The Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle
Today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle. We all know the familiar story of Saul on the road to Damascus, filled with zeal for God, setting out to bring his Jewish brothers and sisters who “belong to the Way” of Jesus back in “chains for punishment.” Suddenly, he fell to the ground and plunged deep into intimate relationship with Jesus, undergoing an interrogation and, one might imagine, a deep revelation of the incomprehensible forgiveness, love, and call that is Jesus’ very self.
As I read these familiar passages once again, I am struck by Acts 9:9, particularly the last five words: “For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.” It made me wonder about the tradition of fasting in Hebrew scriptures. I thought of the people of Ninevah in Jonah 3:5, who heard Jonah and repented. They “believed in God, and declared a fast,” returning to renewed and deeper relationship with God. In the simple five word phrase “He neither ate nor drank,” we understand Saul’s deep repentance and humility.
I think too of Moses in Exodus 24 who was “with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water” as he wrote the ten commandments, emptying himself to be a channel for God. Paul too, irreparably changed from his intimate encounter with Jesus, through fasting is emptying himself to be a “chosen instrument” of the Lord.
And finally, I cannot help but hear in Paul’s fasting the words of Isaiah 58:6-7: “Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?” When “things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight,” these words from Isaiah remained in the ground of his mission.
In today’s terminology, Paul “wakes up”! And it’s not in a single moment–it’s a sacred “three day” process that involves being led and healed by others. It made me wonder if perhaps Paul’s process can be a model for us as we navigate how to empty ourselves and become more and more God’s “chosen instruments” in today’s riven world. It might go something like this…Be open to grace and the voice of Jesus in those hard moments when we “fall to the ground.” Let ourselves be guided by others. Take time in prayer to experience our blindness. Rest in repentance and humility in the loving arms of God. Accept healing from others. And, trust that each time we do this, “something like scales” will fall from our eyes and we will see just a little bit more clearly our “Way,” this work we are all called to do–to set the oppressed free, to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the afflicted and the homeless into our house. To fast as God asks that we do.
Lissa Romell is the Administrator at St. Vincent Strambi Community in Chicago, Illinois.