St Paul - A Man of Reason and Knowledge
On the 29th of June every year the Catholic Church commemorates the solemnities of two formidable pillars of the nascent early Church Sts Peter and Paul. In our earlier post, I dealt with St Peter, and in this blogpost, I would like to describe St Paul briefly and compare both the Saints whose memories we celebrate together.
Unlike St Peter, St Paul was a man of his own making. We know by his own accounts in the New Testament especially from his accounts of his conversion in Acts (9:1-18; 22:3-16; 26: 4-23). These make 4 observations about his life. First, it is the God who takes the initiative. It was Jesus who knocked Paul from his horse: “I am Jesus” (Acts 9:5; 22:8; 26:15). As Augustine insisted, if we but turn to God, that itself is a gift of God. We do not choose Him; He chooses us.
Second, Paul’s response when he discovers it is Jesus who is speaking: “What shall I do, Lord” (Acts 22:10). Jesus does not tell him immediately; he tells him to go into the city, into Damascus; “There you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 22: 10; 9:6). Like Mary before the angel, Paul does not know all that the Lord’s call will ask of him; he knows only that it is the Lord who is calling.
Third, the basic call, as Ananias told it to him: “The God of our fathers appointed you to know. His will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to all men and women of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22: 14-15; cf 26:16). An apostle is a witness, and the essential task of a witness – John, Magdalene, Paul – is to testify to what he or she has seen or heard.
Fourth, a fact of Christian life is inseparable from the apostolate. The Lord said to Ananias: “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel: For I will show him how much he will suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). To turn to Jesus is to turn to a crucified Master who insisted that to follow him is to carry his cross, to save your life you must lose it.
Conversion to Contemplation The conversion of Paul? God is calling: “I am Jesus”. A total yes: “What shall I do Lord?” A mission: “you will be a witness.” Inevitable crucifixion: “I will show him how much he must suffer.”
Conversion is very important in our life and readiness to accept such moments. It is Mary’s “Whatever you wish, Lord”; it is Paul’s “What shall I do, Lord?”
Wherever we are witnesses, we are not witnesses to ourselves but for Jesus. Witnesses to “all men and women.” Witnesses of what you have seen and heard.”
Our conversion must be a continuing process on the lines of St. Paul and Peter. Not slavish imitation; only fidelity to the four facets of their experience. After conversion what remains is contemplation of the one who called for such an act.
St Peter and St Paul in comparison
1. Restless for Christ in different ways: As we see already in the lives of both these saints Peter and Paul, conversion and contemplation goes hand in hand in their lives. They falter but rise up with the spirit of Christ. Both of them are restless for Christ; both of them move out from their rigid mentality in order to embrace that which is greater and everlasting.
2. Different Roles: But both Peter and Paul came to be seen as having different roles to play within the leadership of the Church: Peter in witnessing to the Lordship of Christ and Paul in developing an understanding of its meaning for Christ's followers.
3. Humility: The greatness of St Paul, great teacher and leader as he is, recognises the primacy of Peter whole heartedly knowing fully well that Peter is the one who has to lead the disciples together. Paul’s relationship with Peter was not always confrontational. Paul, in his early Letter to the Galatians, talks about gentile converts and whether they have to follow the full rigour of Jewish Law. Peter says different things to different audiences in the hope of avoiding trouble.
4. Open to the Spirit: After his conversion experience Paul returns to Jerusalem from Damascus in order to to learn how Jesus was perceived by those who had accompanied him - the apostles. Paul feels his lost opportunity of having first hand encounters of earthly Jesus. Again, Paul seeks the endorsement of Peter and other apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church for his mission and preaching to the gentiles.
5. Confrontation to consensus: Paul attends the first summit or council called by Peter in Jerusalem to fix the problem in the early church about preaching to the pagans and disabandoning many of the Jewish customs and rituals. Paul himself was a controversial figure – his insistence that his gentile converts should not be bound by the full rigour of Jewish Law. This ignited the anger of those Jewish Christians who believed that Christianity should remain firmly rooted in Judaism. His rapidly changing companions reflect the difficulty of working with Paul. However, from this confrontation a consensus was reached, depicted by Luke in Acts in a lapidary phrase authorised by Peter and the other apostles and elders in Jerusalem which is the foundation charter of the church ‘it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …’ (Acts 15:28).
6. Authority for the service of the Word: Paul adapts himself to different contexts and circumstances in order that the Good News might be proclaimed. However, he is particular in order that God’s Word take root, nonetheless seeks the endorsement of authoritative members in the nascent Christian Church especially of Peter. Both are necessary. Those who are in the frontiers proclaiming the Gospel have the freedom to take initiatives for the sake of the Gospel, however, they have to be validated by the institution, the guardians of the tradition handed on from the apostles.
How can we turn our attention from conversion to contemplation in the world of today? First, openness to God’s voice today. You turn ceaselessly to God speaking in new ways: with your ministry, being and giving to people what Lord wants you to do, health, comfort, reconciliation, etc. We cannot run around in this world like headless chickens, cackling “Here I am, Lord.” You live in a family or community, you are a bond of disciples. The death knell of a community is the stubborn non-argument “We’ve always done it this way.” You serve a God who speaks in unexpected ways – speaks even in the least and youngest of His servants.
Second, Your response. Is it Paul’s “what shall I do, Lord?” Is it God’s will that turns you on, or your own? At times it’s not simple to say. Parents and Superiors can be wrong, and community discernment can be dreadfully undiscerning. And I – why, I can be self-centered; I too can have glaucoma – defined by Webster as “a diseased condition … marked by hardness and inelasticity…due to excessive internal pressure, causing impairment of vision or blindness.” But the sincere question is “What do you want me to do, Lord?”
Third, what sort of witness do you bear to Jesus? Only what Paul saw and heard? What the world outside these walls asks is that you attest what you have seen and heard. Have you experienced what you are proclaiming? You will move hearts only if you are yourself a sort of sacrament, an outward sign of inward grace. As in Gospel days, so now, there is one thing the Gentiles want before all else-what they asked of Philip: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” (Jn 12:21). They will see him more easily if you have seen him.
Fourth, suffering. No disciple of Christ can avoid the cross of Christ. Perhaps the fresh cross Catholic lay men and women, religious people and congregations must carry today is confusion and anxiety: confusion about our primary mission, anxiety about our continued existence. Who are we, and how long will we last? You may be asking a hermeneutical question – how to interpret your original vision. We may have to blame ourselves who make religious life unattractive – because we refuse to live the crucified Jesus? Do we deserve to die?
It is not a kind of situation of gloom that I am speaking about. It is reality of our lives today. But we need to focus our attention on our vision, the openness to the spirit and very significant stirring of grace wherever we work, converting to Christ not only others but ourselves first and always. Thus we may never cease asking of what the Hebrew Paul asked: “What do you want me to do, Lord?”
- Olvin Veigas, SJ
For more articles by the same author, visit http://celebratefaith.blogspot.com/