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“What shall I do, sir?”: On the conversion of Saint Paul

On the Readings for the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

Detail from "Conversion on the Way to Damascus" (c. 1600-01) by Caravaggio (WikiArt.org)

Readings:
• Acts 22:3-16 or Acts 9:1-22
• Psa 117:1bc, 2
• Mk 16:15-18

Horse or no horse, it’s a powerful, moving story.

My pastor and I have a running joke about the conversion of St. Paul. Perhaps I should say a “galloping joke.” And, actually, it’s about a certain historical detail. Many pieces of Western art depict St. Paul as having been thrown from a horse while on the road to Damascus. But, as my pastor likes to point out, there are three accounts of that dramatic event (Acts 9:1-22; 3-16; 26:9-18), and none mention a horse.

So, was Paul actually thrown from a horse or not? That equestrian mystery might not be solved this side of heaven, but what we do know about St. Paul’s encounter with Jesus the Nazorean is, of course, far more important. And since his conversion on a dusty desert road is given three times in Scripture, we have good reason to conclude it was a significant, even monumental, event.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of St. Paul. Pope Benedict XVI, in one of his audiences dedicated to St. Paul (Oct. 25, 2006), stated that the Apostle “shines like a star of the brightest magnitude in the Church’s history …” He was brilliant and complex, always unrelenting in his desire to preach the Gospel, sometimes harsh to those needing correction (see the Epistle to the Galatians, for example), but filled with a profound and vibrant love for his fellow man.

St. John Chrysostom, in his homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, noted that while nearly all of the first converts, such as the Ethiopian eunuch, learned about Christ from the apostles, St. Paul “was drawn by no other than Christ himself, for this was too great a work for the apostles. … Like a consummate physician, Christ brought help to him, once the fever reached its height.”

That fever was the relentless rage and cold efficiency with which the young Paul—a brilliant Pharisee who was taught by the renowned rabbi Gamaliel—persecuted the first Christians, both men and women. “In zeal I persecuted the church,” he later told the Christians at Philippi (Phil. 3:6). Addressing a riotous crowd in Jerusalem, he explained how he, as a devout Jew, “was zealous for God” and that he had “persecuted this Way to death,” referring to the budding Christian movement. There was no doubt as to his credentials within Judaism. There was also no doubt that something profound had happened to him.

St. Paul was intellectually brilliant and almost ruthlessly logical, but his conversion, noted Benedict, “was not the result of a development of thought or reflection, but the fruit of divine intervention, an unforeseeable, divine grace.” Like Moses before the burning bush, St. Paul talked directly to God; like Moses on Mount Sinai, he was suddenly surrounded by brilliant, flashing light. And after the light, blindness. And after the blindness, a new light—the transforming grace of baptism.

One of the many important subjects St. Paul eventually addressed was the nature of the Church and her relationship to Christ. The basis for his insights is found in his encounter with the risen Lord. Notice that Jesus says to him, “Saul, Saul, why are persecuting me?”—not “Why are you persecuting my followers?” There is an intimate relationship between Christ and his followers, so intimate that St. Paul told the Corinthians: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

This point was not a mere theological abstraction, as the blinded Paul also learned. Without sight, he was entirely dependent on others. Needing to be healed, he is directed to Ananias, a member of the body of Christ, who lays his hands on him and says, “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me …” He was both physically and spiritually healed, filled with the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know if Paul was thrown from a horse. I know he met Jesus, and asked, “What shall I do, sir?” Yes, Lord, what would you have us do?

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the January 25, 2009 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)


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About Carl E. Olson 1179 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

14 Comments

  1. Well, it’s a long walk from Jerusalem to Damascus. Horse sense. Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me? Who are You Lord? I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. “Notice that Jesus says to him, Saul, Saul, why are persecuting me?—not Why are you persecuting my followers? There is an intimate relationship between Christ and his followers” (Olson). You singled out what I’ve considered the cause for Paul experiencing an instant epiphany, a conversion in the realization that Jesus’ identification with his persecuted disciples explained the anomaly of his suffering and Crucifixion.

  2. Good observation, Carl! I too always “assumed” he fell off a horse. That’s why it’s important to read the scriptures and not add or subtract from them.
    Adam an Eve didn’t eat an apple; Jonah wasn’t swallowed by a whale; didn’t say there was 3 wise men; Mary isn’t sinless, a mediator, assumed alive to heaven, etc.

    • Reliance on SCRIPTURE ALONE is a Protestant thing. In fact, your shot at Mary was an especially (sad) Protestant one. Why would God not chose the very best mankind had to offer to birth His Son, in the person of Mary? Why would He choose someone whose personal behavior was substandard, selfish, and overtly sinful in which to dwell for 9 months? It seems unlikely. We in the Catholic church also rely on tradition and the teachings of the church, which have been handed down over the centuries. Some of these traditions have been oral , since for most of the last 2,000 years, the bulk of mankind has been illiterate. That the stories were not written in the bible doesnt make them any less valid.The lives of the saints for example, are not written in the Bible, but the story of their lives are edifying and valuable to us in our journey as Christians.
      I enjoy reading conversion stories, and Paul’s conversion story is one of my favorites. Whether or not a horse was involved is not germaine to the point of the story as a whole. Artistic license is the term when it refers to an ARTISTIC interpretation of an event, like a painting.

  3. Thanks. It’s a thought-provoking piece on the conversion of Paul. In our part of the world, the horse is used as a special vehicle by a proud winner. In some of our remote village ceremonies, a bridegroom may mount a well decorated horse and gallop through the main street with energetic men beating the drums, playing the trumpet, and blowing the ceremonial conch shell. Young girls with festive costumes dance as part of the ritual. An accidental fall from the horse for the proud groom in front of so many well-wishers and opponents becomes food for thought and theories for days and times to come. I keep thinking of the humble fall of Paul from his proud horse.

  4. Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 inaugurated the Pauline year with the intention of promoting deeper reflection on the theological and spiritual inheritance bequeathed by Paul to the Church. In his weekly general audiences from July 2008 to February 2009 he catechised on Paul and his talks were published as twenty lectures by Our Sunday Visitor in 2009 in a booklet entitled “Saint Paul the Apostle.”
    Each lecture is about six pages long. In all of them, Benedict comes across as a teacher with a profound understanding of Paul, leading the reader with clarity through the main ideas of a thinker many find difficult to fully comprehend.
    Benedict goes to the heart of Paul’s conversion: it was not a process of development through reflection or experience; it was not a psychological event. Instead, it came from without – from an encounter with Jesus – it was a death and resurrection for Paul, which Benedict says is the key to understanding the event.
    A great teacher for a great saint. Horses for courses, you might say.

  5. In 1 Timothy St. Paul gave warnings against false teachers and false teachings. In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 he urges the faithful to stand firm and hold to the traditions that they were taught. When current day faithful Catholics say similar things they are accused of being “rigid.”

  6. Richard III, the last Plantagenet [Norman] king of England shouted out when dismounted during battle Shakespeare’s immortalized words, A horse! My kingdom for a horse! Paul destined the great apostle of Christianity, when felled from his mount [I retain the horse narrative because it makes good story] meekly queries, Lord, Who are you? Two horse debacles, two earth changing directions the latter starry, hopeful, our raison d’etre.

  7. Saul, a very religious, doctrine-abiding person, was obsessed with his aim to eliminate people of the Way – referring to the followers of Jesus – might have been travelling on a horse. The distance from Jerusalem to Damascus was over 120 miles. However, that is a moot point that has no bearing on the fact that Saul had this memorable experience. He saw a very bright light, fell to the ground, and heard Jesus speak to him. This dramatic and personal encounter with our Lord changed him – and his views – forever.

  8. Jesus Christ converted Saul to Paul Himself in a miraculous way. It is quite astounding that Ananias was called to go to Paul and heal him and baptize him and the Lord said to Ananias: “For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” which have always puzzled me that Jesus would not say: what a great preacher and evangelizer he will become. And the Lord poured torrents of sufferings on him but nothing could stop him. After the Prophet Samuel had anointed young David:
    “…from that day on, the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.” (Sam (16:13)
    And the Spirit certainly rushed upon Paul and we still draw from his wisdom and revelations. Kind of makes sense so that he had a horse being the son of a pharisee on an urgent mission.

  9. Although this is not the point of Carl’s wonderful essay, to my reading, he was not on a horse because he was, thereafter, “led by his hand” to the city. Had he been on a horse, they would have remounted him and then led his horse… My two cents.

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