In the New Testament we find a couple accounts of the Lord Jesus Christ’s calling St. Paul to become His servant. The accounts do not match perfectly in detail, but give us some idea how St. Paul understood his conversion from persecuting Christians to becoming an apostle of Christ, and also how St. Paul’s supporters understood his being called by Christ. First, we have a description from St. Paul himself which he recorded in his letter to the Galatians.
“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, ‘He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.” (Galatians 1:13-24)
St. Luke the Evangelist is also the author of the Acts of the Apostles, and he was a companion and supporter of St. Paul. He offers his own description of St. Paul’s calling. It is from St. Luke that we learn the famous details of Paul’s conversion. Paul offers no description or details about his encounter with Christ in his letter to the Galatians. Modern biblical scholars point out that in Acts, Luke is the narrator, and the story of St. Paul’s conversion though being related by St. Paul himself are still Luke’s words and version of the story. They tend to think Paul’s words in Galatians are to be considered more first hand then what St. Luke claims Paul said. In Acts, St. Luke has St. Paul describing his conversion from persecutor of Christ to apostle of Christ in these words:
“As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’” (Acts 22:6-16)
St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) who served as the Pope of Rome for the last 14 years of his life, wrote about St. Paul’s conversion.
“Thus it is that Saul, when the bright light from heaven came upon him, did not hear immediately what good it was that he should do, but first heard what he had done wrong. For as he was lying prostrate, he asked, saying: ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Immediately, he replied: ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ And when Saul quickly added: ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?’ It was immediately related: ’Arise, go to the city, and it will be revealed to you what you are to do.’ Behold, the Lord, speaking from heaven, reproved the deeds of his persecutor and yet did not immediately instruct him about what he should do. Behold, the core of his pride had been dismantled, and then, being humbled after his ruin, he sought to be built up again. And when his pride had been destroyed, even then the words of edification were withheld so that the cruel persecutor might remain humbled for a long time and only afterwards might he be rebuilt firmly in goodness, when he had become transformed in proportion to the change from his former error. Therefore, those who have not yet begun to do good works should first be overthrown from the stubbornness of their evil deeds by the hand of correction, so that they may rise afterwards to the state of righteousness.” (THE BOOK OF PASTORAL RULE, p 196)
St. Gregory reads the narrative of St. Paul’s conversion to be an example for others to follow: we must overthrow pride in our hearts in order to be corrected and healed of our stubbornness and sinfulness by God. St. Paul’s conversion is a story teaching us the importance of humility in our spiritual sojourn. We find this same interpretation of the importance of St. Paul’s conversion in the 4th Century writer St. Ephraim the Syrian :
“Thus the heavenly King arrayed Himself in armour of humility, and so conquered the bitter one, and drew from him a good answer as a sure pledge [of victory]. This is the armour concerning which Paul said, that by it we humble the loftiness that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God. For Paul had received the proof of it in himself. For as he had been warring in pride, but was conquered in humility, so is to be conquered every lofty thing which exalteth itself against this humility. For Saul was journeying to subdue the disciples with hard words, but the Master of the disciples subdued him with a humble word. For when He to whom all things are possible manifested Himself to him, giving up all things else, He spoke to him in humility alone, that He might teach us that a soft tongue is more effectual than all things else against hard thoughts. For neither threats nor words of terror were heard by Paul, but weak words not able to avenge themselves: Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? But the words which were thought not even capable of avenging themselves, were found to be taking vengeance by drawing him away from the Jews and making him a goodly vessel.” (Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc. 4704-12)
For St. Ephrem, it is humility which brings about change in St. Paul – the humility of God! For though Saul was going forth with threats and murder in mind (Acts 9:1) against the Christians, God appears humbly to Saul and never threatens him, but rather speaks to Saul peaceably. The Lord sees Saul as threatening not the Christians but Himself. St. Ephrem says it is God’s humility and soft words which lead to conversion and are far more effective against pride and hardness of heart than all forms of threats of punishment.
On this the feast of St. Peter and Paul, we Christians should contemplate God’s own method in bringing about the conversion of St. Paul. Threats of hell and damnation would best be replaced by our humility and good words to proclaim the Good News. The Lord asks Saul, “why do you persecute me?”, but never threatens Saul with retribution, retaliation, persecution, terror or punishment. The humility of our God, His love for humankind is beyond measure. It is with humility and love (the incarnation!) that God endeavors to convert the hard of heart. We are to imitate Christ our Lord as we go into the world to proclaim the Good News of salvation.
To all my fellow members of St. Paul parish in Dayton, I wish you a joyous patronal feast day. Holy Apostle Paul, pray to God for us!