What is the Story of St. Paul’s Conversion?

What is the Story of St. Paul’s Conversion?

Written by Jacqueline Lucca, a Catholic author, artist, and teacher at www.adventuresinexcellence.com

I’d like to take you on a brief trip to Rome through words. Come with me through the bright, cobblestone streets and into a small white church: Santa Maria di Popolo. We can walk to the shadowy back corner and put a coin in the box, which causes a small light to glow. Illuminated above us is a painting filled with inky blackness, but at the bottom of the picture, a figure is sprawled across the ground, bathed in golden light. His eyes are closed, and his arms are flung wide in shock after having just fallen. This is Caravaggio’s dramatic representation of the conversion of Saint Paul.

Darkness closing in, a stunned young man who has just been dashed from his horse, and a glowing light that seems to burn away at the shadows—this is a conversion that seems infused with otherworldliness. But if we study the scenario, we can learn quite a bit about Saint Paul, and perhaps about ourselves.

The Beginning

As documented in Acts Chapter 9, St. Paul’s story does not start with the peace or holiness expected of a Saint: “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples, 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 [the early name for Christianity], men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” St. Paul, formerly known as Saul, starts out ruthless, threatening, and even murderous. He is quite a long way from becoming admirable, or likable for that matter. He sets out on his journey eager to hurt those whom he doesn’t like.

It is in the midst of this chaos, anger, and evil, that God calls Saul to be something more: “…suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground.” The Bible records that a voice called out: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

The Conversion

In this moment of darkness and confusion, Saul doesn’t immediately recognize the voice of God, and responds, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice answers, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The Bible tells us that when Saul gets up and opens his eyes he can’t see. He has to be led into the city and is so upset that he doesn’t eat. It was certainly a bleak and difficult time for him; he was suffering from blindness, realizing his flaws and feeling helpless.

It is then that God speaks to Ananias, a devout man in that city, and tells him to go to Saul and lay hands on the poor man so that he can be cured of his blindness. Ananias protests, explaining to the Lord that this man is horrible and tries to kill Christians like him, but God answers, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.” (Acts 9:15)

Saul, otherwise known as the mighty Saint Paul, converts. He regains his sight after Ananias prays over him, eats a meal, and begins to speak about what God has done in his life. His story is a message of hope. Just like Saint Paul, our story doesn’t stop with eyesight restored and goodness flooding our lives. It has to include us going out to proclaim that Jesus is the Lord through our actions, the way we carry ourselves, and the words we speak.

Mother Teresa used to say, “God does not call the equipped but equips the called.” God sees the sin of Saul and calls him anyway. He sees the fear of Ananias and chooses him to heal Saul anyway. God sees our particular flaws and raises us up anyway.

The Significance

The Bible doesn’t tell us definitively that Saul was thrown from his horse—he could have just been strolling down the road—but Caravaggio paints one anyway to make the fall harder and much more dramatic. The flash of light, the man hurled from his steed, and the voice from the heavens may seem like a movie moment, but it depicts something that could be familiar to all of us. How many of us have found ourselves metaphorically, or literally, on the ground, raw and in pain? How many of us have felt like everything is going our way until suddenly it’s not, and we feel lost and confused?

The moment of falling to the ground is a common human experience. It’s in those moments of confusion and pain that God reaches out to us. It is in the darkness that we are all called to deeper conversion. God wants to fill our lives with beauty and light. He wants to help us to see reality, ourselves, and Him better.

I have often wondered what question God would call out to me. I do not go murderously after people trying to persecute them for being Christians, but we all have our own unique combination of flaws and weaknesses. On the journey through life, God speaks to everyone, and we have a chance to respond.

“Who are you, Lord?”

Whether we are learned theologians or hardened sinners who haven't picked up a Bible in years, we all have something in common: we can all learn more about a God who is infinitely loving and good. We can also come to him broken and humble. Our arms, like Saint Paul’s, can be sprawled out open when we are flung down into hard times, reaching out to God. We can turn to the words of scripture, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:5-6) We may at times feel blind and confused about what’s happening, but like Saint Paul, we may be closer to true sight than ever before.

In a way, that painting in the shadowy church depicts all of us: our fallen broken selves bathed in beautiful light and invited to a life more beautiful than anything we have lived so far. As God says to each of us: “You are a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before people in this day and age.” (Acts 9:15)

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