Commentary on the Gospel of
Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle
When was the last time we were driving to work or the grocery store and a flash of light from the sky ejected us clean out of the driver’s seat and onto the curb? When was the last time we held a venomous snake in our hands unperturbed by its poisonous intentions? When was the last time we happened upon someone possessed by an evil spirit and we did them a nice favor by driving that demon out of them? For most of us, I imagine, our eyes are wide and we’re responding, “Uh...never.” Herein lies the challenge with today’s readings on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. We read the incredible account(s) of St. Paul, then Saul, being knocked off his horse by a blinding light as he approached Damascus in his pursuit to persecute the earliest followers of Christ. Then we read about Jesus coming back from the dead to tell the disciples to go out and evangelize the world saying that believers are marked by some incredible signs (aka snake handling) that are difficult for our contemporary ears to hear. In short, today’s readings might feel a bit...inaccessible.
All of this to be said, let’s not let ourselves off the hook too quickly.
Conversion - a turning around or a turning toward. While I only know a couple of people in my life who have had an experience of the Divine similar to St. Paul’s that was direct, palpable, immediate and severe (and they are equally powerful stories, let me tell you!), the majority of us have had more subtle encounters with conversion.
Take a moment now and stop reading this reflection to consider:
What moments in my life led me to turn more directly toward God?
Who or what played a role in my conversion?
How did I respond?
I imagine much of what we saw was nuanced, happening over the period of days, weeks or years. In the place of blinding heavenly lights perhaps we remember the face of a parent or a mentor teaching us about God’s love for us, a sacramental moment (both big “S” and small “s”) which left us feeling awakened, or an encounter with the sacred texts of Christian Scripture, poetry or the natural world that lifted our spirit, quickened our heart and moistened our eyes.
Each and every one of these have worked their own magic to melt the scales around our heart leaving us changed...for the better. It’s what my post-grad volunteer program Jesuit Volunteers International meant by its tagline “Ruined for Life.” Once we have drunk from the cup of God’s grace, we are a new version of ourselves - a version transformed.
Christianity is about the daily, small conversions we encounter. Those somewhat innocuous and incarnational moments on a Tuesday afternoon in the midst of raising kids, paying bills, and working jobs when we get to make the choice to say “yes!” to God’s invitation to do all of that from a place of love. It is this slow burn of joy that leads us to live life differently. Once we have this, how can we possibly keep it to ourselves! As a colleague of mine likes to say, “God moments are meant to be shared not kept.” No wonder Jesus came back from the dead to give the disciples a swift kick in the butt to go out and tell the world about this new way of being!
Pope Francis tells our world the same. He implores us to evangelize with the joy we discover in our relationship with God. In Evangelii Gaudium, he writes, “We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”
As I end this reflection today, all of this leaves me and God singing the duet “For Good” from the musical Wicked: “I know I’m who I am today because of you...because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”
(NOTE: If you haven’t heard the song, here is a nice version for prayer on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZ0pXUb5jVU)