The Higher the Horse, the Greater the Grace

God sometimes does dramatic things to get our attention. Maybe we come down with some strange illness out of the blue. Or lose our job. For Saul of Tarsus, the drama involved being blinded for three days.

Saul was known for wreaking havoc on the early Christian Church, arresting Christians and arranging for their deaths.

One day, on the road to Damascus, Saul sees a great light, falls to the ground and hears a voice. “Saul, Saul,” says the voice, “why are you persecuting me?” When he asks who is talking, Saul hears the shocking reply: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5).

Saul spends three days in darkness. Then his sight is restored. And his life changes.

This is a resurrection story of the best sort: A man who was waging a vendetta against Christianity embraces Jesus and is baptized in his name. That’s why the Church celebrates the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul each Jan. 25.

I can identify with pre-conversion Saul. I was born into a Catholic family and went to Catholic schools, but in a secular college I declared myself an atheist. I went on to persecute Christians in my own way. When people made jokes about believers, I joined in heartily. Later, when I taught philosophy in college, I did my best to convince my classes that God did not exist.

I was knocked off my high horse when I was in my 40s and Jesus started drawing me back to him. On a whim, I decided to read The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. I also had a mysterious sense of being “pulled” into a nearby Catholic church to pray.

In Saul’s story, Jesus doesn’t ask why Saul is persecuting Christians. Instead, he makes it personal: “Why are you persecuting me?” That question calls to mind Matthew 25, where Jesus says that, when we serve the weak ones of the world, we are serving him. Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.

On the road to Damascus, this principle is seen in reverse. Jesus implies that, when we harm people, we are hurting him.

When I was a child and the nuns told me Jesus had died for my sins, I didn’t get it. I wasn’t around when Jesus was crucified, so I had not sinned. What in the world did Sister mean? After returning to the Church, I found the answer in a book called The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God. The author, Gerald Vann, points out that Jesus suffered for all the sins of the world — past, present and future. That includes the sins that I commit each day.

All the years when I was trying to get people to leave Jesus, I was driving the nails deeper into his hands and feet. But Saul’s story reminds us that even the worst life can turn around. The man who came to be known as St. Paul describes himself as a former blasphemer. He thanks God for his mercy.

That is the heart of conversion: the moment we are knocked off our own high horse and Christ pours his mercy upon us. The moment we are willing to take the next step. Sometimes, that “moment” lasts a lifetime.

On Jan. 25 and every day after, let us pray that we will notice when Jesus tries to get our attention. Let’s pray for a deeper conversion of heart. And let’s ask, in the words of St. Paul: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”

Lorraine Murray, author of Grace Notes (Resurrection Press), can be reached at

[email protected].