The Conversion of Saint Paul

The Conversion of Saint Paul

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).

According to St. Luke’s account, Saul sets out on a journey from the Holy City, Jerusalem, where he had witnessed the death of St. Stephen some time before. The persecutor hastens to reach his destination, to accomplish his aims – in short, to quench the thirst for destruction that sears him and invades his soul, as air fills the lungs. Neither the burning sun, which causes extremely high temperatures during the day, nor the cold nights, nor the treacherous dangers along the way can convince him to abandon his goal.

Little does he know that, on the road to Damascus, Someone is waiting for him…

A blinding light stops him in his tracks

“What wilt Thou have me to do?” This is the sign of the perfect conversion of a soul
Conversion of St. Paul – St. Patrick’s Church, New Orleans

As he nears his destination, the darkness of his heart is dispelled by an extraordinary light from Heaven which throws him face down to the ground. This radiance brings the executioner face to face with the Crucified One, with no room for resistance.

For the first time in history, it is the Victim who delivers the coup de grâce: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” The voice identifies itself: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” He feels great confusion within himself. While his mind is silenced, his heart opens and behold, Saul, overcome by the voice of grace, “trembling and astonished,” gathers strength to ask: “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” “Arise,” Jesus says to him, “and go into the city, and there it shall be told thee what thou must do” (Acts 9:4-7).

Our Lord does not clearly indicate the purpose to which He calls him, but only assures Saul that he will hear the answer to his question from another. Already bewildered, not understanding where all of this is leading, he gets up, and opens his eyes… but sees nothing. He is blind because of “the brightness of that light” (Acts 22:11)!

The light withdraws, but the blindness remains…

For Saul, all the beauties created by God are now darkness. For how long? He does not know. Will it be days? Months? Years? But while from a human standpoint everything is uncertain for him, grace engraves a profound resolution in his soul.

His bodily eyes are blind, but his soul is so enlightened that he throws himself without hesitation into whatever the voice of obedience asks of him, even without understanding. And abandoning himself entirely into the hands of Our Lord, he is led to Damascus to receive instructions.

But how can this be? What has happened to the persecutor, who a few minutes ago was only “breathing threats and murder” against the Church?

No man can see the face of God and still live, as Scripture asserts (cf. Ex 33:20). Saul did not escape the rule: he died to himself, sacrificing his own desires and criteria, so implacable and ingrained, thenceforth to do not his own will but the Lord’s.

In this regard, St. Bernard of Clairvaux observes that Paul’s reply to Our Lord – “what wilt Thou have me to do?” – is the sign of the perfect conversion of a soul which, renouncing the world, is determined to follow Christ.

Perfectly blind obedience

Following St. Ignatius of Loyola, Fr. Alfonso Rodrigues, a great author on the spiritual life, affirms that “imperfect obedience has eyes, but this vision is detrimental; perfect obedience is blind, but in this blindness consists wisdom. One  passes judgement on what is commanded, the other does not.” The first obeys in outward appearances, while the heart resists, and therefore it does not deserve the name of obedience. The second submits one’s own judgement and will to the Most High, taking as good all that He commands. Perfect obedience does not seek reasons to obey orders, but accepts them only for this reason: what God wants is best for me.

And how does the Lord make His will known to us? “Arise, and go into the city, and there it shall be told thee what thou must do.” To Paul – and also to us – Providence often does not speak through a direct locution, but prefers to use instruments: it could be a homily, a reading, an inspiration before the Blessed Sacrament, advice from a confessor, a spiritual director, a father, a brother or a good friend.

As God uses these external elements, He simultaneously touches the soul in a direct way, making it clear that the message is indeed His will. To favour such motions, it is all the more necessary to be attentive and flexible like the blind man of Damascus: “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”

St. Bernard points out that “there are few who conform themselves to this form of perfect obedience” and who purify their free will to the point of never seeking, never intending, never desiring anything to be done other than the will of Providence.

“Lord, that I may see!” Imperfect obedience has eyes, but to its detriment
Jesus cures the man blind from birth Church of the Good Shepherd, Jericho, (Israel)

“Domine, ut videam”?

How many are there who, instead of taking the Apostle’s attitude, imitate another blind man mentioned in Scripture, of whom Our Lord asks, “What do you want Me to do for you?” (Mk 10:51a).

So lacking in vision was he that he was not taken aback when Christ asked him what he wanted done. The right thing to do would have been to exclaim: “No, Lord! Rather, say what You want me to do, for so it should be, so reason requires; not that You inquire of me and do my will, but I Yours.

Domine, ut videam!” (Mk 10:51b), replied the poor blind man. “Lord, that I may see!” He asks to see and not to obey. Countless times Our Lord finds souls who are at odds with His divine will, who continually ask Him for favours, never disposed to hear what He truly desires. How much they would profit by imitating the Apostle Paul! Indeed, those who are “blinded” by obedience are the souls who truly acquire sight, for to place oneself unconditionally in God’s hands is the act of supreme lucidity.