On Shaul/Paul’s Conversion

By Richard Rohr, Monday, February 25, 2019

All of Paul’s major themes are contained in seed form in his conversion experience, of which there are three descriptions in Acts (chapters 9, 22, and 26). Scholars assume that Acts was written by Luke around 80-90 CE, about twenty years after Paul wrote most of his letters. Paul’s own account is in the first chapter of Galatians: “The Gospel which I preach . . . came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). Paul never doubts this revelation. The Christ that he met was not the Christ in the flesh (Jesus); it was the risen Christ, the Christ who is available to us now as Spirit, as “an energy field” that we eventually called the Mystical Body of Christ, or what I call in my new book “The Universal Christ.” [1]

Paul describes his life pre-conversion as an orthodox Jew, a Pharisee with status in the Sanhedrin (the governmental board of Judea during the Roman occupation). He was delegated by the Temple police to go out and squelch this new sect of Judaism called “The Way” (not yet named Christianity). “I actually tried to destroy it. And I advanced beyond my contemporaries in my own nation. I was more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers than anybody else” (see Galatians 1:13-14).

“Saul [Hebrew for Paul] was breathing threats to slaughter the Lord’s disciples. He had gone to the high priest to ask for letters addressed to the synagogues that would authorize him to arrest and take to Jerusalem any followers of the Way” (Acts 9:1-2). At this point, Paul was a black and white thinker, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys.

“Suddenly, while traveling to Damascus, just before he reached the city, there came a light from heaven all around him. He fell to the ground, and he heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The voice answered, ‘I am Jesus and you are persecuting me’” (Acts 9:3-5).

This choice of words is pivotal; Paul must have wondered: “Why does he say ‘me’ when I’m persecuting these people?” Paul gradually comes to his understanding of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12) as an organic, ontological union between Christ and those who are loved by Christ—which Paul eventually realizes is everyone and everything. This is why Paul becomes “the apostle to the nations” (or “Gentiles”).

This enlightening experience taught Paul nondual consciousness, the same mystical mind that had allowed Jesus to say things like “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Until grace achieves that victory in our minds and hearts, we cannot comprehend most of Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings. Before conversion, we tend to think of God as “out there.” After transformation, we don’t look out at reality as if it is hidden in the distance. We look out from reality! Our life is participating in God’s Life. We are living in Christ. As Paul tells the Colossians, “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). Paul is obsessed by this idea. It undergirds everything he writes. Paul is the great announcer of what is happening everywhere all the time much more than he is the architect of a new religion.

Gateway to Presence:
If you want to go deeper with today’s meditation, take note of what word or phrase stands out to you. Come back to that word or phrase throughout the day, being present to its impact and invitation.

[1] See Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), coming March 5, 2019.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation, discs 1 and 2(Franciscan Media: 2002, 2012), CDJesus as Liberator/Paul as Liberator (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2009).

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