Last Tuesday, January 25, was the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. I got out of work unexpectedly early, so I took in the 5:15 Mass at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral. There I listened to the familiar story from Acts: Saul, the road to Damascus, blazing light, flat on the ground, scales on eyes, scales off of eyes.
I love the wider story. It is pretty much a blueprint for how God works.
We can readily imagine Saul, the Pharisaic zealot, as a young man: dreadfully, agonizingly earnest. As Jane Austen wrote in Sense and Sensibility, “The kind of man everyone speaks highly of but no one wants to talk to.”
The fire in Saul’s eyes would singe your hair and lashes without warming you up. You’d be careful about telling him anything too revealing or intimate, lest a wave of frowns and Biblical quotes crash over you at the wrong moment. He wouldn’t sell you for a price, but he would sell you for a principle.
One day, it became something more. There were those blasphemers, that motley crew of blithering fishermen and loose women, making the wildest claims for that dead guy. They were absolutely impossible. No matter how much Saul shouted them down, they just wouldn’t leave. And, as blasphemers, they had to leave.
Dying, he concluded, was a form of leaving.
We have no evidence Saul ever actually “pulled the trigger,” so to speak. But, according to the Acts of the Apostles, he was effectively an accomplice to murder. When Stephen was stoned, the people put their cloaks at Saul’s feet. They did this because he was one of their motivators, one of their talking heads. Saul was somebody who went into a crowded theater and shouted “Fire!” knowing exactly what would happen.
Pleased, the Sanhedrin took Saul on as a kind of SWAT team leader. He dragged Christians from their houses and took them to jail. We don’t know how many. Then, “still breathing murderous threats” (Acts 9:1), Saul set out on the Damascus road, ready with warrants to drag back some more. His ambition was not bounded by Jerusalem or Judea. He was ready to purify the whole world from error.
Except that he didn’t. Somewhere along the way, Saul’s worldview instantly dissolved in an atomic blast.
Fast forward about twenty-five years. Saul, now usually called Paul, is in his early sixties and beginning to weary. At Miletus, thirty miles from Ephesus in Asia Minor, he is conversing with leaders of the Ephesian church, which he helped found.
Paul tells them he will never see them again. He is on his way to Jerusalem and suspects he’ll get arrested. Indeed he will be, turned over to the Romans by the very same religious establishment that gladly used him a lifetime ago.
And these Christians, whose deaths he once desired, respond this way: “They were all weeping loudly as they threw their arms around Paul and kissed him, for they were deeply distressed that he had said that they would never see his face again” (Acts 20:37-38).
Few images move me more.
Although…I do also like to think that Stephen, smiling, stepped invisibly into the room and laid a forgiving hand on Paul’s shoulder just as the latter’s pen scratched out that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
The Bible is, in large part, the story of God doing the unlikeliest of things with the unlikeliest of people. Jesus aside, Paul is perhaps the crowning figure in a relentless succession of them. Unlikelihood, not cleanliness, is next to godliness.
We all must remember this. I hope especially that our ecclesiastical powers-that-be, although notoriously unappreciative of God’s unlikely instruments, may remember this even now.
That kind of unlikelihood would be right up God’s alley. We can dream, right?