Monday, January 25, 2010

Conversion of St. Paul: Radical Change in Encounter



An Event, Not a Conclusion


The change that Saul went through to become Paul was radical and provoked by an event, not a series of concepts leading to a conclusion.

On September 3, 2008, Benedict XVI wrote: It was precisely on the road to Damascus, at the beginning of the 30s in the first century and after a period in which he had persecuted the Church that the decisive moment in Paul's life occurred. Much has been written about it and naturally from different points of view. It is certain that he reached a turning point there, indeed a reversal of perspective. And so he began, unexpectedly, to consider as "loss" and "refuse" all that had earlier constituted his greatest ideal, as it were the raison d'être of his life (cf. Phil 3: 7-8). What had happened?

In this regard we have two types of source. The first kind, the best known, consists of the accounts we owe to the pen of Luke, who tells of the event at least three times in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 9: 1-19; 22: 3-21; 26: 4-23). The average reader may be tempted to linger too long on certain details, such as the light in the sky, falling to the ground, the voice that called him, his new condition of blindness, his healing like scales falling from his eyes and the fast that he made. But all these details refer to the heart of the event: the Risen Christ appears as a brilliant light and speaks to Saul, transforms his thinking and his entire life. The dazzling radiance of the Risen Christ blinds him; thus what was his inner reality is also outwardly apparent, his blindness to the truth, to the light that is Christ. And then his definitive "yes" to Christ in Baptism restores his sight and makes him really see.

In the ancient Church Baptism was also called "illumination", because this Sacrament gives light; it truly makes one see. In Paul what is pointed out theologically was also brought about physically: healed of his inner blindness, he sees clearly. Thus St Paul was not transformed by a thought but by an event, by the irresistible presence of the Risen One whom subsequently he would never be able to doubt, so powerful had been the evidence of the event, of this encounter. It radically changed Paul's life in a fundamental way; in this sense one can and must speak of a conversion.”[1]

Saul was led to Damascus physically blind. He prayed. Ananias was sent by the Lord to lay his hands on Saul thus bringing the Spirit down on him in Baptism. The total experience is a radical conversion. Ratzinger once said (Toronto 1986): “This inner event is at once personal and objective. It is the most personal of experiences and at the same time indicates what is the objective essence of Christianity for each on of us. It would be a weak oversimplification to put it this say: becoming and being a Christian depend on conversion. But that would be headed in the right direction. Yet conversion according to Paul is something much more radical than a mere revision of a few opinions or attitudes. It is a death event. In other words it is the replacement of the subject – of the ‘I.’ The ‘I’ ceases to be independent and to be a subject existing in itself. It is torn from itself and inserted into a new subject. The ‘I’ does not perish, but must let itself diminish completely, in effect, in order to be received within a larger ‘I’ and, together with that larger ‘I,’ to be conceived anew.

“The basic notion that conversion is the abandonment of the old, isolated subjectivity of the ‘I,’ and the finding of oneself within a new and subjective unity in which the limitations of the former ‘I’ have been surpassed, makes it possible to come into contact with the basis of all truth…”[2] In Galatians 3, 16, Ratzinger adds: “It is essential to note that Paul does not say ‘You are a single mass,’ in some collectivist sense, but ‘You are one.’ You have become a new subject, unique in Christ, and thus, by means of the fusion of the subject, you are now within the realm of the Promise.”[3]

All of this is reminiscent of the teaching of St. Josemaria Escriva with regard to the vocation to Opus Dei as the call to live in act the radical gift of self such as to become “another Christ,” and apostolically, to provoke the conversion.


[1] General Audience, Wednesday Sept. 3, 2008.

[2] J. Ratzinger, “The Spriitual Basis and Ecclesia Identity of Theology” in The Nature and Mission of Theology Ignatius (1995) 51.

[3] Ibid 52.

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