The Apostle Paul. Paul’s Conversion Experience
All of Paul’s major themes are contained in seed form in his conversion experience, of which there are three descriptions in Acts written by Luke (chapters 9, 22, and 26). Paul’s own account is in the first chapter of Galatians: “The Gospel which I preach . . . came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). Paul never doubts this revelation. The Christ that he met was not the Christ in the flesh (Jesus); it was the Risen Christ, the Christ who is available to us now as Spirit, as “an energy field” that we eventually called the Mystical Body of Christ, the Cosmic or Universal Christ.
Paul continues, describing his pre-conversion life as Saul, who persecuted and even tried to destroy the young Christian church, then called “The Way”: “I was more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers than anybody else” (Galatians 1:13-14). A Pharisee by training, Saul had achieved some status in the Sanhedrin, the governmental board of Judea during the Roman occupation. He was delegated by the Temple police to go out and squelch this new sect of Judaism. At this point, Saul is a black and white thinker, dividing the world into Jewish good guys and upstart Christian bad guys.
“Suddenly, while traveling to Damascus, just before he reached the city, there came a light from heaven all around him. He fell to the ground, and he heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The voice answered, ‘I am Jesus and you are persecuting me’” (Acts 9:3-5). This choice of words is significant. Paul must have pondered: “Why does he say ‘me’ when I’m persecuting these people?” He comes to the insight that there is a complete, almost organic union between Christ and those who love God. The voice tells Saul to go into the city and do what he’s told, but though his eyes were wide open, Saul could see nothing and had to be led by the hand. For the next three days he was blind and fasted (see Acts 9:6-9).
Paul realizes on the Damascus Road or shortly thereafter that, in the name of religion, he had become a murderer. In the name of love, he had become hate. Paul becomes an image for all generations of religion, showing that religion can be the best thing in the world, and it can be the worst thing. That which makes us holy can also make us evil. If the ego uses any notion of religion to “wrap God around itself” it will be the source of the ultimate idolatry: God serving us instead of us serving God. That is why, for the rest of his life, Paul is obsessed with transforming people into love and forming loving communities. He is forever the critic of immature, self-serving religion, and the pioneer of mature and truly life-changing religion.
~Adapted from Richard Rohr, Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation, discs 1 and 2 (Franciscan Media: 2012), CD; Jesus as Liberator/Paul as Liberator (CAC: 2009), MP3 download; and In the Footsteps of St. Paul (Franciscan Media: 2015), CD.