It is the day when the Church remembers the Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus. Here are Andre's thoughts on vocation and starting from scratch.
January 23rd 2021 – The Conversion of St Paul Acts 26:9-23; Mark 1:14-20
To start from scratch
I wouldn’t have liked Paul; neither before nor after his conversion. The “Road to Damascus” has become a famous saying for a new beginning in life, a 180 degree turn in some respect. For Paul this experience which he had on the way to Damascus, this moment of vocation was of such a fundamental nature that it turned everything in his life upside-down.
He was a Jewish fundamentalist, fully convinced that it was his vocation to destroy the heretics; the sect that followed this self-declared messiah Jesus. Already at the stoning of St. Stephen, he held the clothes for those who threw stones to kill Stephen and his journey to Damascus was a journey with the intend to hunt the Christians in Damascus and hand them over to the authorities for their execution. On the way, Paul had this deep spiritual experience, an experience that left him blind for a number of days. He received a vocation from Jesus, whose followers he had been persecuting. From one moment to the other Paul was converted from a Jewish fundamentalist to a Christian fundamentalist. The big difference was that his new mission was not destruction any more, but building up; the building-up of new communities, especially among the “Gentiles”, the non-Jews.
Now, let us dive right into the story. Saul, who would call himself Paul after this experience—the Greek version of the Hebrew name—had fought and hunted Christians in Jerusalem for years. Finding his hunting grounds not big enough, he aspired to help the big city Damascus with their “problem”. The Christian community in Jerusalem would have known that he departed, just to see him enter Jerusalem again after a couple of days knocking on their door asking for a membership form. Imagine, Donald Trump knocking on the door of Green Peace asking to join them, Vladimir Putin joining Amnesty International, the king of Saudi Arabia, or in Canada maybe Derek Sloan, trying to join a LGBT organization. The Jerusalem congregation must have been horrified. But there he was, Paul, the former Saul. Not only did he want to join, he wanted to be in charge of the mission among all the non-Jews, teaching and preaching with authority.
This story teaches me three things. 1 The power of vocation. 2 The danger of vocation. 3 The grace of God.
1 The power of vocation: Vocation, a strange word in today’s world. A bit as from a different age. However, not only in the Church does vocation still play a vital role. Look at a book shelf in one of the local book stores. All the books on happiness, fulfillment in family and job, living a full life, they are all new words and concepts to describe the old idea of vocation. Vocation is God’s calling for you in this world, God’s plan for your life. Until you find it, there is often this unrest, this feeling of not arriving, an ongoing dissatisfaction and search. Not everyone’s vocation is a call to religious ministry in whatever way. Martin Luther was always keen to emphasize, your family life and your profession are a vocation, too. For Paul, this moment on the road when he realized that this Jesus was not an imposturous pretender, but truly God’s chosen one, had such a power that he turned around his whole life and threw overboard his whole belief-system, all his convictions. And the moment he did that, his work was blessed and his mission among the Gentiles was more successful and influential for the spread of Christianity, than anyone could ever have imagined.
2 The danger of vocation Well, there he was, called to proclaim the Gospel in all the world and he did it with such energy and conviction. While still in Jerusalem, before his moment of conversion, he felt called to persecute Christians and he did it with such energy and conviction. Vocation and the interpretation of vocation can also be dangerous. There is a reason why the Church, for example in this Diocese, takes the process of vocation discernment very seriously. So, there is a danger in a wrongly understood vocation. There is also a danger in a rightly understood vocation. For many, finding their true vocation is a moment when their eyes are opened and they can see the world with new eyes. Things in their life which have always been puzzling them, suddenly make sense, the insatiable hunger or the inner restlessness suddenly calm down. But everyone entering the adventure of accepting one’s vocation has also to be aware that living according to God’s plan does not always lead us down the paths we had anticipated and we don’t always like where they lead to. While it usually leads to a life where we feel satisfaction and purpose, we mustn’t forget that vocation led Paul to death, as well as Peter, Andrew and many others, martyrs, missionaries, peace makers, or “ordinary” Christians. Vocation leads to a life that is full but not always fully comfortable or even quite the opposite. And it is not for everyone to hang in there.
And the last point this story of Paul’s conversion shows me is God’s grace. How can it be that God decided to use Paul as a tool to proclaim the Gospel of love? How can it be that God calls this persecutor of Christians to be a leading figure among them? What I find wonderful in this beyond measure, is that God grants the opportunity to people to start completely anew, from the beginning. Many people mess up in their lives and everything seems lost and over, but God grants new beginnings, as the Resurrection was a new beginning after the complete destruction of the Cross.
Paul of Tarsus. I still think I wouldn’t have liked him as a person, but God chose him and on this feast-day we give thanks to God for Paul’s example.