Saul of Tarsus, about whom we have been hearing so much in the Acts of the Apostles at the first reading of the Mass during this Easter season, is a fascinating man. I would like to suggest that there are three things that we can learn from the life of Saint Paul.
First, it’s OK to be human. Second, sometimes in life, you need to be knocked off the horse. And third, sometimes, you have to learn to give a person a chance.
First, it’s OK to be human. Saul was no angel. We know from Acts of the Apostles that he was “breathing murderous threats” against the early followers of the Way. He was zealous for the Jewish faith, or at least his brand of it, and, by his own admission, he was the chief persecutor of Christians. It was he who incited the martyrdom of Stephen the proto-deacon. But even when he has his conversion, even when he becomes one the Lord’s Apostles, he’s still more than a little rough around the edges.
When one reads his letters, Paul can be curt. He can be acerbic —“You foolish Galatians!” just to cite one example. And, what is interesting to me, at least, is that Paul was so difficult at times that each of his companions left the side of Paul. Many Scripture scholars believe that this is because of the intensity, the ferocity of spirit of St. Paul. After a while, he might have been a bit hard to take. Yet, even though they couldn’t work with him on a daily basis, I’m sure that Timothy, Titus, Silas, John Mark and Barnabas loved and respected Paul. The relationship that Paul had with them exemplifies the adage: “We don’t always have to think alike, but we do have to think together.” Paul might have driven them crazy, but I’m sure that his friends knew that he was absolutely brilliant, absolutely driven and absolutely in love with Christ. And it is the fact that he is absolutely in love with Christ that fed and led his friendship with others.
And further, if you think about it, Paul is more than a little insecure about being an apostle. He’s constantly reminding his readers that he’s as much an apostle as Peter and the others. And yet, Paul knows who he is and what’s he’s meant to do. He allows the grace of Christ to work on his earthen vessel and, even with all the thorns in his flesh, he is able to consecrate his life to the Lord.
Second, you need to be knocked off the horse sometimes. Yes, I know that Acts doesn’t explicitly say that Paul fell off the horse and we really have that image more from Caravaggio’s famous painting than anything else, but bear with me! True growth can only come from true struggle. I have been told that Saint Theresa of Calcutta was once asked what she thought was necessary to form a good priest. To paraphrase, she said “You need to break his heart.” And that’s true. The priest’s heart, and indeed, the heart of all of us, needs to be broken and the only one who can heal the heart is he who is the Sacred Heart. Once we, in our humility, recognize that it is the Lord and the Lord alone who can heal us, then and only then can true healing begin.
Third and finally, you have to give a person a chance. Imagine being the Christian community who had to bring Paul into their homes. Imagine their fear. Imagine their distrust. Imagine their dislike of this man who had already done so much harm to the Church. And, yet, trust him they did. And, through Paul, the Word of God, Jesus, the Lord, was made known to the Gentiles. In our lives, we have to trust people and to give that second chance, within reason, to our brothers and sisters who have hurt us, to learn to forgive, if not forget.
We are blessed today in this Easter Season to read at Mass about Saint Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. May we who are already converted to Christ become more fully converted to the truth of Christ crucified in all we do and say.