19 June 2009

We are all in need of conversion - via head and heart

Ananias Restores the Sight of Paul, Jean Restout II, 1719.
Acts 9:10-19 and 22:10-16.

The Year for Priests begins today, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and will continue until the same feast next year. It briefly coincides with the Year of St Paul, which began on the somentiy of Sts Peter and Paul last year, and ends on the same day htis year, 29 June.

I must confess that the Year of St Paul didn't impinge on my life too much though I hope that the Year for Priests will be one with which I will be fully engaged. I was happy to discover that I wasn't the only one not to have paid too much special attention to St Paul. Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, in his weekly column in the Catholic Sentinel, a column I get by email every week, acknowledges the same. However, he makes up for it with a very fine column, We are all in need of conversion - via head and heart.

BEND — This past year has been dedicated by the Holy Father as the Year of Saint Paul. I must acknowledge that I have been most negligent in not focusing on this theme more effectively throughout this year. I do know that there has been a significant amount of “Pauline” activity in the diocese in response to this theme and I commend the pastors and directors of religious education for their efforts in bringing Saint Paul, his life and his writings into clearer view this year. Before this year comes to a conclusion on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, I want to offer a few reflections on the Conversion of Saul.

We know well that Saul was blinded by a bright light as he was on his way to Damascus to arrest disciples of Jesus, known as followers of the Way. At the same time he heard a voice which asked why he was persecuting the speaker. In response to Saul’s question about who was speaking, he heard: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Then he was given instructions about what to do next. Someone else was also given instructions. A message came to Ananias, a follower of the Way in Damascus, who was very likely one of those whom Saul would have arrested and brought back to Jerusalem in chains. He was instructed to go to Saul and lay hands on him. Ananias shows his humanity by questioning the wisdom of such an action. He informs the Lord in his vision that Saul was the one who was persecuting the Church, as if the Lord did not already know this. So the Lord instructs Ananias that Saul was to be his chosen instrument. Imagine the faith, the charity, the forgiveness, the courage it would have taken for Ananias to approach this powerful, murderous man with a message of healing. But Ananias went because he had been sent.

What I find to be absolutely remarkable is the manner of approach taken by Ananias. We know that Ananias must have gone to the house on Straight Street with a bit of reluctance and trepidation and yet when he comes to that house he greets Saul saying, “Saul, my brother.” He does not come to him and say, “Saul, you murderous so-and-so ...” but rather “my brother.” I believe this welcome word has a profound effect upon Saul. During his days of blindness Saul had to be puzzling about many things, particularly his own previous blindness and his past excessive self-righteousness. He had to be asking himself how he could have been so sure of his theological positions just a few days ago and so confused now. He had to have had some fear that those whom he was intent upon arresting, and in whose complete power he now was, could easily do him great harm. Thus, to be received by a representative of the Christian community, a follower of the Way, with these welcoming words, without any indication of repentance on his part, had to have been a most powerful experience of mercy, acceptance and forgiveness. Simply, Saul, my brother.

It is important also to evaluate Saul’s blind passion against the Way. He approached the task of ridding adherents to the Way from the face of the earth with a raging, fuming anger muttering murderous threats. Why? Certainly there is pride but pride usually generates a different kind of hatred. The hatred of pride is more usually a cold disdain. There is a possibility of envy but Saul does not seem at all envious of those who were rejoicing in the Way. The passion that seems to explain Saul’s actions is fear. He sees in the Way the possibility that his world will be turned upside down and he happens to like his world very much. There was a strong possibility that he would be a great leader among the Jews. He was already endearing himself to the chief priests and there was promise of great religious fame. The adherents to the Way showed every sign that they were going to interfere with his plans for the future, interfere with his life, interfere with a promising career, disrupt his world. His fear, it seems to me, is not dissimilar from the fear expressed in our secular society. The degree of raging, vituperative anger expressed against the teachings of the Church, particularly relative to abortion and homosexuality, is a sign of this same fear. Being greeted in the midst of that confusion with the consoling and welcoming title of brother dissipates a lot of fear. Saul, my brother.

I see in Saul’s conversion a two-fold movement. He is moved by the theological consideration, presented to him in most dramatic fashion, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” This is material for thought, for the head. This is something with which Saul would have been very familiar and even comfortable. This is perhaps likened to pure catechesis. But Saul is also moved by the fraternal, communal consideration, “Saul, my brother.” This is an experience of community and fraternity which touches his heart. It is in this context that Saul can make a personal application of what he had heard on the road to Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” because it is now linked with, “Saul, my brother.” In being addressed by Ananias, a member of the Way, in this familiar, warm and accepting fashion he must have heard, “Saul, my brother, why are you persecuting me?”

Saul needed conversion. He was absolutely, unshakably certain that he was seeing matters clearly. He was certain that he was just and righteous. He categorically refused to call his view of the matter into question. He was incapable of asking himself, “What if I am wrong?” After meeting with Ananias he must have asked himself, “What was it in me that precluded me from seeing before what I see so clearly now?” Conversion entails both head and heart.

We are all in need of ongoing, even Pauline, conversion. Perhaps the issue is abortion or contraception or homosexuality or immigration or fidelity or alcohol abuse or pornography or physical abuse or liturgical renewal or Mass attendance or drugs or promiscuity or self righteousness or harboring resentments or a host of other possibilities.

Saul, Saul, my brother, why do you reject and oppose the teachings of the Church in these areas? Why do you persecute me?

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