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.


  1. Amen amen amen Heather. Beautiful reflection – we didn't get your reflection in the UK version but we did have St Catherine of Siena so it's not all loss!
    You are such a blessing.

  2. Beautiful.

  3. I read your reflection in the Magnificat yesterday and was touched and blessed by it. I to am a convert in middle age.

  4. Heather are you familiar with Wendell Berry's poem THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS? Your mention of the heron and his impact on you brought it to mind for me. Here it is:

    THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS By Wendell Berry b. 1934

    When despair for the world grows in me
    and I wake in the night at the least sound
    in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
    I go and lie down where the wood drake
    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
    I come into the peace of wild things
    who do not tax their lives with forethought
    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
    And I feel above me the day-blind stars
    waiting with their light. For a time
    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

    Elizabeth Rich
    West Glacier, MT

  5. This was such a gift to read in the Magnificat and to read it again today. I appreciate so much your honesty. And also the observation that St. Paul retained that fire of love. Thank you.

  6. Such a gift to read this in the Magnificat and see it here again today. I appreciate your honesty, Heather. And the observation that Paul retained that fire of love. St. Paul, pray for us!

  7. Tony said. . .I've read Redeemed and Parched and I'm looking forward to reading your book on St Theresa. I read this reflection in Magnificat yesterday and sent it to my daughter who has been sober for 110 days after Hazelden. You have helped me understand her anguish, and I am hopeful that your writing will help her on her journey. God bless you.

  8. That little Heron is like a guardian angel

  9. Thanks for reminding me on my heron, some 12+ years ago. Life still isn't always easy, but the joy of knowing Jesus changes everything, always.

  10. love that poem by WB, thanks Betsy.

  11. Yes, thanks so much, Betsy, for the Wendell Berry poem, which I'd not known, and thanks to everyone. These "moments" come to us unbidden…something to keep living for…who knows when the next will strike!…

  12. "St. Paul fell off his horse, but Christ comes in the form of a lamb, a dove, a heron."
    When we moved to our house, the nearby lake got me walking— the first exercise I had done in years. And that's when I discovered the heron (and herons!), a mysterious bird whose name I didn't yet know. For me, the heron was the sign that Christ is here, waiting for me with a richness and a beauty totally unexpected and undeserved. When people ask why I've changed, I will often repeat a verse from Jacapone da Todi: "Christ in His beauty draws me to Him." It may come across as abstract to them, but I have in mind the herons.

  13. Thank you Heather, for this reflection. A friend shared it with me and I in turn will share it with others. I am currently facilitating a post-abortion bible study. As you well know to find out that "God needs us for something" and "We have a mission" is critical in the healing process. And I too had a "heron moment" It's been years ago, but the memory of it is crystal clear. My heron was a deer. I've often wondered what was so special about that moment and why it's still so clear in my mind…now I know.


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