May 5, 2017

"Saul got up from the ground,
but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;
so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.
For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.”

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

When I read today’s first reading, detailing the conversion of St. Paul, the last line of the portion above struck me.  Many times when we hear of “conversions,” we think of immediate changes of heart: “Aha moments”… peak, brief, abrupt moments of awakening quickly followed by repentance (turning towards another way).  (Much like the swift pivot-ball-change on the way to the subway when you realize you forget your wallet.)  When we think of the "Conversion of St. Paul," we often picture the dramatic moment when Saul falls to the ground and hears the booming voice of God from the sky and think of THAT as the “conversion,” but forget the three days of blindness and fasting that followed.  The first reading today describes not a moment of discovery, but an extended period of confusion and darkness... and that is what I want to focus on today. 

Let’s investigate how this conversion plays out in this reading and see what we can glean from it to apply to our own spiritual lives, that, if they are alive and flourishing, should also be marked by a spirit of repentance from our own ways. 

“Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,
went to the high priest and asked him
for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that,
if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way,
he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. 
On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus,
a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him."

 

Pre-St. Paul Saul (waaayyyyyy “pre-saint”) definitely had his own way he needed conversion from… he persecuted and executed Christians.  This should tell us right off the bat that God does not play favorites… he loves everybody, even the terrorist targeting His own people.  It is also telling that the Lord appears to Saul on his way to carry out these “murderous threats.” God literally disrupts his journey, but interestingly, does not tell him to go to a different city; He tells him to continue to go where he originally intended, but He completely changes the intention of the journey.  

"He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,
"Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"
He said, "Who are you, sir?" 
The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 
Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do." 

Now… if you were Saul… what would you do, here? How would you feel? It seems like Jesus used brute, physical force to get Saul’s attention. Imagine how disoriented you would feel, and then terrified to be addressed by a booming voice from the leader of the group of people who's followers you were strategically killing. Also, Jesus' orders were vague; Saul probably thought that He had it in for him… that Jesus would persecute him, now.  

“The men who were traveling with him stood speechless,
for they heard the voice but could see no one.
Saul got up from the ground,
but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;
so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.
For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.”

And now, what is left? It seems like everything in Saul’s life had come to a screeching halt. Many human means of understanding were rendered useless to help them understand what just happened.  No words were spoken — the men were speechless. Saul opened his eyes, but could not see.  The tools he had been relying on to help him understand the world were broken.  Why didn’t the other men go blind? They saw the great flash of light, too, but perhaps they didn’t look directly at it. Maybe the Light was aimed to sear right through Saul’s pupils.  

He, the big fancy leader, became a blind man needing to be led.  He was probably so shaken that he didn’t eat nor drink; he gave himself no human sustenance.  This may be the deeper mark of what it really looks like in that pivot that defines repentance, that dizzying moment of vertigo where your life is defined by instability, not-knowing, darkness, blurs.  We only know what he didn’t know (what he would be asked to do in Damascus), what he couldn’t do (see), what he did not do (he neither ate nor drank).  End scene. 

Open scene (is that the right term? “Action”?). 

"There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias,

and the Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." 

He answered, "Here I am, Lord." 

The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight

and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.

He is there praying,

and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias

come in and lay his hands on him,

that he may regain his sight."

So, Saul arrived, and what was he doing? Praying. He was praying, because he could not do anything else. Interestingly, he could  see, in that he saw an interior vision of what the Lord had in mind for him: to regain his sight.  He was finally in the place to receive, after everything had been taken away. God tore down so that He could restore.  And, in His great mercy, He did not leave Saul hanging, not having any idea what would happen next.  God gave him a vision of good things that were to come, perhaps to show him that He is a good God who keeps promises, AND that he would need to rely on the faith of others to carry out his mission.  I’m sure St. Paul’s characteristic fearlessness came from the hesitant but brave Ananias, who knew immediately Who was speaking to him. God only needed to say his name once, whereas Saul needed repetition. 

"So Ananias went and entered the house;
laying his hands on him, he said,
"Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came,
that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 
Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight. 
He got up and was baptized,
and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength."

 

“My brother…” - these words grabbed Saul by a new identity. He had been adopted from death to Life, from darkness to Light. He had heard he would regain his sight, but had not heard that he would also be filled with the Holy Spirit, the Person who I like to think of as the “binding agent” of the Holy Trinity and the Church.  He was given sight, he received the Holy Spirit, he received food, he regained his strength… but where does that leave him?  The words of another healed blindman come to mind, “All I know is that I was once blind but now I see.”  

Thus, St. Paul shows us vividly the beginning of the story and cycle of repentance: we rely on our own sight until we are blind, we rely on our own way until we are lost, we eat our own food until we are starving.  And then, we must wait. We must wait in our blindness, our confusion, our starvation.  But all too often, we continue on our own road even when our heads are spinning, trying to find the way. We continue eating what does not satisfy.  We continue watching without really seeing, and develop our own distorted worldview.  But if we understand repentance, we understand that the moments of confusion and spiritual vertigo are the moments where God is calling us to WAIT and surrender to the not-knowing; God is calling us to TRUST.  

Saul’s journey to become St. Paul began not in the booming voice from Heaven, but rather in the moments of prayer that followed; He let the word take root in his heart that God had to scrape and scour before He could get in. 

So… enough exegesis. Let’s close with a prayer. 

God, I ask that you would reveal anything in my life that is keeping me from You.

May I not look away or avoid the times You ask me to stop and look at You. 

Keep me in Your path, keep me in Your Heart. 

Frassati NY