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The Conversion of St. Paul

by Jan 25, 2023Friar Reflection

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. It is an event which we associate with the expression “knocked off your high horse.” It is an association cemented in our consciousness by the great Italian artist, Caravaggio who created the masterpiece, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus.

The scene is stripped of all distractions – with only a horse, groom and the fallen Paul present – and Caravaggio creates a mysteriously darkened background in order to focus attention on Paul’s moment of encounter with the Risen Lord.

Paul – actually, Saul – lies in a dramatic pose in the foreground of the picture, almost intruding into the viewer’s space. His arms are outstretched in shock. He has just seen a vision of Christ and has been blinded by a celestial light. The divine nature of his experience is evidenced by Saint Paul’s closed eyes, stiff arms and his continued illumination from heaven.

Meantime, Paul’s sword and cloak are tangible reminders of his former identity as Saul the persecutor of Christians. The cloak echoes the swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus, and – along with the horse and Paul’s helpless condition – confirms that we are witnessing a spiritual rebirth.

Curiously, neither the groom nor horse seem to notice Paul’s spiritual awakening. The main contribution of the horse, which occupies more of the picture than anything else, is to contribute a sense of tension with its upturned hoof poised in mid-air as if about to strike the newly converted Paul, while the groom concentrates on holding the reins to prevent the horse trampling him.

In the Pauline epistles, the description of the conversion experience is brief and given in. First Corinthians and Galatians. In the Acts of the Apostle the account is told three times. It is first recounted in Acts chapters 9, then chapters 22, and 26.

It was a profound experience. And so, he immediately returned to Jerusalem…. right? Actually, no. Paul left Jerusalem as an observant Second Temple Jew. His experience of the risen Christ, the conversion, and the associated understanding of the significance of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, caused him to rethink from the ground up everything he had ever believed in, from his own identity to his understanding of Second Temple Judaism and who God really was.  …and he took three years to reflect on how he was called to change his life. After three years he went to Jerusalem.

Saul left Jerusalem, doing what he thought he was supposed to do, going with the flow. And then Damascus – and he took time to reflect on what it all meant.

You left the warmth of your home this morning, doing what you thought you were supposed to do, going with the flow of your life. Maybe tomorrow you will head toward your own Damascus. May Damascus is in the rear view. Damascus or no, we are all called to the on-going deep conversion of faith that led Saul to become Paul.

Today you are Jack or Jill. Tomorrow…be ready.

Image credit: Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio, Cerasi Chapel-Santa Maria del Popolo | Public Domain