Friday, January 25, 2008

English Teacher meets Priest: Reflecting on the Conversion Story of Saul, aka. "St. Paul"

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. And whether you believe in saints, are Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, or straight-out-atheist, there is a story here that is worthy of a bit of examination. As a former English teacher, I find it fascinating. As a woman who has felt at times called to be a priest, I am moved by this text. As a human, trying to make her way on the planet, it sort of inspires me. I offer my two cents from these many perspectives, and with many emotions and questions compelling me to write.

Saul is a bad-mother-fucker, to put it bluntly. He is kicking people's asses; Christian's asses to be precise. Rounding them up, putting them in chains, "taking care of," what he feels is, "his business." And for some reason, he has been compelled to lock up the Christ-loving folks. (The psychological motivation of that - in and of itself - just fascinates me. "Why fear the Christians? What was happening that they needed to be locked up? Why was Saul on fire about doing this himself? Did he know any Christians? Did they threaten him? Hurt him somehow?" I wonder how he compares to others who hate Muslims, or Jews? Could we compare Saul with a member of the Al-qaeda? How about juxtaposing Hitler with Saul? Are there fair comparisons between one who fears and persecutes Christians, with another who fears and persecutes people with different skin pigmentation, or sexual orientation? hmmm...)

I suppose as a former English teacher, that's the character-analysis side of me kicking in, wanting to ask questions and dig in to motivation, exploring a figure's passion, drive, their compelling reasons for doing what they do. It's also my political/ analytical/ social-justice motivated mind.

And then I ask: "Does Saul even know why he does what he does?"
Yeah, that's a question I can ask about him, as well as hosts of other figures that show up in literature, in history, in our present-day churches and leadership.

But back to the plot of this story.

Saul is on the road to Damascus, going about his business, and has this crazy experience. A big light shows up, he hears a loud voice, and he falls off his donkey. (Actually, the text version I have doesn't say this exactly. It just says he "falls to the ground." For dramatic effect, I see him falling off his donkey. He's like Rumi meeting Shams: leveled to the earth, on his butt.) It is in this falling to the ground business that I am smacked square in my own chest.


To be leveled? To be knocked down!? To be hit so strongly, by anything - whether it be light, a voice, a bat, a bomb, love -- it's a physical, visceral experience, that not only stops you in your tracks. It alters your very stance and manner of being for a moment. Everything shifts. You have no choice in the matter. You have been struck down. Leveled. And you have to re-evaluate your position in perhaps not only the world, but at least in your immediate circumstances.

This moment in the tale of Saul always gives me pause. I want to know what it felt like. If I'm there, while he's re-telling the story, and I get to ask him questions, they go something like this:
"Did the wind get knocked out of you?"
"Where did the light come from?"
"Was it like lightening? Or a star exploding?" "Or a car bomb going off?" Was there dust or any quaking in the ground?
What did your friends say?"
"How come they didn't fall down, too?"
"Did it hurt?"
"What's it like to be blinded by the light?"
("Have you ever heard of Manfred Man?" )

In the story then, he hears the voice of God. No. Correction, the voice of Jesus. And again, whether you believe in "Christ as Savior," "Son of God," "Lord" or not, this point of action is fantastic beyond fantastic. It's where, as listeners, we are invited into the supernatural, right?

We could interview Saul from doubtful space, or a faithful stance, and the questions are similar:
"What did the voice sound like? Did it freak you out? Did anyone else hear it? Do you hear voices often? Have you been examined by a doctor recently? Has anyone told you, you are crazy? Was the voice deep, or screechy? Were you afraid? What did you feel like at that moment?"

The business of the supernatural is vital here, for the faithful reader or the inspired agnostic or the amused lit buff. All must make a choice, if he or she is going to fully "get" the tale. As readers we ask ourselves: Do I buy this notion of an invisible, or light-filled presence speaking? Can I appreciate the tale, otherwise? Have I myself ever encountered the inexplicable? The unreasonable? What happens if I just go with the fact that Saul said it happened, and believe him? What else could account for what happened to him? And: what else might account for what happens next?

Because what happens next: is Saul is changed. He is transformed. Blinded, he must be lead to Damascus. Blinded, he is no longer in charge. He heard something, he saw something, and then everything changed. He lost all of his power. All that was familiar is suddenly foreign. Knocked down, reprimanded by this Jesus fellow, he is now being lead to the place where he had plans to persecute the friends of this Jesus fellow.

And he has a choice to make.
"Do I heed this guy's words? Or do I clobber and rail away on these folks that follow Christ?"
The scripture reading doesn't take us into what was transpiring in Saul's mind at the time. But as a contemplative, as a teacher, as a reader, I like to go there. I like to wonder:
"What if it were me? What if I was knocked on my ass, and heard some voice telling me to do something: To alter my whole life and mission? What if I lost my ability to see? Who would I trust? What would I trust? Could I count on my own faculties or own manner of discerning or decision-making? In other words, 'Could I trust myself?' Where am I leaning? What things would I want to weigh in those moments?"

And then Ananias shows up. Ananias, as the tale goes, is the Divinely-appointed Healer of Saul, who restores his vision, and offers him forgiveness. As he states:

Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came,
that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit."

And then reveals his next plan and purpose:

'The God of our ancestors designated you to know his will,
to see the Righteous One, and to hear the sound of his voice;
for you will be his witness before all
to what you have seen and heard.
Now, why delay?
Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away,
calling upon his name.'"
I think at this point, all I can say, as reader, reflector, wondering-wandering woman:
Where is my Ananias? or How many times has Ananias showed up in my life and taken off my blinders, or revealed my next steps? Do I delay? What is this baptism business? What is necessary for me to inch forward in my own journey? Can a conversion tale help me on my own path? Could God be real and talking to me?


No answers, just living in the questions!

Peace, Love, Happy Contemplating!


Reading 1
Acts 22:5-16
"On that journey as I drew near to Damascus,
about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me.
I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me,
'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?'
I replied, 'Who are you, sir?'
And he said to me,
'I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.'
My companions saw the light
but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
I asked, 'What shall I do, sir?'
The Lord answered me, 'Get up and go into Damascus,
and there you will be told about everything
appointed for you to do.'
Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light,
I was led by hand by my companions and entered Damascus.

"A certain Ananias, a devout observer of the law,
and highly spoken of by all the Jews who lived there,
came to me and stood there and said,
'Saul, my brother, regain your sight.'
And at that very moment I regained my sight and saw him.
Then he said,
'The God of our ancestors designated you to know his will,
to see the Righteous One, and to hear the sound of his voice;
for you will be his witness before all
to what you have seen and heard.
Now, why delay?
Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away,
calling upon his name.'"

1 comment:

Daniel Kerkhoff said...

Hey Melissa, thanks for your e-mails and blog.

I often turn to Pema Chodron's book, When Things Fall Apart, and she talks a lot about what you were saying regarding Saul's "Falling Down".

In that book, she says that when that rug is pulled up from under you and you become disoriented, that this is the very place that learning can take place, that a change or transformation can occur. The point she makes is to just stay in this place because most of the time all we want to do is run away from this "place" of falling down. Very similar to Saul's experience maybe. Thanks again!

--Daniel on the comparative Literature side.

Also, your housing/cleaning experience has made me think of the concept of MU, the nothingness experience in buddhism. When the glass is empty, it can be filled. VESSELS