LITURGY AND LIFE
By Anne Strachan The Prairie Messenger January 14, 2009
Anne Strachan Conversion doesn't usually doesn’t happen ‘in a flash’
Conversion of St. Paul
January 25, 2009
Acts 22:3-16 or Acts 9:1-22
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Recently in a local coffee shop I overheard two people denigrate Christianity. They pointed out historical reasons for dismissing followers of Christ, and the Catholic Church in particular. They mentioned the Inquisition and other atrocities. I might have agreed with some of their points, given a different setting with respect for the good to be found as well as concern about obvious flaws. But these people were on an arrogant and gleeful roll.
I too sometimes question my church — I’m saddened by aspects of Catholicism, even attitudes manifested in St. Paul himself (“ . . . he [man] is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man . . .”). So far, however, my questions are offered from within the institutional church.
The people in the coffee shop continued to spew vitriol. My body trembled. I needed to get out of there before being tempted by my dark side to start a religious war of my own with these two as first casualties.
This experience haunts me. These people dismissed my lifeline — a Christian faith expressed within the Roman Catholic Church — as inconsequential, and as a seedbed of violence and oppression. Later it occurred to me that I’d felt misunderstood and persecuted.
All my life I’ve listened to portions of Paul’s letters proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word. Yet I must confess to having kept this “apostle” somewhat at a distance. He’s like an uncle one never sees who sends a birthday card every year. He’s a pivotal person in my Christian family, and yet I hardly know him.
Paul said in Acts 22: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison . . . ” Had I met Paul in a Jerusalem coffee shop prior to his conversion, he’d have called for my arrest and imprisonment.
In the story of his conversion, he’s travelling to Damascus when a blinding light suddenly strikes him down. A voice says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Paul cries out, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ” The answer is not what he expects: “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.”
In Paul’s own words: “A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there, came to me; and standing beside me, he said, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight . . . Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.’ ” This persecutor, Saul, is now addressed as “brother.” As a sign of his new identity, his name is changed to Paul. I admire Ananias and his courage in accepting Paul so soon. I hope I can be as openhearted with my persecutors.
For most of us it seems conversion is a process of slow transformation. Of course, Paul still had a long way to journey in order to figure out what it means to authentically follow Christ; to be as Christ in the world. Even so, Scripture tells us “ . . . immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ ” Paul is passionate, even as he can be controversial.
People weren’t initially convinced. “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this (Christ’s) name?” It takes time to regain trust when great damage is done. Our church is living this reality in present times, working to find ways to heal souls wounded from both within and beyond its boundaries. After his first dramatic encounter with Jesus, Paul had much work to do, and it’s no different for the church today. We must be passionate in this work.
Sister Teresita Kambeitz describes how his conversion experience “took Paul from a faith based on rules and laws to a faith based on love.” She goes on to say, “Paul is a guide. Paul’s not a superman — he made mistakes, he lost it a few times — but he was on fire with the love of Christ.”
Getting to know Paul better will be challenging. I hope I’m up to it. Perhaps a fresh Americano at a local coffee shop would be a good place to begin.
Strachan is married with three children and lives in Nakusp, BC. She is a Benedictine Oblate with St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, SK., and a member of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild. http://www.stpeterscollege.ca/prairie_messenger/