This weekend, believers are blessed with two separate but complementary observances. We have the Solemnity of the Conversion of Saint Paul and the first celebration of Word of God Sunday. While distinct in themselves, the two events do have a shared message.
What is the common message between the conversion of the Apostle of the Gentiles and the faithful reading and study of the Bible?
For an answer, we can turn to the heart of the apostle himself.
Saint Paul was one of the most educated Roman Jews of his day. He was from Cilicia, in modern day Turkey, and traveled to Jerusalem to be a student of Gamaliel, the esteemed rabbi and interpreter of the ways of God. In these studies, Paul says of himself in the Letter to the Galatians, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”
In addition, Paul held Roman citizenship, something that was reserved to the wealthy and influential of his day. In fact, “Paul” was his Roman name. “Saul” was his Jewish name, a name of ancestral esteem among his fellow Benjamites in Israel.
While in the Holy City for his rabbinic studies, Paul encountered the early Christians in some form. He was appalled by their claims about Jesus of Nazareth and joined in the active persecution of the group. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul witnessed the stoning of Saint Stephen, the Christian faith’s first martyr, and sought to extend the persecution against the nascent Church. He says of himself in the Letter to the Galatians: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”
With this mission in mind, Paul went toward Damascus. On the way, however, the Lord Jesus appeared to him. He spoke simple words. He posed a question, “Why do you persecute me?”
Paul was dumbfounded and questioned, “Who are you?” In response, the Lord told him: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” From there, the Lord gives Paul directions. The future apostle is blinded in the exchange. Later, by obeying what he was told to do, Paul has his sight returned and is empowered by a new spirit with a new message. The former persecutor becomes an ardent apostle. No longer does he carry a message of violence, but rather one of love, power, and self-control.
It was the divine words spoken to Paul, and his willingness to listen and comply with such wisdom, that allowed for radical conversion and a change of heart. God spoke to Paul. Paul listened. And Paul became a new creation.
In this way, the very life of the apostle is a model for the fruitful study of the Bible. In picking up the written Word of God, believers allow God to speak to them. The Bible is a living word. It’s described as a two-edged sword that cuts to the very marrow of who we are. This was the reality for Saint Paul. Incidentally, it’s one of the reasons why the apostle is always shown with a sword. And it can also be a reality in our lives. If we allow God to speak to us, and if we choose to follow his counsel, then our lives are changed. Our worldview is turned upside down so that it can be right side up. We learn deeper lessons about love. We hear a summons to mercy and reconciliation. We feel an attraction to virtue and holiness. We desire to treat others with kindness and compassion. We find a love for the poor and forgotten.
These are the real results, the spiritual fruits, of a life lived by biblical truths.
This reality shows the interior connection between the conversion of the great apostle, a murderer-turned-martyr, and the way of life that is brought about by a life lived in communion with divine wisdom.
In our own lives, we have to decide whether we will live by our own opinions and limited knowledge, or whether we will allow ourselves to be instructed and guided by eternal wisdom. We have to conclude whether our own preferences and passions will determine our way of life, or whether selfless love, heroic kindness, and generous mercy will be allowed into our hearts and mature and direct us into a higher and more noble way of life.
Such a decision is inherent in the word of God, whenever it’s received. It changed the life of Paul. And it can change our lives too, if we let it.