Paul of Tarsus
By: Fr. Joseph Holzner, 1944
St. Paul's conversion:
Every true conversion has two phases, the conversion of the intellect and the conversion of the heart. Without understanding, the pride of the human heart and its arrogance against God remain unconquerable. But besides this understanding, the heart itself must be seized by grace, it must be shattered and shaken in order that the will may be rectified. These two phases, as in St. Augustine’s case, may be separated by a period of time.
When Paul arose at the Lord’s command, he had opened his eyes which he had pressed shut against the glaring light; but as he raised his lids he saw nothing- he was blind. Now the great terror of the Christians stood helpless by the road, groping about for an arm or a sleeve of one of his companions…
For three days he ate and drank nothing; he was dead to the world. For three days he fell into a mystic sleep, a sleep of expectation. For what was he waiting? Christ had told him that he would learn what he was to do in the city. In the same way the other Apostles had waited before Pentecost. At any rate, he was waiting, and to think that until this time no one would have dared to keep him waiting. He was waiting in God’s ante-room; and waiting, too, is often a beautiful virtue because grace has its own time.
When a human soul is suddenly wrested by the roots from its old circumstances and environment and a new principle of life is infused into it, the change never happens without great sorrow and contrition. No psychology of religion will ever be able to explain the reconstruction of Paul’s religious world. Now he has in a period of breaking down old things and ideas- a process in which his human pride was being ground, in which the pure metal of his soul was being refined from the dross in order that he might become a suitable instrument in the hand of the Lord. Just as in the old legend the pagan idols in Egypt toppled from their pedestals when the divine Child arrived, so now Paul’s old world was falling in ruins. Round about him lay everything that he had held dear, the whole structure of his world had come down, and the foundations of his being were laid bare. But nothing that was worth while was lost. God saw to that. The basic fabric of his temperament, the original solidity of his character, his hair-splitting dialectic, his cosmopolitan polish: none of this was lost or destroyed by grace. All of it was salvaged by the delicate fingers of divine Physician to be knitted together into a new creature.
In the presence of the flaming countenance of the risen Lord, whatever was hard and rigid was softened and made pliable. Inhibited emotions and dormant powers were set free, fanaticism was transformed into a glowing zeal which later often appeared as a womanly tenderness alongside a granite-like resolution (Gal. 4:19). For three days Paul was clearing away the debris of his old mental world, but he did not leave in its stead a smoking, scorched place of desolation. Something new was breaking forth beneath the ruins; a new life had started, the new life in Christ. When we read his letters, those spiritual documents whose life cannot be found in all of the literature of the world, we hear on every page the cry: “But I obtained the mercy of God.” (I Tim. 1:13)
Faith is not an excursion into some fairyland, nor is it a pitiful collapse of strained and overburdened nerves. It is rather “the power of great souls and the light that burns in faithful hearts” as St. Leo the Great says (Sermo 2 de Ascens). Because his soul and mind remained balanced and healthy, Paul never allowed himself to indulge in emotional excesses or spurious visions during these lonely years in the desert. He was saved by such aberrations, as he himself knew, by the spirit of Jesus. Was it not the spirit of Jesus that had poured out upon him and that had flooded his whole being? (Rom 5:5) Filled with the spirit and the joy of that new faith, he was impelled to call out God’s sweet name, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). His soul was filled with a light, he breathed this luminous atmosphere, he spoke of it as being “in Christ Jesus.” Within him a dynamic warmth drew forth all that was noble and good and lifted him up to high prayer and worship.
Can anyone explain how this faith is produced within us? How the divine and the human are intertwined and interlaced? Paul knew only this: that it was God’s gift, a calling “from my mother’s womb…by his grace” (Gal. 1:15). If anyone would have confronted him as he returned from his three-year sojourn in the desert and asked him about these things, he might have said: “If then any be in Christ a new creature, the old things are passed away. Behold all things are made new” (2 Cor. 5:17).