An Unexpected Divine Encounter

The Conversion of Saint Paul by Caravaggio; image from

On January 25th, the Church remembers the conversion of St. Paul. Unless we go to a church named for St. Paul, many of us might know very little about him. We know that his conversion took place after Jesus’ death, and we may know that famous painting by Caravaggio of Paul who seems to have fallen off his horse, and also seems to have very few clothes on (which I have always found puzzling). But what do we really know about St. Paul?

Paul’s story in the Acts of the Apostles tells us about his background as a Pharisee and his history of hostility against the early Christians. His involvement in the persecution of early believers in Jesus, notably the execution of St. Stephen, certainly marked his pre-conversion days.

Then, during a life-changing moment on the road to Damascus, Paul had an extraordinary event happen—a blinding light, accompanied by a divine revelation. Jesus addressed him directly, questioning his actions against Christians. This encounter actually left Paul temporarily blinded!

Three days later, a man named Ananias, from Damascus, restored his sight, and Paul was baptized. After that, he fervently embraced Jesus as the Messiah—so much so that he felt the need to widely share his new faith.

This transformation led Paul on an extensive journey, embarking on three missionary voyages aimed at spreading the teachings of Jesus to regions that were mostly inhabited by non-Jewish communities. His writings became part of our Bible. While they are still very much a part of our lectionary, there’s no question that some of the things that he said are problematic in today’s world. We all know that Paul’s views on women border on the embarrassing. He says that women must remain silent in churches, and other things that we wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—say today. But there is even some question as to whether or not Paul wrote everything that is attributed to him, so if we can let ourselves not be distracted by these archaic rules for women, maybe we can still learn something that is really important from Paul’s conversion.

God’s intervention comes when we least expect it. Paul was just going from one place to another when God got involved. He wasn’t in a place of worship, and wasn’t even necessarily thinking about religion or faith. God can find us even when we aren’t looking for him. We also can be moved emotionally, and feel physically nearer the presence of God, whether that’s in a church, while looking at a beautiful landscape, or looking into the face of someone who loves us. 

Putting aside the famous artistic renditions based on writings that may or may not have been written by him, we still see that Paul’s journey from persecutor to advocate for Jesus is an amazing one. Paul’s transformation is a story of unexpected encounters with the divine. Paul reminds us that God’s intervention knows no bounds. While we might not experience blinding lights or audible voices, we can see and feel the profound touch of the divine in the moments that stir our emotions or connect us deeply with others. Paul’s example, marked by such radical personal change, shows us the possibility for unexpected transformations in our own lives when we encounter God.

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