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Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic
Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic

An Enlightening Experience

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Spring Equinox

In this week’s Daily Meditations, Father Richard Rohr focuses on Saint Paul as a mystic, beginning with Paul’s transformative encounter with the Risen Christ:

Paul is probably one of the most misunderstood and disliked teachers in the Church. I think this is largely because we have tried to understand a nondual mystic with our simplistic, dualistic minds. 

It starts with Paul’s amazing conversion experience, described three times in the Book of Acts (chapters 9, 22, and 26). Scholars assume that Luke wrote Acts around 85 CE, about twenty years after Paul’s ministry. Paul’s own account is in his letter to the Galatians: “The Gospel which I preach . . . came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11–12). Paul never doubts this revelation. The Christ that he met was not exactly identical to the historical Jesus; it was the risen Christ, the Christ who remains with us now in Spirit as the Universal Christ.

In Galatians, Paul describes his pre-conversion life as an orthodox Jew, a Pharisee with status in the Judean governmental board called the Sanhedrin. The Temple police delegated him to go out and squelch this new sect of Judaism called “The Way”—not yet named Christianity. Saul (Paul’s Hebrew name) was breathing threats to slaughter Jesus’ disciples (see Acts 9:1–2). He says, “I tried to destroy it. And I advanced beyond my contemporaries in my own nation. I was more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers than anybody else” (Galatians 1:13­–14). At that point, Paul was a dualistic thinker, dividing the world into entirely good and entirely bad people.

The Acts account of Paul’s conversion continues: “Suddenly, while traveling to Damascus, just before he reached the city, there came a light from heaven all around him. He fell to the ground, and he heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The voice answered, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:3–5).

Paul must have wondered: “Why does he say ‘me’ when I’m persecuting these other people?” This choice of words is pivotal. Paul gradually comes to his understanding of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12–13) as an organic, ontological union between Christ and those whom Christ loves—which Paul eventually realizes is everyone and everything. This is why Paul becomes “the apostle to the nations” (or “Gentiles”).

This enlightening experience taught Paul nondual consciousness, the same mystical mind that allowed Jesus to say things like “Whatever you do to these least ones, you do to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Until grace achieves the same victory in our minds and hearts, we cannot really comprehend most of Jesus and Paul’s teachings—in any practical way. It will remain distant theological dogma. Before conversion, we tend to think of God as “out there.” After transformation, as Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) wrote, “The soul . . . never doubts: God was in her; she was in God.” [1]

[1] Teresa of Ávila, The Interior Castle, trans. Mirabai Starr (New York: Riverhead Books, 2003), 123.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, St. Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2014). Available as CD and MP3 download.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, Trash Can Study I (detail), 2020, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Dorothea Lange, “Bum blockade.” (detail), 1936, photograph, public domain. Jenna Keiper, Trash Can Study II (detail), 2020, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image Inspiration: The images on the left and right may not be immediately clear upon first glance. Perhaps there is room for our questions to stay with us gently, taking their time, until understanding slowly emerges as we walk along.

Story from Our Community:

The Daily Meditations are a reflection and a confirmation of my psychological and pathological making. Thanks to Father Richard, I’m able to pinpoint and fix my spiritual understanding so that I have a new mindset. Like Saint Paul said in his letter to the Romans, nothing… “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
—Elias M.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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