“GALILEE OR DAMASCUS?” (Acts 9:1-22): 25 January 2008 (Conversion of St. Paul, Friday)
Today we remember the conversion of St. Paul, one of the greatest and most zealous missionaries in all of Christian history. Before his conversion, Paul was Saul, a typical “bad guy.” He was a strict Pharisee, belonging to that class of Jews known for its excessive allergy to all things unclean and impure. And what could be more impure to Judaism than this new sect that threatened to break away? The first time we encounter his name in the New Testament is at the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the Church. After that, he came to be known as one of the fiercest persecutors of the early Christian Church. Small wonder that Saul was hated as much as he was feared.
Great conversions happen to great sinners, and nothing can be more dramatic than the story of his conversion. As the readings tell us, Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest some Christians when he experienced his conversion. On that road to Damascus, a blinding flash of light knocked him off his horse. He fell to the ground stunned, and then he heard the voice of the Risen Lord asking him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
That episode changed him forever. It also forever changed the history of the Christian Church. We know the rest of the story. Picking himself up from that road, Saul eventually changed his name to Paul, an act symbolic of the transformation in his heart. Today we know him as the “great missionary to the Gentiles,” for it was he, more than any other individual at that time, who brought the Gospel to the rest of the Mediterranean world—even if it meant for him frequent imprisonment and persecution and great, great suffering.
There are usually two ways by which our Lord moves and acts in our lives. The first of these ways is the more usual way by which our Lord makes himself known to us: We can call this the Way of Galilee. Recall that Galilee is the place where the first disciples were called. Our Lord was walking by the Sea of Galilee, and there he appeared to chance upon the fishermen in the midst of their work. It was there that he quietly and simply extended his invitation to them: “Come, follow me.”Upon hearing his invitation, the disciples found themselves leaving their nets and boats behind to follow Jesus.
The Way of Galilee is the less dramatic and the more frequent manner by which our Lord calls his disciples. The invitation is often subtle, and we’re not sure if we heard the invitation right or if we even heard an invitation. But if we gather enough courage, and if we dare to take risks and follow, the reward for saying “yes” to that invitation is a quiet and ever-deepening peace.
But there is one other way by which our Lord calls us, and it is this way that he uses for Paul.This second way is far less quiet and far more dramatic. Our Lord also uses this way far less frequently; it is usually reserved only for those whose hearts have grown a little bit more stubborn.We can call this the Way of Damascus. Here our Lord drops any pretense at subtlety. In fact, at times, he might even resort to his entire repertoire of special effects just to get our attention. In the Way of Damascus, our Lord does everything to shake us up, even knocking us off our horse—or whatever else it is that we’re striding at the moment—just to jolt us and wake us up. And his voice does not tell us, “Come, follow me,” as he does the first disciples in Galilee. Rather, his voice questions us, even accuses us: “Why? Why do you persecute me?” And as in the experience of Paul, he is referring not so much to himself, but to the least of our brothers and sisters whom Christ has made his special dwelling place.
Unfortunately, it isn’t too often that our Lord resorts to the Way of Damascus. Usually, he prefers the more quiet and more subtle Way of Galilee to call upon us, to attract us to follow him. Yet whatever way he chooses to use for us in our lives—be it the Way of Galilee or the Way of Damascus, one thing is constant: We are still never too certain if it is the Lord. For this reason, we are still always free to say “yes” or “no.” Just as much as the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee could have gone on their merry way mending their nets, Saul could have just as easily dismissed his experience on the road to Damascus as just another accident and the voice he heard as the result of a bad hang-over.
And so when it comes to hearing the Lord’s call, we never know for sure. There will never be enough reason or proof that will convince us that it is in fact the Lord’s voice we’re hearing, just as there will never be enough reason or proof to persuade us that it is not. For this reason, faith and discipleship will always remain a free choice. And so, the next time you bump into the Lord or the next time he bumps you off, whether it is by the Sea of of Galilee or on the road to Damascus, remember that you will only discover if it is indeed the Lord if you freely decide to get up and follow what might be his voice. We always know only after the fact—if we somehow gather enough courage, enough strength, and enough daring to shed our old selves and leave our lives behind—nets, boats, horses, and all those many little things on which we base our self-esteem.
(image: Caravaggio’s “The Conversion of St. Paul”)
Here’s a Quick Question for you: “Has it been Galilee or Damascus for you?” Think about it, share a thought, a feeling, or a question.