The Conversion of St Paul is celebrated throughout the Church including the Archdiocese of Santa Fe on January 25th annually. The story of his transformation is well known and dramatic, but the apostle’s message that followed was subtle and to the point. He had garnered knowledge that exceeded those who had accompanied Jesus, even though he had not, and it was through his words that the Church began to be set upright. Paul, as well as anyone, understood that conversion to Jesus Christ was an ongoing process, and his conversion continued long after that day on the Syrian Desert.
It is often perceived that the Romans were the greatest persecutors of Christians, but in the earliest days of Jesus’ Way, that was not the case. Jews persecuted Christians until a time that it was outlawed for them to do so by the Romans. Of course, they had the implied consent of Rome, which is why a man named Saul of Tarsus, a Jew but also a Roman citizen was uniquely qualified to lead such an inquisition.
Act of the Apostles tells how Saul led attacks on villages and homes, literally dragging men and women out. A great persecution of the Christians began the day Stephen was executed for his faith, becoming the first martyr after Jesus. Saul had obtained written correspondence to round up followers of the Way in Syria, but his conversion happened before he arrived, as he was blinded by the Lord who confronted him. Saul was led to Damascus and for three days made to wait in prayer and fasting until a recent convert to the faith known as Ananias came to him, instructed him briefly, and then baptized him. Saul assumed his Latin name Paul, and after a long introduction process became the leader of the Church for the Gentiles, who were growing in number much faster than those of Jewish roots, a fact that the original apostles of Jesus seemed unable to deal with.
Paul’s struggles didn’t end there, but were only beginning. As soon as the Jewish hierarchy realized he had converted, the preacher became their number one target. According to Jacobus de Voragine in The Golden Legend, an often suspect and near mythological lives of saints, St Hilary listed the attacks on Paul including beatings and imprisonment (from which he made a daring escape). He was stoned, flogged, harassed, betrayed, and eventually tried, convicted, and executed as a Roman citizen under the reign of Emperor Nero. All these facts are verified by the chapters of Acts of the Apostles.
In the midst of his own trials and tribulations, Paul found a way to bring a message of hope to all the Churches of the Way. He told them that only God can save humans from their sin. The Lord gave us the opportunity to be free from Original Sin through baptism, which Paul expounded on greatly, and he gave us a method of conversion to bring the faithful closer to the presence of God and real life in Jesus Christ. Paul preached complete faith in God, and adhered closely to Jesus’ own words, a promise of daily acceptance to the way, the truth, and the life in the Lord.
Paul reminded the followers who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire that faith and conversion were not just words Jesus spoke or the Hebrew books proclaimed (the Gospels were not written yet), but were a plan of action. To be in the presence of God, one must live righteously as though walking in the footsteps of Christ, even to carrying his cross. It was not a haphazard plan, and it required one essential element: to think of God always.
In the 1600s, Brother Lawrence wrote The Practice of the Presence of God, and suggested that the presence of God in our lives is governed by an ongoing conversation with him. Just as Paul had taught all those centuries before, we are converted daily by drawing God into our circle of life and responding to him like he is the purpose of our very being.
Throughout Christian history, God has shown time and time again that some may need a lightning slap to the face like Paul did, while others may only need the gentleness of a fingertip on a saddened cheek. Whatever our conversion process is, it does not come to an end, but rather grows with the faith, hope, and love that is God’s eternal promise and covenant…for him to give to us and for us to give one another. Now that’s real conversion!