Patristibloging Paul’s Conversion

This is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The Fathers of the Church comment on Paul’s conversion.

Cassiodorus, for example, addresses how God can bring good from our evil ways, revealing that He has a plan for us and knows us better than we know ourselves:

Often the merciful Lord does not allow us to perpetrate evil deeds so that pricked by remorse we should prostrate ourselves for our sins, just as Saul was checked when he was sent by the priests to Damascus to ravage the Church of Christ with the most savage persecution. He was not permitted to attain great success, for that could have been the cause of his receiving eternal punishment. [Exp. of the Psalms 53.9]

Ephrem the Syrian uses the event of Paul’s conversion to address the Lord’s two natures.

This is why the humble voice accompanied the intense light, so that from the combination of the humble and the sublime, our Lord might produce help for the persecutor, just as all his assistance is produced from a combination of the small and great. For the humility of our Lord prevailed from the womb to the tomb…. His nature is not simply humble, nor is it simply sublime; rather they are two natures, lofty and humble, one mixed in the other. [Homily on Our Lord 34]

Speaking of an intertwining of the Lord’s characteristics, St. Augustine uses the occasion to address the Lord’s omnipresence:

How can we show that He is there and that he is also here? Let Paul answer for us, who was previously Saul…. For of all, the Lord’s own voice from heaven shows this: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" Had Paul climbed up to heaven then? Had Paul even thrown a stone at heaven? It was Christians he was persecuting, then he was tying up, them he was dragging off to be put to death, them he was everywhere hunting out of their hiding places and never sparing when he found them. To him the Lord said, "Saul, Saul." Where is He crying out from? Heaven. So He’s up above. "Why are you persecuting me?" So He’s down below. [s. 122.6]

Of course you know that this voice of the Lord’s from heaven, also shows how Christ is present in His Body, the Church. Venerable Bede looks at this:

He did not say, "Why do you persecute my members?" but "Why do you persecute me?" Because He is still suffering from enemies in His body, which is the Church. He declared that kindness bestowed upon His members are also done to Him when He said, "I was hungry and you gave me to eat," and He added in explanation, "So long as you did it to one of the least of mine, you did it to me." [Commentary on Acts 9.4]

When we sin, we afflict the Lord, for our sins hurt our own person – which is a member of Christ’s Body – and also others. This is why in confessing our sins we must do penance. Penance is salutary for us, like the therapy we do after being injured and healed. It is also a matter of justice, because even hidden sins hurt everyone else. Sin is in a way a backward proof that we are not alone.

The humility of the Lord, the omnipresence of the Lord, His presence in the Church and thus with all the members of the Church firms up our confidence that He understands our sufferings. He shared our human state. Basil the Great says:

For it is written, "And when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be made subject to Him who subjected all things to Him." Do you not fear, O man, the God who is called unsubjected? For He makes your subjection His own, and, because of your struggle against virtue, He calls Himself unsubjected. Thus, He even said at one time that He Himself was the one persecuted: for He says, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" when Saul was hastening to Damascus, desiring to put in bonds the disciples of Christ. Against, He calls Himself naked, if anyone of His brothers is naked. "I was naked", He says, "and you covered me." And still again, when another was in prison, He said that He Himself was the one imprisoned. For He Himself took up our infirmities and bore the burden of our ills. And one of our infirmities is insubordination, and this He bore. Therefore, even the adversities that happen to us the Lord makes His own, talking upon Himself our sufferings because of His fellowship with us. [ep. 8]

Our knowledge that Christ is united in our infirmities, means that Christ knows what we need better than we know ourselves and He provides for it. It is not alway what we think we need of course. Sometimes the Lord’s assistance comes to us in unexpected ways. John Chrysostom says:

The eunuch was on the road and Paul was on the road, but the latter was drawn by no other than Christ Himself, for this was too great a work for the apostles. It was great indeed that, with the apostles at Jerusalem and no one of authority at Damascus, he returned from there converted. And those at Damascus know that he had not come from Jerusalem, for he brought letters that he might place the believers in chains. Like a consummate physician, Christ brought help to him, once he fever reached its height. It was necessary that he should be quelled in the midst of his frenzy, for then especially he would fall and condemn himself as one guilty of dreadful audacity. [Homilies on Acts 19]

Chrysostom’s passage also reminds us that your role in God’s plan is not limited to being small or great simply by your visible vocation. God used the eunuch, not the apostles, because the eunuch was suited to do what the apostles could not. In our lives, we must constantly remember that to do His work in this concrete time and place God does not choose those who are worthy, but those whom it pleases Him to choose, great or small, conspicuous or not.

The sudden realization of God’s will and plan, staring you in the face, can be a frightening and disorienting slap. God uses even unpleasant means to get our attention. Consider what Ambrose says:

Although Paul was struck and taken up and was terrified because blindness had befallen him, still he began to come near when he said, "Lord, what will you have me do?" For that reason he is called the youngest by Christ, so that he who was called to grace could be excused from the guilt of his hazardous years. Yes, Christ say him when the light shone around him; because young people are recalled from sin more by fear than by reason, Christ applied the goad and mercifully admonished him not to kick against it. [Joseph 10.58]

Oscar Wilde (not a Father of the Church) once said:

The only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past while every sinner has a future [In Evil]

Echoing this, Bernard Malamud wrote:

"Experience makes good people better. We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that. Suffering brings us toward happiness," she tells Roy. [The Natural, ch. 7]

We are works in progress. Perhaps when we encounter annoying people, we could try imagining them as God intended them in the Resurrection. People can indeed change and it is a work of mercy to bear with them and then help them. You never know what interior motions of grace are in operation because of your good example. God can bring forth richness from sterility, so He can use you – little person that you are – for great works you might never see.

Again Ambrose:

Although he saw nothing when his eyes were opened, still he saw Christ. And it was fitting that he saw Christ present and also heard Him speaking. That overshadowing is not the overshadowing of blindness by grace. Indeed, it is said to Mary, "The Holy Spirit shall come upon you and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you. [On the Patriarchs 12.58]

The Redeemer is not removed from us. We are not here simply to drift, without guiding signs and helps. Holy Church speaks and, in her voice, Christ is teaching. We have the sacraments. We have actual graces. We have the Lord Himself in whom our humanity is now at this moment reigning in glory at the right hand of the Father.

Others have you.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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5 Responses to Patristibloging Paul’s Conversion

  1. Emitte says:

    Thank you so much Father, this is a wonderful meditation.
    We really are blessed to have you share your expertise. Ad multos annos!

  2. Ben of the Bayou says:

    Thanks again Father Z for the wonderful nourishment you put on your website. It is quite a treat to be able to learn more about the great riches of our Catholic Faith, especially about the men and women whose lives we celebrate as an example for our own lives. In this way, you make it possible that they become a real example. Even though we could find this information in the various and sundry sources, many of us would not. Therefore, this reflects what you wrote about Catholics needing to use the internet as a tool of evangelization. May the abundant graces of God continue to be upon you through the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin.

    Pax,
    Ben of the Bayou

  3. Dan Hunter says:

    Thank you Father Zuhlsdorf,
    We have much to learn from The Apostle,the Fathers,and some from Oscar Wilde.
    God bless you.

  4. Luca says:

    Scusi Padre, ma l’eunuco citato da san Giovanni Crisostomo non si riferisce a
    Saulo, come Lei sembra interpretare, ma all’eunuco etiope incontrato dall’apo-
    stolo Filippo e da questi convertito. Crisostomo intendeva dire che Dio ha con-
    vertito Saulo di persona anziché servirsi degli apostoli.

  5. Father: Thank you for this post. It comes at a very timely moment. I have only recently begun to “get” that we are all members of One Body and that when I sin I hurt myself, the other members and the Lord. The Confiteor has taken on a new depth for me.

    I was just thisclose to starting a patristiblog on Oscar Wilde. Thanks for clearing up any doubt I may have had about him being a Father of the Church!