Today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul--a special feast for my congregation, the Daughters of St. Paul.
One thing that I discovered when I first “hung out” with the sisters before entering the convent is that sisters know how to celebrate. Our parties are usually very simple, and I suspect the joyfulness in our celebrations is simply an overflow of the joy of following Christ, but we really do know how to have fun together. So today is a special day for us!
But today has extra meaning for me as a feast day—it’s really a triple feast! In addition to St. Paul being patron of my congregation, he is also a beloved personal patron. And thirdly, a successful conversion to Christ is always something to celebrate. (As far as I’m aware, this is the only conversion of a saint that the Church actually dedicates a day to.) So, this feast of Saint Paul’s conversion is really a feast for all of us to celebrate, since all of us are in need of conversion.
The further I travel on my spiritual journey, the more aware I become of the importance of ongoing conversion in my life. I used to think about all the things I needed to convert from: self-centeredness, attachment to my own opinions, etc. And these are important, but not the most important aspect of conversion. Through his letters, Saint Paul has helped me to understand that my greater need for conversion is to convert to Christ. The difference between the two? The first and perhaps more common understanding of conversion focuses on my need to change. The second understanding shifts my focus off myself onto Christ and my relationship with him.
Christ is the focus of Saint Paul’s letters. I suspect that Saint Paul’s entire life was shaped by this vision or revelation of Christ, even though he never describes that moment in his letters, but refers to it indirectly:
“For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:5-6).”
It is the Acts of the Apostles that gives us several accounts of St. Paul’s compelling story. An image that many people traditionally associate with St. Paul's conversion is Caravaggio's "The Conversion of St. Paul," painted around 1600. Caravaggio reinforced this idea of conversion to Christ in the way he depicted the moment. Saint Paul, who has just fallen to the ground and lies there flat on his back, stretches his arms upwards. In her book, Facing the Apostle: Paul's Image in Art, Sr. Armanda Santos, fsp, describes it this way: "Saul's arms form a half-circle as they strain upward to grasp, to welcome, and to embrace Someone invisible to us but very present to him" (p. 10).
For a long time now, I’ve wanted to see the face that Saint Paul saw.
My desire to "see" the face of Jesus has become a theme throughout my spiritual journey: not so much seeing what Jesus physically looks like, but more about knowing him always better, following him more closely, and falling in love with him always more completely. Those outstretched, urgently-reaching arms of Paul in Caravaggio's painting are a wonderful visual image of my journey of ongoing conversion, of truly seeking the Lord. What visual image would represent your spiritual journey up to this point?
Today, I hope you share in our feast day celebration by taking just a few minutes to reflect on Caravaggio’s painting, or to re-read the account of St. Paul’s Conversion in Acts 9:1-21, so that you can discover for yourself how Jesus invites you today to a deeper conversion, to shift your gaze to him.
Happy Feast Day!
Sr. Marie Paul Curley, FSP