"I persecuted this Way to death."
"'I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.'"
"Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature."
Paul's story is a fascinating one. He is a zealous Jew, who is, by his own admission, a murderous persecutor of the followers of the new "way" of Jesus. Then, he gets stopped in his tracks by a personal encounter with Jesus.
Apart from the extraordinary characteristics of Paul's conversion, it strikes me that we have these conversion moments as well. We are stopped, turned around, re-orientated. Sometimes it is an awareness, "Wow, I'm being bullheaded and stubborn here and it is not making me or anyone else happy." Sometimes, it is a self-defeating pattern, which finally gets defeating enough that I don't like doing it any more: "I've been in denial about what I'm doing to myself here, but I am really getting tired of this addiction, this cycle, this rut I'm in." Sometimes, we are blessed enough to have a loved one or a friend who loves us enough to simply confront us - to tell us what we've been doing - and we have the openness at that moment to hear it and accept it. Sometimes, it is actually a religious experience. We hear something from the scriptures differently, or we turn to the Lord and feel the connection, or we experience the Sacrament of Reconciliaiton and feel the grace of being forgiven. At the deepest level, conversion comes to us when our hearts are drawn to the love of the one who loves us unconditionally. Affection, deep gratitude, turn our hearts, open us up and affection and gratitude lead to changes.
On a feast like this, we can pause and simply ask for the grace of conversion. That openness to grace, that desire for greater freedom and greater union with the one who loves us.
Another surprising part of this story is how Jesus identifies himself to Paul. He says that he is the one Paul is persecuting. He completely identifies with his people. Pope Francis spoke about this in a talk he gave on the Body of Christ:
It gets very deep, but it is very simple. We are one body, when we are one in Jesus. He is our brother and he identifies with us, completely. None of us can ever say we are alone. And, as members of this body, we can ask for the grace to grow in a sense of feeling, sensing, appreciating that when any one of us suffers, the whole of us suffer - because we are connected.
Of course, this is difficult to experience while I feel alienated, angry, threated by one of my brothers or sisters. But, it all becomes possible and make sense, when I let myself be loved, experience conversion, and receive a new mission, a new purpose. Paul was just as zealous in telling others about Jesus for the rest of his life, as he was an opponent to Jesus' way before his conversion.
Pope Francis tells us in his Exhortation, "Joy of the Gospel," that it starts with our experiencing the joy of the Good News of God's love for us. From there, we are a new person, ready to share that joy with others. We can imagine - even dream about - how much different we might be, and how different our families and relationships might be if we were more freed by joy. As Francis tells us, it is with a spirit of joy that we will spread the Good News. When people see how happy we are, people will want to be part of this community of joy.
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