The Journey of Conversion

Christ in Paul’s Eyes

The Journey of Conversion
Sunday, February 24, 2019

Surely the biblical writer who most helps us discover the Christ Mystery is the Apostle Paul. Letters by Paul or influenced by him form one third of the New Testament. Paul is a foundational teacher for what became Christianity. [1] Yet he hardly ever quotes Jesus. Paul never met Jesus. He did, however, encounter the risen Christ.

This is not as strange as it may seem at first. After all, the Jesus that you and I participate in, are graced and redeemed by, is the risen Christ who is no longer confined by space and time. God raised up Jesus and revealed him as the “Anointed One” or the Messiah (Acts 2:36). I believe it was not until the Resurrection that Jesus’ human mind fully realized he was the Christ. It seems to have been an evolving awareness, as “he grew in wisdom, age, and grace” (Luke 2:52) and lived in faith just as we do.

The entire biblical revelation involves gradually developing a very different consciousness, a recreated self, and eventually a full “identity transplant” or identity realization, as we see in both Jesus and Paul. The sacred text invites us, little by little, into a very different sense of who we are: We are not our own. Your life is not about you; you are about Life! We gradually find ourselves part of the Great Vine, eventually realizing that we have never truly been separate from that Source (John 15:1-5). Once we are consciously connected to the True Vine, our life will bear much fruit for the world.

Paul seems to understand this well because it happened rather dramatically to him. He writes, “I live no longer, not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Like Paul, the spiritual journey leads us to know that Someone Else is living in us and through us. We are part of a much Bigger Mystery. We are recipients, conduits, and gradually become fully willing participants in the Christ Mystery (which is not to be equated with simply joining the Christian religion).

No biblical writer had yet named what theologians now call “Trinity,” but Paul has a deep intuitive conviction about the Trinitarian flow—Love—passing through him. He comes to know that he is hardly “initiating” anything, but instead it is all happening to him. This is the same transition we all must make. Like the divine conception in Mary, we will eventually realize it is being done to and within us much more than us doing anything. All God needs is our “yes,” it seems, which tends to emerge progressively as we grow in inner freedom.

This understanding gives us an utterly different sense of self; this person is truly a “sounding through” (per-sonare) much more than an autonomous being. This identity transplant is true conversion. It is not about joining a new group or church; it is coming to know a new and essential self that is interconnected with everyone and everything else. Just as in Paul’s conversion, it takes quite a while for the scales to fall from our eyes (see Acts 9:18), with plenty of help from friends like Ananias (Acts 9:17) and others, lots of failures (1 Corinthians 11:17-22), and long quiet retreats in “Arabia” (see Galatians 1:17). His is the classic pattern of real but gradual transformation.

References:
[1] Christians have often misunderstood Paul, seeing him as a moralist rather than a mystic. Some of Paul’s writings on gender and slavery are unfortunate reflections of his culture and time. I believe we must read Paul through a contemplative, nondual lens. Hear my short talk St. Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), for a brief introduction.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2007), 49-50; and

The Cosmic Christ, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2009), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: St. Paul Preaching in Athens (detail), Raphael, 1515, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: “You, all of you, are sons and daughters of God, now clothed in Christ, where there is no distinction between male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). “You are the very temple of God” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

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