The conversion of St Paul

25 January

The Conversion of St Paul by CaraveggioIn January we celebrate the conversion of Paul rather than commemorate the whole of his life and work. He is, I believe, the only saint with two days in the calendar (apart from Mary in some traditions). The anniversary of his death is often celebrated, together with Peter, on 29th June.

Paul is known as a zealot, firstly as Saul the Jewish rabbi and persecutor of Christians, later as Paul the Apostle of Christ and converter of the gentiles. In both lives he was determined, energetic and wholly committed. In fact we often tend to think of Paul in these absolute terms, wholly one thing then wholly the other. His conversion we treat in much the same way, a moment of revelation and a changed life thereafter. The ‘Damascus Road conversion’ is well recorded in Acts and is embedded in our language as an archetype for instant and radical change. There is no evidence at all that Paul’s conversion was gradual, that he softened in his attitude and became more sympathetic to Christians as he had more contact with them. He was rigorous in his work of persecution until the point of change. However, we sometimes overlook what happened next.

How often do we experience a powerful need to change direction in some way, to make new resolutions, great or small, only to find after a time that things are not that different? The practicalities of life and our own fallibility become impediments, chipping away the clarity of the new vision and eroding our resolve. Why can’t we be more consistent, more like Paul?

According to the record in Acts, Paul did not in fact instantly set out in a new direction. After his baptism, we are told, he went off to the Arabian desert where he no doubt spent much time thinking. It was three years before he met the Christians in Jerusalem and started his new ministry in earnest. Perhaps this is part of the key. Instead of rushing to implement immediate changes into a new pattern of life perhaps we should put practical plans on hold for a bit, making time and space to reflect, to internalise new learning, to become renewed inside before we try to change outside. It is clear that, after his conversion and subsequent sojourn in Arabia, Paul’s passion, energy, enthusiasm and sense of purpose never diminished. Maybe we can learn from that.

Be like Paul? But he was so special! In fact he must have been rather unimpressive to look at, being described as ‘a sturdy little bald-headed man, with meeting eyebrows and a rather prominent nose’*. In spite of his success as an evangelist, not everyone thought him a good preacher: ‘as a speaker he is beneath contempt’†. This should be a source of comfort to all who preach the gospel with a strong sense of their own inadequacies and limitations. Paul’s impact was from an inner strength, which must have been apparent to others who saw him as ‘...full of grace, for sometimes he appeared like a man, and sometimes he had the face of an angel’*.

Be like Paul? But he was chosen by God to a particular work! Some of us feel a deficiency in our lives because we have not had a conversion experience to which we can put a date, time and place. Most of us come to faith, develop, renew and maintain our faith in an evolving way through human contact. While we may wish for clarity, more often we meet ambiguity and uncertainty. Life is on the whole rather messy and complex. Paul’s is the only New Testament example of conversion solely by direct intervention; even the other apostles did at least meet Jesus as a man, however else they were moved by the Spirit. It does not help that we demand of ourselves, and others, that we all have the same clarity of experience as Paul.

But I like to think too that we are all, just like Paul, called and chosen by God for some special purpose, only we are not always clear what it is we are called to. John Henry Newman wrote in a meditation:

God has created me to do him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next... I shall trust Him’

This does not seem to lessen the value of the calling or diminish our response to it. Perhaps more faith and more courage are needed where there is greater uncertainty.

There is just one moment of transition from one year, one century and one millennium to the next. Some of us will use his occasion to make a new beginning, to implement some new resolution. If so, perhaps following Paul would be a good idea, taking time out to think about it. The change may then prove more significant and more durable. Paul clearly had a conversion, but his new ministry began not on the Damascus Road but in Jerusalem three years later.

Jim McLean

* Acts of Paul and Thecla, 3 (Earliest description of Paul - written about 160 AD)
† 2 Corinthians 10:10
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 23rd December 1999