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Monday, January 25, 2010

The Conversion Was Not the Call of St. Paul the Apostle

Today, the Apostle Paul himself tells us of his conversion, and the story is well known. There is a reason, though, that we celebrate it not as the Call of St. Paul, but rather his Conversion. I think that the reality is that the Call of the Apostle Paul happened many years prior, when he was still a young man.

A few months ago it was my privilege to attend a conference in which a priest offered a possible link between the man who went away sad and our beloved St. Paul.  In my opinion, this link is worth considering and I have pondered it often, for there is a great deal of truth in the idea, including something of human psychology we can observe in people around us who have missed their calling or have outright rejected Christ.

Let us review the relevant passages to this meditation:

17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: 'You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.'" 20 He replied and said to him, "Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth." 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, "You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to (the) poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 22 At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Now let us look to today's Feast and read part of what Paul has to say about his conversion in

“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.’

Do you see the link between the two?

The priest who made this connection advanced it carefully, not to be considered dogma but rather for a point of meditation. If you have not guessed, he advanced the idea that the young man who approached Jesus asking, "What must I do?" was Saul who became St. Paul the Apostle.

In that young man of the reading from Mark's gospel,  the priest saw Saul, who we know to have been a Pharisee, a privileged man, one who persecuted the Christians without mercy.  In the first passage from Mark, we observe a young man who is struck to his very being by what Jesus is saying, so much so that he RUNS to Him, falls on his very knees and asks what he can DO!

How does Jesus respond?  First he asks Saul to go deeper into the mystery.  He asks him, "Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone!"

In this question, imagine Jesus looking into Saul's eyes, perhaps putting His hand on Saul's shoulder to emphasize His words and express His goodwill.  "Why do YOU call ME 'good'?  NO one is 'good' but GOD ALONE'."   Jesus does not break eye contact.  He is asking Saul to go deeper into himself, and into HIM to see the Truth of His very being...and what He is really asking.

Imagine a moment of silence as Saul ponders this question. "What does Jesus mean?  What is he saying?  Is he...claiming what I THINK he is?  That HE is....GOD?!!!!!??????"

Jesus emphasizes the Ten Commandments...the Law of God HIMSELF.  It is God HIMSELF speaking here, the Word Incarnate giving spoken expression the Word that is HIM.

Saul has broken eye contact. He looks away and in meeting the gaze of Jesus again, he sees everything...he recognizes who he is in the face of God, who LOVES him.  God LOVES Saul, but still tells him what he is lacking...he is not free to follow Him. He must purge himself of his worldly attachments, give to the poor...and follow.

That's where Saul goes away sad. 

So often this scripture is interpreted in a way not supported by scripture itself.  I've heard many homilies and lectures giving rise to the idea that the young man went away sad because he didn't want to part with his belongings.  Maybe that's true, but where in scripture is that verified as reality?  I pondered this myself  years ago when teaching RCIA, and in light of what Father said, I ponder it even more.  It seems that the man who went away sad isn't actually the end of the story.

 It makes sense that we consider this testimony in the light of Paul's Conversion...and Apostleship.

Look seriously at and ponder the story the Apostle Paul tells us today. If we can assume the negative about the Gospel of Mark, can we not ponder it in light of Paul's testimony in ACTS?    What did he do?  He HEARD a voice...a voice he recognized especially when Christ Himself spoke.  The conversation is almost an echo of the first!.

 Saul has matured and asks, "Who ARE you?"

Jesus simply identifies Himself, knowing Saul will remember and BELIEVES that only God alone is Good.

Saul doesn't question the identification.  This good Pharisee who questions EVERYTHING and is ready to kill on contact lies there on the ground and recognizes the voice of the Good Teacher from his youth.  This time, instead of asking, "What must I do to inherit eternal life" he asks a more open-ended question, "What shall I do?"

Jesus, instead of giving him an open ended answer, gives him one far more specific...and tells him where to go, and to whom.

Saul goes.

The young man, maybe Saul, went away sad. He had many possessions.  Perhaps he was prideful and expected to be told how wonderful and holy he was.  Perhaps he expected the Teacher to  hold him up as a perfect example.  Perhaps it was a moment of humility that made him approach with such zeal,  but upon learning that the greatest possession he had, himself, was what he had to give up, he went away knowing he could not do so.

He is the epitome of the sin of Adam, juxtaposed with the New Adam

He goes away, and considers all he has, and most importantly, that he is being asked to die to himself.  In order to follow Christ, he has to give up EVERYTHING, perhaps not understanding that Jesus is the fulfillment of every belief he has ever held, and that his people have ever held.

Saul struggles and succumbs to the world and his own will, which, as St. Francis de Sales calls it, his self-love.   He becomes angry, and when his life doesn't pan out as he thinks it should, he becomes bitter. He recalls that intimate moment with Christ, where he knelt at His knee, made eye contact, and recognized...the Call.  Which he rejected.

Saul, in his battle with himself, expresses it as a battle towards the early Christians.  He persecutes them mercilessly. Instead of attacking his own sin, his own faults, he puts to death those who reveal the Truth Incarnate, the real love of Christ that would not abandon him to his own disorder, his own superficiality, but would call him out of it for the benefit of eternity.

Because he rejected such a gift, he must try to destroy it, knowing all the while that this war is futile...and it makes him that much more furious in his persecution.

It all makes sense. The Young Man is the Apostle Paul.

We who struggle to know our Vocation, especially we who are so LATE can find a friend in the Apostle Paul through this particular meditation.  Maybe we identify with an earlier Call...and we went away sad. Maybe we didn't trust, maybe we were hindered in some other way. Maybe it had nothing to do with us, but with legitimate worldly and holy obligations.

But we can't look at it without looking honestly at ourselves, considering our own unholy flaws.  I can see it clearly now that it  has been pointed out. I can understand some of my own anger and rejection of Our Lord over the years in light of this, and can more clearly understand others, even those who claim to be Catholic, who spout off so publicly in anger at Jesus, Christianity, and the Church.

I wonder if maybe they recognize that once they were LOVED...but either that love was distorted or because of their own Pride, they chose to run away...and try to kill that which loves them the most in hopes they will eliminate that terrible ache within that calls them onward..towards Christ.

It's easier to attack than it is to succumb to the sacrificial love of Christ. I know this from experience. And it's easier to run away.  

Maybe we can give up things, but are we ready to give up OURSELVES, to lose our own lives in order to partake in the life of Christ?  Are we willing to forego those things we "love" because we love God more?

Or will we reject a Call we sincerely hear, in favor of a few trivialities such as social status or education or...simple,

Maybe the reason Saul was angry was because he rejected Christ and instead of pursuing him, focused on a lost Vocation he would prefer to destroy rather than pursue.  Maybe some of us who are miserable are clinging to who we think we are instead of accepting that we are to become who God created us to BE.

The good news is this:  maybe the Young Man came BACK...and leads us all still today.  Perhaps we who think it is too late, can find, in the Apostle Paul, a Patron Saint for Late and Lost Vocations.  Perhaps if anyone can is him.

St. Paul the Apostle...pray for us! 


sandy said...

Thanks for this post.I have often wondered what happenned to that young man from the Gospel,and how he fared in later life.The idea that he might have been St Paul is fascinating!

Adoro said...

Sandy ~ Me, too, and I linked above to my own musings on this and an old RCIA talk I gave on it. All well within Catholic teaching.

But this idea really struck me and has given me MUCH food for thought!

tomschulzte said...

This is a nice meditation indeed, one that offers much food for thought. It is quite misleading however, to make this connection with any amount of veracity.
St. Paul never claims to have met Jesus while he was on earth. He always refers to his conversion story. Being a man given to making authenticity claims of his apostleship, he would surely have mentioned in his letters if he actually met Jesus as a rich young man.
There are many other reasons why St. Paul cannot be the rich young man, but it is not important to list them all here.
Again, I do think that the comparison makes for a nice spiritual meditation, but that's about it.

Adoro said...

Tom ~ Thanks for your comment. to be clear, I am not advancing this as Biblical scholarship, but only for meditation.

However, if you want to talk Biblical scholarship, you are trying to make an argument from silence, which simply isn't logical. Whether Paul was that rich young man or not really doesn't affect his ministry or what he was called by God to do. If he didn't mention it or write of it, that doesn't mean he's NOT the rich young man.

So really, it would be misleading for someone to try to argue this from the other side as well.

Simply put, scripture doesn't support either position, nor do I intend to belabor any points about it.

Again, I WROTE this as a meditation that came from an idea advanced by a very good priest, who himself stated that it is not doctrine or an official "Catholic position."

Banshee said...

If I were the young man who went away sad, I sure as heck wouldn't want to advance it as a claim of apostolic authority!

"Yeah, I refused to learn from Jesus. Follow me!"

I'm not saying it's true; but what with the young man who ran away leaving his cloak behind, and "the disciple Jesus loved", both going unnamed though known to tradition, it's not unheard of.

The technique of using similar wording to connect stories and reveal meaning is definitely something the sacred authors did on purpose. Even if Paul isn't himself the young man, it's likely that the stories are supposed to be connected in our minds (assuming the Greek as well as the English translation is similar).

Rachel said...

I read another take on the young man who walked away sad... that he lost his wealth, his standing, his morality, everything, and ended up as the thief on the cross, humbly begging Jesus for mercy-- which our Lord gave.

I like the idea about St. Paul too!