The Conversion of St Paul (Again)

Conversion on the Way to Damascus-Caravaggio (c.1600-1)

Caravaggio’s depiction of the conversion of St Paul is probably one of the best-known paintings of all time, but if you sift through the hundreds of images of it posted online you will notice how much variation there is in the colours and general ‘look’ of the painting. To an ex-printer like me, that comes as no surprise: cameras and monitors introduce an infinite number of small distortions, to say nothing of the different ways we, as individuals, perceive things, especially when we look at them from different angles or in different lights. Instead of dismissing that as ‘just one of those things’, perhaps we can use it as a way of understanding something much harder to put into words.

The longest, loneliest journey Saul of Tarsus ever made was from just outside Damascus, where he was blinded by the light of Christ, to the house of Ananias where his sight was restored and he received his mission to serve. He had been a good man before his conversion but he became a better one after, when he saw that his persecution of followers of The Way had been wrong and he realised that zeal alone is not enough. There must be love and compassion, too. His life henceforth was to be one of ever-expanding knowledge and love of Christ, which meant an ever-expanding love of members of the church. It meant a change of perspective, a re-assessment of values, hard work and sacrifice along with unexpected rewards.

We often forget that Paul grew in grace and understanding, just as our Lord Jesus Christ did and as we ourselves must. As the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity comes to an end, we may be feeling a little disappointed. There may not have been any major break-throughs. In some places, there may not have been any very obvious efforts to come together in any significant way. We have been too occupied with our own problems or those of the denomination to which we belong.

Perhaps we can take comfort, in the sense of drawing strength and inspiration, from the way in which Caravaggio portrays the moment of the saint’s conversion. All is glare, shock. Saul has been thrown from his horse, blinded, felt condemnation in the voice he hears. But he consents to be led by the hand into the city, where he will become Paul. Becoming fully Paul will take the rest of his life. We see how it works out in the letters he wrote to the young churches and in what we can glean from the Acts of the Apostles. Our work for the unity of Christians will follow the same pattern. We must allow ourselves to be shocked into awareness of the importance of unity and be led by the Spirit into whatever it is God desires for his Church. We do not have answers yet. We do not even have the right questions. But if we do not deliberately place any obstacles in God’s way, we can be quite sure that one day what God desires will come about.

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What Constitutes a Civilized Society?

Over the past few days I have read several comments both for and against the recently-enacted legislation regarding abortion in New York state. To me, the idea of abortion is abhorrent; the idea of permitting abortion at any stage up to birth is mind-boggling. Having said that, I quite see why many of those who are in favour of the legislation argue that such cases would be exceptional and rare. Hard cases, however, do not usually make for good law, nor do they make for good argument. One troubling side to the comments I have read is their sheer viciousness — and that goes for those who are opposed to the legislation as much as for those who are in favour. It seems we cannot agree on our core values, nor can we agree how to conduct ourselves when those values have to be examined and debated. U.K. readers may find an uncomfortable parallel in our current discussion of Brexit. It is as though we have forgotten what it means to be civilized.

crucifix

How does this apply in the context of today’s feast, that of the Conversion of St Paul? I think we sometimes forget that Saul of Tarsus was a good man but became a better one when he was captured by the love of Christ. As an observant Jew, Saul must have been upright, generous, supremely moral, loving God and the traditions of his forefathers. But that experience on the road to Damascus changed him. Everything the Christian Paul writes is filled with the love of Christ. It transforms what we would call his ‘world view’. His zeal remains, but it is tempered with a humility and sympathy that was not so noticeable before. Would it be very wrong to say that the Risen Christ had a civilizing influence on him? I don’t mean by that to belittle Paul’s conversion or to suggest that he was not, in the conventional sense, a civilized man before his conversion. I mean that after his conversion Paul was much more aware of the value and need of every human being, Jew or gentile, so much so that he was ready to give up all that he held most dear for their sake. The proud citizen of Rome suddenly understood that to be a Christian civis was to accept responsibility for the good of others, to place the good of others before one’s own.

I wonder whether that sheds any light on what we mean by a civilized society. In the West, the role of religion, especially Christianity, is more and more downplayed. There are times, indeed, when being deliberately hostile or offensive towards the most cherished beliefs of others is regarded as being not merely acceptable but a mark of ‘freedom’ or ‘maturity’. Views with which one disagrees are simply dismissed. To argue that abortion and euthanasia are wrong is to invite the charge of being lacking in compassion, yet how compassionate are we really if we do not care for the young, the old and the sick? We may have similar qualms about the morality of capital punishment, the inequalities that mean many go hungry while the West suffers an epidemic of obesity, and so on. Sometimes I have the uneasy feeling that much contemporary morality is based on nothing more than ‘what’s best for me’ — the law of the jungle rather than of civilsation as traditionally understood.

We were discussing this in chapter this morning and asking ourselves what we could do about it. One person mentioned the decline in the use of Christian symbolism and suggested that it had a greater significance than many were prepared to admit. It is comparatively rare nowadays to go into a house where a crucifix or cross is on display. Our custom in the monastery is to have a crucifix in every room — a small, silent reminder of our purpose and of what our duty is. Perhaps those of us who are Christian could think about that. Showy displays of fervour are definitely not what are needed, but in my experience most people find it difficult to be deliberately rude or unkind or selfish when facing a crucifix. It is when we remove our gaze that the trouble starts and the old Adam reasserts himself. Perhaps that was Paul’s secret. He kept his eyes fixed on the cross of Christ. We should do the same.

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