Unfortunately, we all seem to know someone who doesn’t like the Catholic Church. Either a little…or a lot. Some will even go as far as to say that they hate it. And honestly, they really might. So many people don’t like what they don’t understand. They say they don’t like how the Church is structured… or the hierarchy. Perhaps it is just the parish priest they don’t care for …or maybe they don’t like the pope. Some people don’t like giving their money to an institution that has more wealth than them. I used to know someone who always hated parting with his money during the collection… he seemed to have a great disdain for tithing… Still others look at the Church and Her rules as an infringement on their freedoms. Yet, these are the very ones who do not know what freedom really is... they do not recognize the Truth....and how that Truth, really does set you free… Perhaps it’s the sacrament of confession that separates so many from the Catholic Church… After all, it does take a bit of humility to admit you’re wrong… and to confess your sins…and seek forgiveness…
The list of reasons is long, and the extent of the excuses are many. There are numerous reasons why people fall away… or turn away from the Faith…but perhaps, for no other reason more so than the sin of pride. Most people who turn away from God are full of themselves… They have their own ideas of what is right and wrong. They don’t want to be told what to do. They want to make their own decisions… They think they have no need for God. And they definitely don’t need a religious institution intruding in their affairs. They have themselves. They have their pride. Like I have said before, it is nothing new. It is the same story over and over… Yet, God keeps calling them. God keeps proving to man that He is the Truth. That He is the Way. He knocks them off their high horse and forces them to face the Honest to Goodness Reality that He is the Truth. That’s exactly what happened with one of the holiest saints ever, St. Paul, or Saul, as he was called, before he got knocked off his high horse.
You see, Saul was a Jew who was educated to become a Pharisee, he observed Jewish Laws and Jewish traditions. He was very religious, and very strict in his observances… perhaps more so than any of his peers. But when God became Man, with the name of Jesus Christ, and instituted His Church… the Catholic Church, Saul looked upon Christ as a blasphemer and at these followers of Christ as heretics…he saw them as men who hid in shadows and conspired against the Jewish Faith… Which was his faith. He despised the fact that they chose to follow this so called Messiah. When, in his eyes, they would be better off preparing themselves for the coming of the true Messiah…the one that would re- establish the Kingdom of Judah. The One that would dominate and conquer. In Saul’s view, Jesus Christ had done none of this. In his view, Jesus Christ had failed.
In fact, Saul saw Jesus as an enemy of the Jew… After all, he had conquered none and worse yet, He had allowed Himself to be put to death on a Cross. Saul felt that these Christians were deviating too far from the old laws… the old Jewish laws…and he didn’t like it. In fact, he hated it because it changed the faith he had known all of his life. And it incensed him…and his heart boiled over with hate… blinding him to the Truth. Because of this hatred, he grew to hate all Christians. He even plotted to kill them. And when Stephen, who was a Christian, was caught, and imprisoned, Saul was among the men who planned his death. He was there as the first stones were thrown, killing Stephen, thus making him the first Christian martyred for the Faith.
Saul’s crimes didn’t end there. He spoke out against the teachings of Christ and was one of the worst blasphemers and enemies of Jesus’ newly founded Church. And he was self righteous about the whole affair. You see, in Saul’s mind, he was the good soldier…he was serving God how he wanted to serve Him, not how God wanted him to serve. But God is good and full of mercy and He knew that Saul had to be converted. And we read in the Book of Acts 9:3-9 the following:
On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He said, “Who are you, sir?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.
– Acts 9:3-9
As Saul had headed for Damascus, he was full of his self pride. He was sure that everything he was doing against the Christians was what God wanted…His pride had blinded him to the Truth… and as he rode like a celebrated king upon his horse surrounded by his soldiers, he had no idea what God really wanted...then in a brief instant he got the surprise of his life.
For suddenly from out of the east, a huge ball of fire erupted in the sky, and with a thundering roar, a wall of bright light stretched before him… scorching his eyes… blinding him at once. He was thrown from his horse, dazed and confused, he hit the ground with a thud. His companions immediately ran to his aide…but Saul was muttering…As he lay on the dirt road, he appeared to be speaking to someone who they could not see. As Saul continued his muttering they looked around and saw no one. Had the fall damaged his head? He had lost his composure, and seemed to have lost his mind. His soldiers could not hear the voice that rattled Saul. They were not aware that God was speaking directly to Saul. They had no idea that it was God’s voice in the thunder. All they heard was the roar. They were unaware that God was there, knocking the pride right out of Saul, so that he could find his way back to the Lord. All they knew was that they were afraid…and that they had to help Saul get out of the road.
As the flash of light burst around Saul, he had heard a loud voice call to him unmistakably asking him: “Saul, Saul, why do thou persecute Me?”
The flash of light had been so intense that Saul could see nothing but flashes of white…and flashes of red…as if had been staring into the bright sun….he was blind! Immediately he was thrust from his ‘high horse’ and recognized the voice of God. Falling back to his knees he humbly asked, “Who art thou, Lord?”
With a clarity that could come from none other, God responded, “I Am that Jesus, Whom thou has persecuted.”
The Truth God spoke was pure…it was Light...It was as if Saul had been living in darkness his whole life and suddenly he could see the Light… He could see that he had been attacking the very God whom he claimed to love and adore. It was a very humiliating experience for Saul. And as he knelt on that dusty road to Damascus, Saul was made to realize that every time he punished a Christian…every time he shackled a follower of Christ…he was actually punishing Christ…he was actually shackling Christ. He felt the burden of the Truth as It pierced his heart like a sword…it pained him to the very core of his being…but it was still the Truth, and even though it pained Saul immensely it was still the Truth and it hurt.
As he lay there in the road…a crumbled shell of his former prideful self, he felt himself drained of all his strength…all of his own power was seeped from him until he could do nothing but surrender to the love that had filled his heart. God had taken away everything… and then God replaced it with Everything! Saul was spent. Moaning, he cried out to the Lord,
“Lord, what will Thou have me do?”
God commanded Saul, “Arise, enter the city, and there it will be told thee what thou art to do.”
Submitting to the power of God, he lay there on the road. Like a humbled old man, his body was bent and ruined. He no longer resembled the boasting Pharisee he had been but a few moments ago. He could not even stand on his own power and had to be carried into Damascus like a poor and humbled beggar. He floundered about in complete darkness… his sight was gone…the pupils of his eyes burnt from the bright flash of Light… He was afraid… and the words he had heard from God filled him with much fear and trembling. As he was carried to a house and lay to rest upon a mat, he knew that all his former dreams were gone… Everything he had thought was true… were merely lies he had told himself to continue behaving the way he did.
His mind fell into a pit of darkness and if not for the great love of the Lord…he would have surely fallen into an abyss of utter despair! Even then, there were moments when he felt that God had left him, and as he suffered on his mat, while his family tried to care for his physical body, God was working on the conversion of his soul. It was painful. At moments, Saul thought he would surely die. But God is kind and merciful. He allowed Saul to see the errors of his ways, he showed him Who Jesus really was…He showed him what it meant to be a Christian. The Truth was revealed to Saul in such a way that his heart was converted forever. He was a changed man and would never be the same.
After three agonizing day in total darkness…when Saul was at the point where he felt himself about to be completely crushed by the heaviness in his soul, he repented…and he turned to the Lord in complete humility…begging Him…for forgiveness. Then, falling asleep, he dreamt. In the dream he saw the figure of a man approaching him. The man touched his eyes…and the veil was removed…his sight was returned to him! The figure told him that God had chosen him to be filled with the Holy Spirit. There was much work to do…
Immediately he awoke, as he sat up he felt the scales fall from his eyes! God had not abandoned him. He was healed. And even though he had spent his years working to persecute the Christians, God was now calling him to suffer persecution for Him. After being drug to the pits of darkness, and emptied of his pride and arrogance, Saul accepted his new vocation. He united himself to the Will of the Lord and worked tirelessly doing God’s work.
He worked to evangelize the Jewish people he had recently been a part of. He told them,
“I had come to persecute Him and to blaspheme Him; but now I have seen His power. He is the Lord, the Son of God. Be Baptized, if you wish to be saved. Jesus is the Christ.”
Later, Saul changed his name to Paul and went on to become one of the most important figures in the Apostolic Age. He traveled extensively. He built Churches and preached the Truth that in fact, Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. He wrote many epistles and over half of books in the Acts of the Apostles were written by St. Paul. He continued to work tirelessly for the conversion of many throughout the lands. He was captured and imprisoned in Rome. Finally,he suffered martyrdom under the reign of Emperor Nero.
As we contemplate the conversion of Saint Paul, let us pray that we may always be open to God and His Truth in our life. We may think we are doing what God wants, we may feel that we are on the ‘right path,’ or that we can find happiness deep inside our own souls. But that is only true if we allow God to empty us of ourselves…This can be a painful experience… one that takes a lifetime to accomplish….But we must humbly ask… beg Him… to convert us… and to fill us with Himself.