our conversion on solid foundations or to encourage conversion itself. We can never be too grateful to the many who dedicate their intellectual energies to show us that Christianity is reasonable. St Thomas Aquinas said: “As the eyes of the owl are dazzled by the light of the sun that they cannot see, but they see well the things poorly lit, so the human intellect behaves in front of the first principles, which are among all things, by nature, the most obvious.” For our conversion let us nourish ourselves with good readings, good authors, solid doctrine: our eyes, in this way, will certainly get better used.

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