|Conversion of St. Paul (Caravaggio)|
The Bible is filled with figures who sinned, became repentant, and underwent conversion, such as Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. Peter denied three times that he was an Apostle of Christ during the Lord's Passion; when the cock crowed, he went out and "wept bitterly" (Matthew 26:75). Following the Ascension, Peter accepted the command of Jesus to "feed my lambs" three times (John 21). Saul, the persecutor of the Church, became Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles, following his conversion. Mary Magdalene was a woman of ill repute before Jesus drove out seven devils from her (Luke 8:2); she became an ardent follower, and was the first to see Jesus following his resurrection (John 20:11-18).
The step before conversion though is repentance. Repentance conveys a sense of regret, sorrow, grief, or remorse for one's sins, that leads someone to conversion. The Hebrew verb niham, which means to be sorry, expresses this sense of regret. The Greek word metanoia - μετάνοια means a turning; literally in Greek the word means to change one's mind. For Paul the mind is not just the intellect, but the fuller holistic view of the mind as the seat of decision, the seat of the human soul. This change of mind is deeply personal, for it means a change of life, taking on a whole new way of thinking, priorities and commitments, a whole new direction in one's life.
Often my experience with people who have had conversions is not so much that they are converting to Catholicism or Christianity but it is with people discovering or rediscovering how much God loves them and this in turn necessitates a response. The experience is euphoric. I see in their eyes the trueness of the story and the genuiness of the encounter which created the situation where they choose Christ in their lives. One of the major problems of our generation is that we have so many people who are sacramentalised but have not yet had a living experience with Christ who died and rose for each one of us, unconditionally!
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his discussion of grace in the Summa Theologica, describes St. Paul's own conversion as a sudden reception of grace (in contrast to the gradual transformation over time) as "Paul, suddenly when he was in the midst of sin, his heart was perfectly moved by God." Many of us will not have the life-shattering Damascus experience which Paul had. But it might happen that the Lord will have to knock us off our high horse in order to let us see our complete need for Him in our lives. Our pride can blind us to the point where we don’t see his grace, his mercy, his love. Sometimes we have to be brought to our knees in order to be raised up from the dust. And He will do this, this is his promise in the Magnificat canticle: “He casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly”.
Paul uses the expression 'to live in Christ' or its equivalent 164 times in his writings. This concept derives from his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, when he encountered the risen Christ. His conversion is a conversion of one's whole being in total surrender to make the indwelling Trinity the total centre of one's life through the permanent union of life in and with Christ through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Even Paul admitted that he was still on the road to salvation, that "I do not consider that I have made it my own," that "he strains forward to what lies ahead," pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." Paul's conversion was a lifelong process, a lifetime of faithful decisions he made...in offering his life to the Lord. Our conversion is a lifelong too but we can take little steps every day and move towards that point where ‘I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’.
Conversion involves a huge 'handing over', surrender in faith. I have often stumbled over the relationship between faith and knowledge. Over the years I’ve come to have less and less regard for “proof.” The knowledge that I can prove often seems no more valuable than the faith I cannot prove. A more searching question for me is: what knowledge (by proof or faith) are I willing to act on? The answer to this question, it seems to me, sets the parameters of my life’s spiritual struggle.
Faith and knowledge – they stand in paradox and contradiction, they ultimately end with an “absorption” into each other. The paradox and contradiction are never resolved on the level of thought, but on the level of a life lived. Belief in God, the crucified God, is not a proclamation that we have solved the paradox. Rightly lived and believed, it is the living of the paradox – a living that truly embraces the whole of life, without reduction. In the end, it turns out to be love. Just love!
Happy feast of the Conversion of St. Paul to you all!