The Octave of Prayer for Christian unity ends with this feast of the Conversion of St Paul. That is in itself an encouragement to hope. Who would have thought that Saul, relentless persecutor of The Way, would undergo a conversion of heart so complete that he would be named an Apostle of Jesus Christ, would live and die for him, and be remembered today as a towering figure of the early Church, a saint, a man no one can easily ignore? Today we need the kind of hope St Paul inspires, not only in our quest for Christian unity but also in our prayer for peace in Syria. One reader of this blog is a Catholic Sister living and working in Straight Street, Damascus. I find myself moved by the knowledge that even today, amidst all the dangers of the war in Syria, there are Christians patiently living out the Gospel in the very place where Paul first saw the Light and came to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour. May that same Light enlighten the hearts and minds of those taking part in the Geneva peace talks today. Amen.
Would you have liked St Paul? I’m not sure that I would have. He is much easier to cope with as a saint (and therefore dead) and great Christian thinker and writer (whose corpus is now closed, so we can argue over it endlessly) than I think he might have been ‘in the flesh’. He had a mind like a razor, and a tongue almost as sharp when he chose (read Romans 1 again, if you think I exaggerate). His theology is dazzling; his protestations of affection endearing; but his use of self as an example is embarrassing to those of us who were brought up to avoid use of the personal pronoun (there are some things one simply doesn’t do, you see). And yet, when all’s said and done, the one thing we can all agree on is that St Paul cannot be ignored. He is a Colossus of the early Church, and his love for Christ so urgent and passionate that we are caught up into it.
Today, as we celebrate the feast of St Paul’s conversion and mark the close of the octave of prayer for Christian unity, that is the thought we need to hold onto. The conversion of one man changed the world. He didn’t have to be likable; he certainly didn’t court popularity; but his love for Christ and his Church made his whole life one great act of prayer and thanksgiving. All earlier failures were redeemed by his whole-hearted discipleship. I may not like St Paul, but I am very happy to ask the help of his prayers and learn from him.
Having spent the morning shopping for bathroom fittings, I have a better claim to critique the interior decor of superstores than I have to blog about two such supersaints as Peter and Paul. However, a thought struck me at Vigils which may be worth pursuing. The word ‘flawsome’ doesn’t exist, but ought to. It conveys exactly what Peter and Paul were: flawed, but awesome.
Take Peter, dear hot-headed, wobbly Peter, always saying the wrong thing and not very brave when confronted by the maid in Pilate’s palace yard. Who would choose him to be head of the infant Church? He wasn’t an administrator; he wasn’t a particularly deep thinker; nothing in his former life suggested he would be a good leader. He knew about fish and family life, and that seems to have been enough for the Lord, who called him to be a fisher of souls, to pour all his love and devotion into the work of service. There is something tremendously encouraging about Peter. He didn’t change, as far as we know; he was still inclined to get muddled when confronted with eloquent men like Paul, but he saw clearly with his heart, welcomed gentiles into the Church, acknowledged that nothing God had made could ever be unclean and ultimately, when put to the test, met death bravely.
Then there is Paul, bald-headed, argumentative, a stickler for detail, determined to root out Christian heresy. Who would choose him to preach the gospel to the gentiles, to travel thousands of miles to win people to Christ? Yet the Lord did. Paul left behind not only his old name and his theological and philosophical certainties, he accepted a way of life that would once have shocked him with its lack of conformity to the rules of Kasrut, becoming someone able to acknowledge his own weakness, unafraid of saying how much he loved the children of God. He didn’t stop being a man of great learning; he continued to enjoy arguing and tripping up his opponents when he could, but now it was no longer Saul who was centre stage but Christ in him. Paul too is tremendously encouraging, and like Peter, showed real courage when he was put to death.
So, flawed but awesome both. May SS Peter and Paul pray for us who are mainly just flawed.
I like the fact that we read the gospel of the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday of Lent, and that the collect of the day invites us to feast interiorly on the word of God. That feasting on scripture is such a stark contrast to the fasting from food that marks ferias in Lent, while the revelation of God’s glory shining through our human flesh and blood is such a powerful reminder both of what we are now, God’s children, and what we are to become when we see him as he truly is.(1 John 3.3) St Paul caught the wonder of this when he wrote of our being changed from glory to glory. (2 Corinthians 3.18)
Mark’s account ends, ‘And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one with them anymore but only Jesus.’ (Mk 9.8) Isn’t that what Lent is about? All our observances are meant to help us see Jesus more clearly, and because we see him more clearly, we reflect his beauty and glory more perfectly in our lives so that others can see Jesus in us. That is the Lenten transfiguration we aim at: becoming true icons of Jesus Christ.
Yesterday Pope Benedict issued a message for World Communications Day which has been deservedly well received (text here). Inevitably, everyone has taken from the message what they most want to hear. Those of us who have embraced social media as a way of exploring and sharing Faith were heartened to find the pope acknowledging the importance of contemporary means of communication and endorsing their use. The deeper message, about the relationship between word and silence, was one which contemplatives were particularly glad to hear because in the rush and tumble of words and images that fills every waking hour, our cultivation of silence and (apparent) emptiness is not only contradictory, it is incomprehensible. It was good to find the pope reminding us all of this essential silence and humility before the Word of God.
How does this link with St Paul? I think there has never been a more eloquent preacher of the gospel than St Paul. His words whip and weave through all the intricacies of Christian life: the theological heights and depths, the moral dilemmas, the complications of the missionary journeys. One minute he is meditating on the meaning of the Cross, the next fussing about a cloak he has left behind, writing with warmth and tenderness to some, excoriating others. Words are his stock in trade as once the needles of the tent-maker had been. And yet. And yet. One does not have to read very much of St Paul to realise that beneath all those words was a profound silence, a profound humility. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus changed him for ever. His eloquence and zeal remained but were transformed by an experience of God we can only guess at. His words henceforth were to proceed from a union of prayer and obedience that could only be attained through silence and listening.
In the presence of God all human eloquence falls dumb. Only silence can embrace the absolute holiness of our Creator and Redeemer. That is something to bear in mind as we read St Paul today.
There is a line in the first reading at Mass today, from Romans 8. 12 to 17, which has been bothering me all morning: ‘Everyone moved by the Spirit is a son of God.’ Theologically, I understand the importance of our being ‘sons in the Son’, and I have no shortage of references in my memory bank to tell me why; but much as I delight in meditating on those words, deeply significant though I find them, they are still immensely difficult for me. I’m a woman, and emotionally I can’t connect with them. My primary human relationship is daughter, not son.
I think this may be why some liturgical discussions leave me (and others) cold. I care about words, I care about beauty and history and all sorts of other things connected with liturgy, but calling myself a son of God just doesn’t work. I notice that the new translation of the Missal is inconsistent in its translation of homo/homines, sometimes using ‘people’ (as in the Gloria), at others ‘men’ (as in the Creed). I can find good theological justifications for the two usages, but still I am left wondering: what am I in the sight of God? As a son in the Son, am I to be defined as a man? In which case, being a woman is profoundly irrelevant, which strikes me as absurd. I don’t have an answer to my question. Indeed, I expect to spend the whole of my life trying to work it out, but it’s a question that concerns a large part of the human race.
When I was a novice we used to remark on the fact that St Barnabas was always celebrated liturgically as a Memoria. (In simple terms, that means he got four candles instead of six, and no gloria.) Yet, if one reads the New Testament attentively, it is clear that Barnabas was a man of considerable spiritual authority in the early Church. Whether or not we believe Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, that he was one of the 72 disciples sent out by the Lord, he was obviously an early convert and was placed first among the prophets and teachers of Antioch. It was he who stood surety for Paul in Jerusalem after the latter’s conversion. When the mission to the gentiles was inaugurated in Antioch, Barnabas set out for Tarsus to persuade Paul to join in the work of preaching.
We can chart the course of the next few years: Cyprus, then Perga, where John Mark departed (‘deserted’ according to Paul), Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, back to Antioch again and the debate about circumcision, and finally, the parting of the ways, when Barnabas went with John Mark back to Cyprus and Paul and Silas revisited the churches of Asia Minor. Somewhere in the course of these years the disciple began to eclipse the master, but the friendship between the two persisted (see 1 Cor 9. 5 to 6). There are many contradictory traditions about his last years but his best epitaph is that given him by Luke, ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.’
Why, then, do I talk of his humility? His openness to the Greeks, his readiness to lay aside many of his most cherished Jewish traditions, cannot have been easy for him; nor can it have been easy to see his pupil and protegé ‘overtaking’ him, so to say, in influence. He was a man who inspired affection and whose nature enabled him to remain friends with both Paul and John Mark, despite the quarrel between them. I think he must have been essentially modest. Perhaps the lack of a gloria on his feast is as it should be. On the eve of Pentecost it is good to be reminded that the Spirit blows where he wills and allowing ourselves to be guided by him is our greatest glory.