The Rev’d Canon Robert D. Crouse
“I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” –Galatians 2:20
The Festival we keep today is not a very ancient one. The early Church observed a day in honour of the martyrdom in Rome of the chief apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, and we still keep that festival at the end of June. But this festival of St. Paul’s conversion belongs to the Western Church alone, and began to be generally observed only in the twelfth century. Thus is it one of the many medieval accretions which so splendidly adorn our liturgy. It was introduced in the twelfth century—just at the point at which European Christians began to become deeply conscious of the historical dimensions of the Church’s life.
And what more dramatic moment could the historian fix upon than the conversion of the Apostle to the Gentiles? One can think, of course, of other spectacular conversions of vast historical consequence, the conversion of the Emperor Constantine at the Milvian Bridge, the conversion of St. Augustine in the garden near Milan, and so on. But all of these others hinge upon and depend so much upon the conversion on the Damascus Road. St. Paul was in some sense the father of the Gentile Church, and, in that same sense, the day of his conversion was its birthday. It was he above all others, “in labour more abundant than they all” who was the preacher of the Gospel to the world of Greece and Rome.
St. Paul has, of course, been blamed for much which certain critics have found offensive in the historical development of the Church. Those, for instance, who deplored the “Hellenization” of the Gospel, traced the responsibility for it back to St. Paul, who in his speech on Mars Hill had told the Athenians that he declared to them a God whom already, though ignorantly, they worshipped. Other critics, offended by what they regarded as excesses of Reformation theology, discovered the inspiration of it in what they considered extravagant Pauline language about “salvation by faith alone”. In general, he has been blamed for corrupting with a mystical theology the original simple Gospel of the Jewish ethical preacher from Nazareth. He has been blamed for both Protestantism and Catholicism and perhaps we Anglicans can blame him for a combination of the two. But the fact remains that the letters of St. Paul are our earliest recorded witness to the Gospel, and I’m afraid that efforts to discover a more primitive “simpler” form of faith behind the Pauline complications have not shown much promise of success.
But it is the conversion of St. Paul that must concern us now, and what are we to make of that? The blinding light on the Damascus road, and the voice that cried, for the hearing of Saul alone, “Saul, Saul why persecutest thou me?” –and Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the infant Church, became the Apostle Paul. No doubt, such a bare description of the incident leaves us dissatisfied; we’d like to probe the matter and say, in other terms, what really happened. But I think that Pieter Bruegel gets it right, in his great painting of this subject. Perhaps you remember Bruegel’s peculiar habit of placing the real subject of his painting, not in the foreground or the centre, but in some remote corner of his canvas, to which the eyes of the viewer is eventually and inevitably drawn. In his painting of St. Paul’s conversion, there is at the back of the picture a mountain pass, at which a procession of men and horses has been halted in disarray. Some astonishing accident has taken place, but we can’t see exactly what it is. That seems to me just right. The conversion of St. Paul was fundamentally an inner thing, an event which can’t be seen in itself, but only in its effects; it was the conversion of a soul.
St. Paul himself regarded it as a meeting with the Risen Christ, who appeared, he says, “to me also, as to one born out of due time”, and thus he saw his vocation and apostleship; that is to say, as witness to the Resurrection, as witness to the living Christ. “I live,” he says, “yet not I, but Christ in me”. And we can hardly improve upon that as a description of conversion, because conversion is not fundamentally a matter of blinding lights and secret voices, but a matter of a new integration of personality around a new centre, a new focus of insight and energies. “I live, yet not I, but Christ in me”. It is death to an old life and resurrection to the new.
Much can be said and is said—endlessly, ad nauseam, about the ‘experience’ of conversion, as though conversion were some sort of emotional orgasm. But high emotional temperature is no clear symptom of conversion. Conversion is, of course, experienced and it does inevitably involve revision of one’s feelings, sometimes a revision long drawn out and painful, as one sees with St. Augustine. But that is not the fundamental point. What is fundamental is that one’s whole understanding and will be united in one principle understood and willed as altogether true and good. “I live, yet not I, but Christ in me.” It is not a feeling; it is insight and vocation, “casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” [2 Cor. 16.5].
What we celebrate today is the conversion of a soul, to find its life, its truth and its good in its living Lord; and as we do so, let us be mindful, with St. Paul himself, of the broad dimensions of that conversion; it means not just the conversion of the soul itself but the vocation of conversion—the conversion of the Gentiles, the conversion of our social life to find the principle of that life in charity of God; and indeed, the conversion of the whole creation which “groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now”, awaiting its redemption.
Conversion means the tuning and the forming of all existence towards its centre, source and end in God. And the best of all acts and symbols of conversion is this very sacrament we celebrate, this sacrament of death and resurrection; this sacrament wherein Christ offers death and resurrection. We offer earthly life in bread and wine, and here by the word of God, they are converted—they are transformed—to be to us the life of God himself, that we may dwell in him and he in us. “I live, yet not I, but Christ in me.”
Printed with the permission of the Elliott House of Studies, Savannah, Georgia