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From Saul of Tarsus to Saint Paul
by Pierre-Marie Dumont
Saint Thomas Aquinas (1447–1449)
by Fra Angelico (c. 1400–1455)
The editorial of the month
by Father Sebastian White, o.p.
Few souls are privileged to hear an audible voice from heaven. (I am not one of them.) To be fair, such an extraordinary grace is not something we need or ought to expect. In fact, impressive as private revelations, visions, or locutions may be—and though they can aid devotion or call attention to an aspect of the faith—they pale in comparison to the awesome and yet ordinary gift of sanctifying grace. Additionally, the official or public “deposit of the faith” contains everything necessary for our salvation. As one great theologian (the doctoral advisor of the young John Paul II) explained, the Church may investigate the teachings of extraordinary mystical revelations, declare them free from error, and promote them “without judging infallibly about the divine origin of the private revelation.” We can therefore read about them, visit their shrines, and adopt their devotional practices without putting them on the same level as Scripture and “big T” Tradition.
Having said that, however, this month we celebrate a feast that involves something of an exception to the rule: the conversion of Saint Paul and his experience on the road to Damascus. Recorded as they are in Sacred Scripture, the Lord’s words to Paul that day (which even his companions did not hear) constitute, if you will, a private revelation that is infallible divine revelation.
In chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Luke writes that as Stephen was being stoned to death the witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. Two chapters later we learn that Saul had been breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, dragging them back to Jerusalem in chains. Still later, in Acts 22, we are told that Paul persecuted Christians by binding both men and women and delivering them to prison. Writing to the Philippians, Paul himself admits it: in zeal I persecuted the church (3:6).
Keep in mind that these persecutions occur after our Lord has taken his place at the right hand of the Father. Having already risen and ascended, that is, Jesus himself is well out of harm’s way. For this reason it may seem more natural for Jesus to have said to Saul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my disciples? Why are you hurting my followers?”
But as we know that is not what Jesus said. Rather, from the heights of heaven Jesus asked, “why are you persecuting me?” And when Paul responded with his own question—Who are you, sir?—the answer he got was as direct as can be: I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. In other words, our Lord identifies himself with his disciples. He reveals that our sufferings are his sufferings; what is done to the least of us is done to him. This is both a consolation and a calling, for we ourselves must treat others as we would Christ.
The life we live
What happened to Paul on that day obviously stuck with him, for his preaching and writing would come to reflect and unpack the truth of what he learned in that first instant of his conversion. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory (Col 3:2-4). Christ our life! How simple, yet how profound. And how exactly does Christ become our life? Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:26-27). One of the reasons I have found the writings of Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity to be so compelling and helpful for my own prayer and preaching is that they are simple, biblical, and doctrinal—and very “Pauline.” One of Saint Elizabeth’s favorite verses was Galatians 2:20: Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me (Gal 2:20). Put simply, Elizabeth’s writings help us to realize the tremendous riches each of us has by baptism: adopted in Christ, we become in her words “another humanity for him in which he can renew his whole Mystery.”
“A light from the sky…” (Acts 9:3)
Saint Paul was overwhelmed by a blinding light at his conversion, for Jesus is the light of the world (Jn 8:12), the true light, which enlightens everyone (Jn 1:9). Everyone includes you, dear friends. Have you lived many years without any extraordinary spiritual experiences? Do you feel, even, that you’ve been given more than your fair share of crosses? I have good news: this does not mean God is neglecting you. On the contrary, in your practice of the faith and in the sanctifying grace given to you in the sacraments, you share in Christ’s divine life and possess all that you need to reach the heights of sanctity. And as you have carried your cross, Christ has borne it with you, and will continue to do so. You don’t have to take my word for it, either, for it is divinely revealed: This saying is trustworthy: If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him (2 Tm 2:11-12). Remain firm in faith, then, for at present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known (1 Cor 13:12).