We’re almost through January, and perhaps the shiny promise of the New Year has begun to dull. Maybe we’ve already broken our most important resolution, or we’re wavering about sticking with it. Maybe we put off making any resolutions, and now we feel it’s too late for a fresh start, for making our lives happier, healthier, holier.
For me, late January and early February have often been about giving up. February has always been a particularly hard month to get through: I’m as tired of my wintry self frozen in place and unable to change as I am of the unsightly dirty gray piles of frozen snow that won’t melt.
There’s a saint who can help us with how we feel when, despite our best intentions, we seem to have messed everything up. Again. (One of the coolest things about the Church is that there’s a saint for practically everything!) Most of the time, our feast days celebrate the life of a saint. But this Monday, we will celebrate someone’s conversion. It’s the only feast of a conversion that the Church celebrates: the Conversion of Saint Paul.
What is conversion? True conversion is “a radical reorientation of our whole life,” a turning away from sin and a turning towards God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1431).
Before his conversion, Paul’s name was Saul. Saul didn’t think he needed conversion. He thought he was doing everything right: righteously chasing down the Christians and trying to be faithful to Judaism as he understood it. He was weeding out those who were teaching heresy and corrupting the true faith. He was so sure he was right, he acted in direct opposition to the wise advice of well-respected mentor, Rabbi Gamaliel.
The blaze of the light of Christ on that road to Damascus was so powerful that it knocked Saul to the ground. When Jesus spoke to him, Saul was lying on the ground flat on his back. And in those few moments, Saul’s perspective changed radically. For once, Saul was not standing up looking down on his world as someone in control. Rather, he was lying helpless on the ground, seeing everything upside down, from a very different perspective. Finally, he could begin to see the truth. And the truth was that Saul had gotten everything wrong. Trying to do God’s work, he was really persecuting those who were doing God’s work. He had approved Stephen’s martyrdom. He was an obstacle to establishing God’s kingdom on earth!
Saul should have given up at this point, right? He had not just failed, he had failed catastrophically.
But Saul didn’t give up. Because his failures—as huge as they were—were not the full truth. At the moment when he is lying helpless on his back, stunned by the magnitude of his failure and blinded by the brilliant light, Saul was finally open enough to receiving Truth Himself. At that moment, Christ revealed himself to Saul. He caught a glimpse of the full glory of Christ, of who Jesus really is. In this glimpse of Christ, Saul also received a glimpse of himself. Saul discovered that Christ loved him even in the very moment in which Saul had been most filled with hate. Not only did Christ love him with an unshakeable, unbreakable fidelity, but at this lowest moment of his life, Christ was calling him with great love and entrusting him with the mission of proclaiming Christ to others.
I like to pray with Caravaggio’s famous image of the Conversion of Saint Paul. With this painting I find it easy to put myself in Paul’s place as he has fallen to the ground, with his arms reaching up and out with intense longing. I can’t see much of his expression, although it seems Paul might already be blinded. That image of Paul’s upstretched arms says everything about my own helplessness, my overwhelming need for Christ, my reaching out to Jesus in trust.
In Paul’s greatest failure, Jesus revealed himself, revealed Paul to himself, and entrusted Paul with his mission. Our failures, too, can become an entry way for Jesus to reveal himself to us, if we, too, reach out to him with outstretched arms, in vulnerability and humility, in openness to seeing things from a new point of view—an upside-down view that is not on top of the world, but from the ground, a place that opens us to Christ’s way of seeing.
Throughout the rest of his life, Paul seemed to see everything in this new, upside-down-way, from a vulnerable, fallen-to-the-ground position rather than from a place of power or security. Throughout his letters, Paul speaks eloquently of the paradox of Christ’s life and teaching, this “upside-down-ness” of following Jesus:
- in our weakness, God is strong (2 Corinthians 12:9)
- at times when we experience hardship, distress, persecution, famine, poverty, and danger, God’s love for us in Christ makes us victors (Romans 8:35-37)
- we are to “put on” the mind of Christ, who humbled himself to save us (Philippians 2)
- in dying with Christ we rise to new life (Romans 6: 1-11)
If we have failed, if we are wavering or have already broken our most important New Year’s resolution, maybe we need to look at our failure in a different way. Instead of giving up, or rushing to scramble to our feet and deny our failure, maybe we can simply acknowledge how hard it is for us to change, and how much we need Jesus in our lives. Whether our failure is big or small, can we simply ask Jesus, “Lord, how are you speaking to me in this failure? How are you inviting me to take the next step forward?” I bet that if we are truly listening, we will find ourselves happily surprised:
* Surprised by the affirmation of his love.
* Surprised by how unimportant it is to God that we have failed. Again.
* Surprised by how God invites us to get up and move forward.
Saint Paul, you who received the mercy and love of God at the moment of your deepest failure, pray for us, that we may receive the grace to live in continual conversion!