Paul’s Conversion Experience

Introducing St. Paul

Paul’s Conversion Experience
Tuesday, March 31, 2015

As we will see over the next three weeks, all of Paul’s major themes are contained in seed form in his conversion experience, of which there are three descriptions in Acts (chapters 9, 22, and 26). We assume that Acts is written by Luke about twenty years after Paul wrote most of his letters (c. 50 CE). Paul’s own account is in the first chapter of 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 the Christ in the flesh (Jesus); it was the Risen Christ, the Christ who is available to us now as Spirit, as “an energy field” that we eventually called the Mystical Body of Christ, the Cosmic Christ.

Paul continues, describing his life pre-conversion: “You have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church beyond measure. I actually 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). Paul is claiming his Jewish orthodoxy. A Pharisee by training, Paul had achieved some status in the Sanhedrin, the governmental board of Judea during the Roman occupation. He was delegated by the Temple police to go out and squelch this new sect of Judaism called “The Way” (not yet named Christianity).

“Saul [Hebrew for Paul] was breathing threats to slaughter the Lord’s disciples. He had gone to the high priest to ask for letters addressed to the synagogues that would authorize him to arrest and take to Jerusalem any followers of the Way” (Acts 9:1-2). At this point, Paul is a black and white thinker, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. All zealots start here.

“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 and you are persecuting me’” (Acts 9:3-5). This choice of words is pivotal; Paul must have pondered: “Why does he say ‘me’ when I’m persecuting these people?” He comes to this insight that there is a complete, almost organic union between Christ and those who love God. The voice continues, “‘Get up now and go into the city and you will be told what you are to do.’ Saul got up from the ground, but even with his eyes wide open, he could see nothing at all. They had to lead him to Damascus by hand. For three days he was without sight and took neither food nor drink” (Acts 9:6-9).

Paul realizes on the Damascus Road or shortly thereafter that, in the name of religion, he had become a murderer. In the name of love he had become hate. Paul becomes an image for all generations of religion, showing that religion can be the best thing in the world, and it can be the worst thing in the world. That which makes us holy can also make us evil. If the ego uses any notion of religion to “wrap God around itself” it will be the source of the ultimate idolatry: God serving us instead of us serving God. That is why, for the rest of his life, Paul is obsessed with transformation. He has seen sick religion, because he had become sick religion. This is possible in every religion and every age if religion does not lead to an authentic God experience. Paul is forever the critic of immature, self-serving religion, and the pioneer of mature and truly life-changing religion.

Gateway to Silence:
“I live no longer, not I; but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Adapted from Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation, discs 1 and 2 (CD);
Jesus as Liberator/Paul as Liberator (MP3 download);
In the Footsteps of St. Paul (published by Franciscan Media, 2015) (CD)

Image credit: “The Conversion of St. Paul, 1600 (detail),” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610), Cerasi Chapel, Rome, Italy.