THE CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL

This is an essay that appears in a collection of my selected Magnificat writings called Holy Days and Gospel Reflections.

“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.   

15 Replies to “THE CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL”

  1. heidimbock@gmail.com says: Reply

    Oh, Heather! This is just what I needed today. Tears of joy.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Oh Heidi! Okay, I’m going to cry because YOU’RE crying! St. Paul, pray for us!! Blessings and thanks–

      1. Heather! This writing is elegant; love’s beckon and shattering truth talking together so easily. It is a beautiful evocation of repentance right down through all the mist to truth. Yes, I say that heron was truth in feathers.
        And you remind me that I have a heron in my life…(!)

  2. Philippe Garmy says: Reply

    As you continue to do, dearest Heather! May our Lord bless you and your mission, abundantly…
    Today, in the massive shadow of the Basilica du Sacré-Cœur, a devotional candle prayerfully burns in your loving honour before the shrine of Ste Thérèse de Lisieux, our « little flower », in my parish of St Pierre de Montmartre.
    Fiat Lux!

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Speaking of tears, check this out, from the video archive of Philippe’s church in Paris: Ensemble Non Pareilhe, “Inviolata, integre et casta” by French Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez.

      I’m touched beyond words to think that a candle burns before the shrine of Ste. Thérèse de Lisieux, in a chapel in Paris, in my name. Long live the Little Flower, Protrectress of Misfits and Outcasts (among others…). Thank you, Philippe! I will light one for you, and for everyone here, before the Pietà at St. Andrews in Pasadena, CA.

  3. I loved your story about you and the blue heron. Did you ever see it fly? We had one at the pond in the holler in WV. To see the grace of it gliding over a dew swept landscape amid the pines. was a mystic moment for me. It reminded me of what St. John Vianney once said: “Salvation comes easy for country people.” Mother nature has the power to draw us out of ourselves and sweep us up towards the Infinite.

  4. Well Heather… you got me of course with the great blue heron! One day I will tell you of the great blue heron miracle story in my life. Thank you for a beautiful piece…

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      I’ll remind you when next we meet, Dennis! Always eager to hear of a miracle….

  5. Carol Clark says: Reply

    I have long loved your meditations in the Magnificat, and now I’ve found your website. Thank you so much for your beautiful insights.

  6. Laura Knutsen says: Reply

    Beautiful- Thank you so for your words! I’m reminded today not only to pray for the conversion of souls, but for my own daily conversion as well. It’s a constant rolling over of my will to God’s greater goodness and love. May we all be made worthy to the promises of Christ. Saint Paul pray for us! God Blessings to you Heather

  7. Linda M Scuderi says: Reply

    Thank you, Heather, for the beautiful word pictures you send out into the world. Blessings

  8. Beautiful… sharing on my blog. Thank you!

  9. HEATHER KING says: Reply

    Whoa, thank you all so much for these heartfelt comments…what is it about birds, and herons, it seems, in particular.?..yes, that hush when they glide across the water. They, herons, really seem to reside an another realm…May we all continue to be converted!

  10. Blown away by how beautiful your website is Heather. Just discovered it today! Made me buy one of your books in an impulse purchase, ha.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Oh grand, Tom! I completely and utterly disapprove of impulse purchases–except of one of my books…welcome! Thank you!

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