24 January 2009

Feast of the Conversion of St Paul

Today (I am writing this on the eve of the 25th) is my feast day, and each year I am surprised at just how appropriate the choice has been (it was initially made in the late 1960's and I have retained it). As a convert to Catholicism, and one who first chose Paule as a confirmation name (since I was female I was not allowed to choose Paul, and added the e to get past this bit of legalism), and later, Paul Maureen as a religious name, the importance of Paul in my life has simply grown over time. When I first began studying theology I was introduced to Paul's theology of the cross, and it has never ceased to draw me in or be compelling to me. As I once said to my Bishop, if I could simply spend time on Paul's theology of the cross, growing to understand it and live it more and more, I would be completely happy. At my profession of perpetual eremitical vows I chose the Pauline saying, "My power is made perfect in weakness" (the second half of the verse beginning, "My grace is sufficient for you,") for the motto engraved on my ring, and no one who has read the vows themselves has missed the strong Pauline flavor they reflect.

Conversion is not a once and for all event, of course. Sometimes we have experiences which throw us off our proverbial horses, or leave us completely helpless and needing to be led or assisted by others. They are experiences of weakness and helplessness, and they are the first part of an experience of genuine conversion. They initiate us into a process, a lifelong process of change and growth where God is able to speak to and through us in whatever way he wishes. It is a process whereby whatever defined us as human before is reliquished for a new kind and way of being human. Paul defined his own humanity and faithfulness to God in terms of Law and covenant marked by the keeping of Law. It allowed him to persecute those he thought betrayed or differed from that vision of humanity and covenant. After his experience on the road to Damascus all this changed. Law was replaced by Gospel and a covenant marked by the external keeping of Law became instead a new way of being in Christ. Persecution gave way to proselytization, to preaching the Gospel of Christ to those once excluded from the Covenant, and covenant was no longer a matter of law but of love --- a passionate and fiery love at that.

Paul is a challenging figure. His conversion was certainly empowered by the Holy Spirit, but it was also unremittingly courageous. It extended throughout his life and was marked above all by his loyalty to the Word of God, to living it, to preaching it, to being challenged by it at every turn. For Paul, Christianity was not simply a social or cultural reality he bought into superficially. It was a reality he lived for and from, and of course, a reality he suffered and died for as well. His discipleship was genuine and profound, not some superficial and comfortable way of fitting into his world or being respectable. For Christians today, especially for first world Christians who describe their countries as "Christian" this remains an important lesson. Citizenship in the US, for instance, is not discipleship. A respectable life, whatever the country, is not necessarily discipleship. One may be completely respectable and never come close to being holy; one may follow the law assiduously and still "crucify Christ" or "stone Stephen", so to speak. My prayer on this day is that Paul may encourage us each to embrace genuine discipleship, and to submit to a process of authentic and ongoing conversion. Afterall, we say that one can live from the Word of God. We say that Christ is Lord. If we believe these things, let us live these things. We know that we are not called simply to be good citizens, but to be holy people who live from and for God IN CHRIST. May Saint Paul assist us in that.