Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Ultimate Conversion

Today's liturgical feast is unusual in two particular ways:
It is the only conversion the liturgy recognizes at all with a special feast day
This year, Paul's 2000th birthday, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul can be celebrated on a Sunday, superseding even the regular Sunday readings and prayers. (Now that is unusual.)

In the talks I have been giving for the Pauline Year, I took special inspiration from Sr. Armanda's wonderful book on Paul in art. It led me to create a collection of my own, and to reflect on the ways the artistic depictions of St. Paul reflect the Church's understanding of his role, his teachings, his place in our lives as an example--not simply a biblical author whose identity happens to be known to us. And we do know more about St. Paul than we do about any other biblical author, and even (humanly speaking, of course) about Jesus. We have so many sources to draw from! For no other biblical author do we have so many first-person writings; in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives us a carefully reconstructed story of Paul's call and his missionary life (and many of the details are corroborated in the Letters, making Acts a pretty reliable resource). There are non-biblical references to Paul, too, even in the first fifty years after his death. And there are the wonderful Christian works of fiction that build on the basic story of St. Paul, hinting at the way the Apostle was thought of, and the ways his Letters were interpreted, in the first two centuries of Christianity. All in all, Paul is one of the best-known figures of the ancient world. But none of that would have come about except for the event that we celebrate in today's liturgy.
There are two aspects of that event we take for granted, but that Paul himself might not recognize.
For one, we call it the "conversion" of St. Paul. Paul himself didn't use that word. He thought of his Damascus Road experience as a "revelation of the Son of God"; as an appearance of the Risen Jesus (kind of a delayed Easter appearance); as a prophetic call from God. But all of that added up to a conversion: from driven persecutor to fervent Apostle of Jesus; from a "blasphemer and man of violence" to a man "as gentle as any nursing mother with her little ones"; from someone who could boast of his meticulous religious practices to one who would henceforth boast only of "Jesus Christ and him Crucified."

And then there is the horse. Great works of art depicting the conversion of St. Paul almost always include a dramatic rendering of the horse from which "Saul fell to the ground, blinded." The trouble is, the Bible says nothing about a horse. Instead, the image of the horse speaks to us: in the Bible, you only find horses in a context of warfare. Astride a horse, en route to Damascus "to arrest and imprison any he might find there, man or woman, living according to the new way," Saul is the image of a man at war. The presence of a horse emphasizes the violence of Saul's zeal. This is heightened even more when the artist clothes Saul in a soldier's uniform. These traditional features of artwork for the Conversion of St. Paul have led many people to assume that Paul had been a soldier, whereas more likely he was a synagogue teacher, bested in argument against the deacon Stephen. (Luke tells us that Stephen "engaged in debates with members of the synagogues...from Cilicia," where Saul's native Tarsus is located, and that no one could match the "wisdom and spirit" of Stephen's words.)
And then there are the words of Christ, words that so haunted Paul the rest of his life that they became the basis for his theology: "Why are you persecuting me?" In harassing, arresting and imprisoning Christians, Saul was doing violence to the very Body of Christ. And so while John would write of the vine and branches, and Peter of the Temple of living stones, to speak of our intimate union with God and one another, Paul is the one who gives us the language of the Body of Christ, made up of many parts, but each part forming one person--the same one who appeared to him on the road to Damascus and claimed him as his own.
That's why we celebrate this feast on a Sunday this year.

No comments: