CONVERSION OF ST PAUL 25th January. Today is the Day
Goodness knows what the Street called Straight in Damascus is like now, but in 1987 it wasn’t all that wonderful. It’s a mile or so in length and uninteresting. A few Arab stalls selling trinkets for the tourists, Roman remains, parked cars and a general atmosphere of decay characterized the place. That was until one came upon a small whitewashed mosque at the end of the road.
On arrival an attractive Arab youth asked us if we wanted to see the chapel where St Paul regained his sight. He took us down some narrow steps into a very simple underground church. There was an altar and a few benches. But on entering we were overwhelmed and went down on our knees. The encounter with Ananias with the blind Paul has imprinted a memory in the tiny chapel. Possibly it requires a certain sensitivity in the beholder to experience such events long past. In the first century the house where Paul received his sight was at ground level. Today it is below ground owing to the debris of the years raising the level.
I thought of that wonderful passage in St Paul’s letter to 2 Corinthians
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Cor 4:6)
Those luminous words shine throughout the entire letters of St Paul reflecting his life in the the Holy Spirit that began with his conversion on the Road to Damascus.
“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.”
“Saul, Saul….”The echo of which remains with us to this day.
And then much later
“Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord–Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here–has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
The conversion is described three times in Acts reminding us that it was on the Third Day that Jesus was raised to life. Paul was three days without sight. How wonderful it is that everything ties up in God’s ways with us.
There is a remarkable similarity, a resemblance, between Paul’s conversion and the recorded visions and ecstacies of the Christian Mystics. There is the suddenness of the vision, the burning light unbearable to the eyes, the sound of a voice, the instantaneous change of a person’s nature and the dedication of his or her life to God. Above all there is the knowledge that the purely sensory limitations of the physical body had been outdistanced for a moment, just long enough to permit the visionary to know reality.
Those who have voyaged outside the small world of the senses are, strangely enough, often practical in achievement. One thinks of St Bernard, St Joan of Arc, St Catherine of Siena, St Ignatius Loyola and St Teresa of Avila.
Evelyn Underhill in her book “Mysticism” writes that many saints possess a “triumphing force” over which circumstances have no power.”