What the Road to Damascus Taught St. Paul

It’s the year of St. Paul. – for those of you who aren’t aware or are not Catholic, the pope declared a year, from June 28, 2008 to June 29, 2009, to celebrate St. Paul’s unique contributions to the faith. There really is at least a year’s worth of discussion one could do just on St. Paul, without being repetitive.

I remember listening, this past November, to Bishop Loverde, the bishop of Arlington Diocese, talk on the subject of Paul (incidentally, his namesake). You can listen to the audio here, and be sure to check out a lot of other really fascinating speakers here from the same series: Theology on Tap at Pat Troy’s Irish Pub in Arlington, VA. Yes, we do like to reinforce those drunken Irish Catholic stereotypes, but seeing the crowds of young orthodox Catholics on fire for their faith can be really uplifting. Anyways, I remember thinking that a lot of the insights he was making – the role that Paul’s occupation had on his worldview, etc. – were really interesting things I never would have paid attention to. After all, the extent to which the Bible talks about Paul being a tentmaker is, well, limited (Acts 18:1-3 seems to be about all the focus given). There are other references to Paul working for a living, outside of preaching (e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:6), but I don’t think I would have noticed these things on my own.

Personally, I like to think about the role that the “road to Damascus” experience played on Paul’s particular outlook and emphasis – what St. Peter described as “the wisdom given” to “our beloved brother Paul” (2 Peter 3:15). Two things in particular seem to be unique in Paul’s message: first, his emphasis on justification by faith; and second, his view of the Church as the Body of Christ. Both of these, it seems to me, are tied to his conversion.

Acts 9:1 begins with an especially ominous image of Saul (the future St. Paul), “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” It calls to mind something from a movie, where the villan is stampin’ mad, ready to get revenge. And boy, does he ever have a plot in mind! He got permission from the high priest to take the Christians in Damascus prisoner, and drag them back to Jerusalem. Since Damascus was about 135 miles from Jerusalem, in present-day Syria, it was outside of the grasp of the opponents of Christianity, Jewish and Roman, based out of Jerusalem. By kidnapping the Christians and bringing them back, they could be tried by the Roman authorities. So Saul was something like a Boba Fett (or less gloriously, a Dog the Bounty Hunter).
And it is here, in this strangest of all places, that God calls Saul to conversion. With a flash of light heralding the Lord, Paul is knocked to the ground (whether from an animal or from his own feet, we’re never told), closes his eyes, and hears the voice of God say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul replies, “Who are you, Lord?” to which Jesus replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:4-6). It’s an incredible account.

After this, a man names Ananias (not the same one who is killed in Acts 5, obviously) comes and lays hands on Saul, filling him with the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17). According to Paul’s recounting of the event, Ananias then said to him: “The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:14-15). And so he does (Acts 9:18).

A few things strike me from this story. From a Catholic perspective, it shows that the valid laying on of hands does confer the Holy Spirit (which is important for such things as Confirmation, and is emphasized by Catholic Charismatics), and that Baptism does wash away your sins. It’s interesting here that Paul has already converted, and is even filled with the Holy Spirit prior to Baptism, and Baptism is still deemed necessary to remove his sins. Additionally, like St. Peter, St. Paul got a name change, from Saul (“prayed for”) to Paul (“small” or “humble”). While St. Peter’s name change was tied to a covenant (just like Abram/Abraham; see Matthew 16:17-19, or my earlier post on this subject), Saul earned his like Jacob, by wrestling with God.* All the praying-for done for Saul’s conversion worked, as God humbled him, and drew him into Himself. These are interesting things worth exploring, but not my focus today.

Rather, look to the fact that Paul’s experience shows the futility of salvation through works of the Law. In Philippians 3:5-6, Paul says “in zeal I persecuted the Church, in righteousness based on the Law I was blameless.” That Paul was able to persecute Christ while hewing to the letter of the Law shows the (massive) shortcomings of the Law. If Paul’s salvation were something he earned, he would be doomed for “violently persecuting God’s Church” (Galatians 1:13-14). He acknowledges that “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:9). God stepped into his life in an active way and saved him, even while Saul was zealously persecuting Him. There are many possibilities here – maybe God respected and rewarded Saul’s misplaced zeal, maybe He saw something in Saul that no one else saw, or maybe He just wanted to use Saul’s conversion as a powerful sign for the Jews (since Saul was well-regarded in their community).

In any case, this experience was the single most important event in Saul’s life, and undoubtedly influenced how he understood justification. Certainly, humbly obeying God is necessary for salvation, and nowhere does Paul refute that (he even affirms it on numerous occasions). But his own life, his conversion, stood as a powerful testament to the futility of working one’s way to Heaven, and the power and overflowing mercy of God. This is probably “the wisdom given” to which Peter refers. This justification by faith is tied to the idea of predestination: Paul says that God “set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace […] to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16), and indeed, the role of predestination in salvation is emphasized more by Paul than the other NT writers (although Jesus speaks of it as well, a fact that John often noted).

A second unique bit of wisdom that the conversion would have earned St. Paul is a unique ecclesiological, as well as a theological, understanding of Christ’s relation to His Church. When the glorifed Jesus Christ, in Heaven, says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He is saying something astonishing. How can a man persecute God in Heaven? Well, by persecuting any of “these least brothers of mine” (Matthew 25:40, 45), and by persecuting the Church. Perhaps we hear these verses so much that we gloss over them. We shouldn’t. This is a radical and unusual statement. While we can wonder at what Jesus means by “these least brothers of mine” (whether that statement includes only His followers or all His human creations), the simple fact is that God is presenting Himself in a way which contrasts sharply with that “Zeus, sovereign god” image of what a God should look like. Certainly, God has the power to unleash some mighty fury, and He does at times, but the really unique part of His persona, the surprising part which sets Christianity apart, is the opposite. The humility of God, a term which seems inappropriate to even apply to a god, is what is so overwhelming. Fr. Cantalamessa discusses this issue (the humility of God, not its relation to Paul’s conversion) in his book Sober Intoxication of the Spirit, a book of meditations that might be worth your checking out.

The ecclesiological implications of this humility are profound as well, and Paul was quick to grasp them. In Paul’s work we see a motif rarely seen elsewhere: the Church as the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 6:15, he asks, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” and seems to compare this union with Christ with sexual union (where “the two become one flesh”; see Genesis 2:23-24). He does this more directly in his epistle to the Ephesians, where he calls the relationship between Christ and the Church a “profound mystery,” (Ephesians 5:32) and says that “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies […] just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.” (Ephesians 5:28-30). This is something much more radical than membership in a group – this is a spiritual bonding of your soul to Christ.

Sometimes this “Church as the Body of Christ” motif is understood in a loose, metaphorical sense, in the way one might say that a “large body of people assembled for the March on Washington.” This, as I understand it, is what people often mean by “body of believers,” but it’s certainly not what Paul meant. Paul meant nearer the opposite: he tells us in Romans 12:4-5, “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually, parts of one another.”

He says something similar in 1 Corinthians 12:27-30, where, after employing the same image of the Church as the Body of Christ (in v. 27), he says that “Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues.” (v. 28). Paul understands the rank and hierarchy within the Church to be ordained, because “as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the Body as He intended” (v. 18). Nevertheless, just because someone is called to a more prominent place in the Church, this doesn’t make the rest of the Church more dispensible. On the contrary, he tells us that “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary,” (v. 22) and that each part needs the others (v. 21). This comports with what we learn of the role leaders in the Church should exercise elsewhere, such as the model of pastoral leadership which Jesus holds up (Himself) in John 10:11, and the washing of the feet in John 13:14-15. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that just because those in authority often fail to live up to (our understanding of) what Christ calls them to do, in the area of caring for others, they don’t cease to be validly ordained. In other words, the bad popes (or bishops, or priests, or whatnot) were still popes (or bishops, or priests, or whatnot). Hands can’t become eyes, just because they think they’d be better at being eyes than the eyes themselves are.

In other words, Paul’s understanding of the Church as Body of Christ, it isn’t just a mass of people. It’s a structured, organic being which breathes and moves together, supporting one another in their calling, and each called to something different. Let these verses serve as a call to organized Christian unity, “so that there may be no division in the body” (1 Corinthians 12:25). This unity is found in two ways. First, in the Eucharist – “because there is one Loaf, we, who are many, are one Body, for we all partake of the one Loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:17). Note the cause-and-effect: we don’t just share the Eucharist because we are one, we are one because we share the Eucharist. For this reason, I thank God for Can. 844 §3 of the Catholic Code of Canon Law: “Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed.” If anything can draw the two halves of the Church back together, it’s Christ, who says of the Eucharist as Paul says of the Church, “This is My Body” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24; notice the way in 1 Corinthians that Paul weaves his Eucharistic and eclessiological discourses together in this way, particularly in chapters 10-12, where he uses the Eucharist and oneness of Christ’s Body to curb the disunion festering in the church in Corinth). The second, and related, source of unity is through Christ’s leadership. For Christ is the Head of the Body, the Church (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 5:23). Faithfully humbling ourselves to Christ is a precursor to Christian unity.

Finally, Paul identifies the Church as the very purpose behind Christ’s mission: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25-27). What an incredible statement, and what a clear result from Paul’s learning the hard way that persecuting the Church is persecuting Christ. If your understanding of your relationship to Christ isn’t tied to your understanding of your relationship to the Church, perhaps you should meditate more on Paul’s words on the Body.

It is for this Church that Christ prays His high-priestly prayer in John 17. I think He speaks for Himself quite well, so I will note only one thing briefly. There are those, particularly of the dispensationalist leaning, who acknowledge the Catholic Church as the original Church, but say that God willed to divide it later in history, as He did Israel. Draw your attention to the forward-looking nature of the prayer: Christ, God Himself, is praying against disunion, and not just for the present Apostolic age, but for “those who will believe in Me through their message,” which I think includes all of us. That said, read what the Head wishes for His Body:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message , that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23).

*I think I’m going to address the Christological aspects of this tomorrow, because Genesis 32 is rich in prophetic undertones. I’ll probably do a post talking about typologies – Old Testament prefigurements of New Testament realities.


  1. Good post.

    A few weeks ago, at a mass honoring St Paul, the reading of the paralytic was read. I couldn’t help but think that Paul was very much like the paralytic with regard to the faith. If I had to guess, I’d say that the people who prayed for Paul were the same people that he killed earlier on. That the prayers were efficatious I think is evidence of Paul’s disposition. In orther words, God doesn’t justify people whom he doesn’t think it will work in. Neither are Apostles sent to just anyone.

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