Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When We Find God, We Find Ourselves

My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken (Psalm 62:1-2).

Caravaggio, "The Conversion of St. Paul"
Today the Church commemorates and celebrates the Conversion of St. Paul. Before meeting the risen and glorified Christ on his way to Damascus, before the Lord completely changed him and thus his name, Saul of Tarsus was an over-zealous Pharisee, who like some of his predecessors and peers, saw the new Christian faith as a threat to the true faith of Israel.  In that spirit of zeal, he had decided to go to Damascus to find and to arrest as many of the followers of Jesus as he could.  

But Saul's zeal was in fact not founded in his love for and faith in the Lord, but rather was inspired by his own pride. Like some of his peers, he had chosen to ignore the wisdom of his teacher, the very celebrated Jewish doctor Gamaliel, regarding how the Jewish leadership should regard Jesus and His followers.

In Acts 5:12-39, we read that the Apostles had been preaching in the Temple and healing the sick, drawing great crowds. Out of jealousy, the high priest and the Sanhedrin had them arrested and thrown into prison, but they miraculously escaped. When the same members of the Jewish high council heard that the Apostles were somehow back in the Temple once again, "they became furious and wanted to execute them. But a Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the council and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time."

"Then he said to the council, 'Men of Israel, pay close attention to what you are about to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it. After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered. So in this case I say to you, stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with people, it will come to nothing, but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God.'"

For the moment, Gamaliel had convinced the Jewish authorities to release the Apostles after having them flogged.  But like some of his peers, Saul did not heed his teacher's advice, and in his pride, was not willing to stand back and let God show them whether Jesus and His teachings were "from God."

But in His great compassion, the Lord comes to meet us wherever we are. In His appearance to Saul, it was as though Christ had come a second time, and this time just for him.  In a flash of blinding light that threw him to the ground, and in a voice whose authority he could only immediately and helplessly acknowledge and obey, we see what was perhaps the greatest living witness to the true identity of Christ, with the story best expressed in Paul's own words:

“On that journey as I drew near to Damascus,
about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me.
I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me,
‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
I replied, ‘Who are you, sir?’
And he said to me,
‘I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.’
My companions saw the light
but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
I asked, ‘What shall I do, sir?’
The Lord answered me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus,
and there you will be told about everything
appointed for you to do.’
Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light,
I was led by hand by my companions and entered Damascus (Acts 22:6-11).

Through the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we find that the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul comes not so coincidentally in the midst of our meditating on Jesus' ministry of physical and spiritual healing, as read in the Gospel of Mark at Mass. In his conversion, Paul exemplifies and serves as a witness to this same power of Christ to heal those who are sick and in need of deliverance from evil.

Saul's conversion happened while he yet had great sin-- the desire to harm others-- in his heart. In his own pride, in following his own will instead of God's, in supposing that he was protecting the faith of Israel by eliminating the followers of Christ, he was nevertheless acting out his deepest yearning for God and for the coming of His kingdom on earth.

The yearning for God is universal. We see it in the drug addict, in the prostitute, in the thief.  All these, like all of us, are mistakenly seeking, in things and in other people, joy, peace, and immortality. But little do we know that in the midst of our sins, in the very ends we pursue while harming ourselves and others, all the while God is there, waiting to give us, in Himself, the desires of our hearts.  It is only when we let God be God over us that He, in turn, gives us ourselves and our true identity, receiving from Him everything we need, including, in our encounter with the person of Jesus, the Way to complete freedom and wholeness.  What followed Paul's vision of the Lord is available to all, just for the asking:

"A certain Ananias, a devout observer of the law,
and highly spoken of by all the Jews who lived there,
came to me and stood there and said,
‘Saul, my brother, regain your sight.’
And at that very moment I regained my sight and saw him.
Then he said,
‘The God of our ancestors designated you to know his will,
to see the Righteous One, and to hear the sound of his voice;
for you will be his witness before all
to what you have seen and heard.
Now, why delay?
Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away,
calling upon his name.’” (Acts 22:12-15)

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