The Constant Conversion of St. Paul
BY Father Dwight Longenecker
January 13-26, 2013 Issue | Posted 1/20/13 at 10:25 AM
St. Paul did not really fall off his high horse on the road to Damascus. There’s no horse in the Bible story, and we probably got the idea from the famous depiction of St. Paul’s conversion by the artist Caravaggio.
Whether St. Paul fell off his high horse or not, it still remains a vivid picture of what conversion is all about.
We’re riding high, going about our business, thinking we’re doing what is right, when enlightenment comes. We’re hit between the eyes by the truth of the Gospel. We’re blinded and knocked down, and then the Lord calls us. It is then that our life is turned around, and we receive a new name, a new direction and a new destiny.
For too many, the idea of a religious conversion consists of a once-and-done decision. Influenced by evangelical revivalist preachers, many Americans think conversion is the same thing as "going forward," "getting saved" or "accepting Jesus into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior."
For too many, conversion is equated with an emotional religious experience of repentance and acceptance of Christ’s forgiveness. Furthermore, too many think this once-and-done experience provides a free ticket to heaven, and they don’t need to do anything further.
This is not true conversion. The conversion of St. Paul happened on the road to Damascus, but when we read his epistles, we see that the struggle continued. In his Letter to the Romans, he cries out, "O sinful man that I am! That which I would do I do not do, and that which I hate I do" (Romans 7:19). St. Paul was a work in progress. His conversion was not completed on the road to Damascus — it was only just begun.
St. Benedict stipulated that his monks should take three vows — obedience, stability and conversion of life. The phrase "conversion of life" shows us the true measure of conversion: We are not simply to go through a conversion experience, but our whole life is to be converted. Every detail of our life is to be changed. Every scrap of sin, every dark and lustful thought, every strut of pride, every wound and twist and distortion in our character must be converted, until, as St. Paul says, "We grow up into the full stature of Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 4:13).
This is the work of a moment, but it is also the work of a lifetime.
Not only must the whole of our life be converted, but the whole of life must be converted. "The whole of creation groans for redemption," St. Paul writes to the Romans. The natural world — and indeed the whole cosmos — fell under the curse of Adam’s sin and so also falls under the blessing of the second Adam’s redemption.
Conversion is not simply a personal, emotional religious experience. It is not even the conversion of one’s whole being. Conversion includes the transformation of all things in heaven and earth.
This ultimate transformation is what the transaction of faith is all about. Too often, we think of faith as signing up for a certain set of intellectually held beliefs — almost as if we are checking the box saying we agree to the terms of an agreement when we are signing a contract or opening a new Internet account.
Another misconception is that faith means trying very hard to believe something that we know deep down is really a lot of poppycock. We say "someone has great faith" when they hold to beliefs despite all evidence to the contrary. Still others say that "faith" is trying very hard to believe that God will give us something we ask for.
All of these ideas have something to do with faith, but genuine faith is greater than all of them. Faith is a gift from God, but it is also a process that we go through.
The first step of faith is to be aware of the need for faith. We then examine the propositions put forward for our belief. We come to understand our situation being estranged from God, and we come to understand what Christ has done for us.
Then, based on this knowledge (and whatever other knowledge we need to gather), our will is engaged. We make a decision to view ourselves, God and the world in a particular way, and, most importantly, we decide to live our lives according to those beliefs.
This is what I call the transaction of faith. "Transaction" means "action across," so faith takes us across the boundaries of our normal life with all its worldly assumptions and enables us to live life according to a supernatural set of values, standards and beliefs. The gift of faith empowers us to follow the path that leads to complete transformation — complete conversion.
Pope Benedict XVI has said, "Scripture can only be interpreted in the lives of the saints, and it is this transaction of faith and life of faith that we see lived out in the vast variety of saints from every age, every culture and every nation on earth. In them, we see true conversion of life. Through the gift of faith, they live their lives in a different dimension of reality. Through the gift of faith, they march to a different drummer; they follow a path of true conversion at the most foundational level of their being."
Faith is, therefore, the most practical, positive and powerful action in which a human being can be involved. The action of faith opens the individual’s heart to the transformative power of God’s love.
This Divine Mercy is what knocked St. Paul to the ground. It is this power to which each of the saints opened their hearts. It is this same power that works in each one of us, and all it takes for us to live this abundant life is to say, "Yes" — and cooperate with that grace that is working within us.
Father Dwight Longenecker (DwightLongenecker.com) is the parish priest of
Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is
Catholicism Pure and Simple.
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