The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul is celebrated on January 25th.
Here’s my reflection on the occasion that appeared in Magnificat yesterday.
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” [Acts 9:4] Authentic conversion always comes from realizing that we have been “persecuting” Christ.
In the fall of 1986, I spent thirty days at an addiction treatment center in rural Minnesota. Hiking trails meandered through the woods. The trees were turning color. One morning I crept out for a walk just past dawn. Not another soul stirred. I came upon a pond and, through the mist, saw a blue heron, standing stock still, noble head erect. I saw the heron and the heron saw me.
It was a moment from the Song of Songs, a moment of liminal space and time, an instant of such heart-stopping beauty that in my memory it has attained the level of myth. All those years while I’d been in the bars, this heron, or one like him, had been coming to the pond. All those years while I’d been drinking morning Sea Breezes at Boston’s Sullivan’s Tap, another parallel world had been breathing, suffering, praising God. Many years passed before I discovered Christ, and more years after that before I came into the Church. But in a way I can mark my conversion from that moment. In a way that heron was Christ, saying, “Heather, Heather, why are you persecuting me?”
St. Paul fell off his horse, but Christ comes in the form of a lamb, a dove, a heron. That’s not to say he’s always gentle. But he’s often gentlest when we’ve been doing terrible violence to ourselves and others. Christ never cuts us down with a gun or a sword. He looks at us with love. He says, Look at these blue-gray feathers. He says, Isn’t it lovely to be still and listen to the frogs? He looks us in the eye with love and says, “Why are you persecuting me?”
To be forgiven when we know we don’t “deserve” to be forgiven is radically transformative in a way violence can never be. To be forgiven does another kind of violence: to our whole tit-for-tat notion of crime and punishment. To be forgiven makes us realize that, unbelievable as it may seem, God needs us for something. We have a mission.
My experience with the heron wasn’t a white-light experience. It was a door opening onto what has proved to be a long and very slow spiritual awakening of, as William James put it, “the educational variety.” How often I’ve forgotten the heron. How often I’ve been harsh, rageful, importunate, intolerant, unfaithful, unkind, and just plain wrong.
When that happens I’m struck blind for a few hours or days or even months. Often a long time passes before I see that once again, I’ve been persecuting Christ.
Our offense doesn’t lie in breaking a rule. It lies in offending against love, against truth, against beauty.
What’s remarkable about St. Paul isn’t that he had a white light experience. What’s remarkable is that he retained his fervor for all the remaining years of his life.