The Conversion of St. Paul

An interesting commentary on today’s feast, taken from the Customary of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

A reading from the sermons of John Keble

St Paul’s day is, in one respect, different from most of the saints’ days of the holy Church universal. We keep, not only the anniversary of his martyrdom, which took place the same day with that of St Peter, but also that of his Conversion to the faith of Christ.

One reason for this, no doubt, is the special appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ at his conversion; and, for a like reason, we observe the day of St John the Baptist’s Nativity, not the day of his martyrdom: taking that point in the history of both saints, which marks them our most, as especial instruments for the glory of our divine Saviour, and brings him, as it were, nearest to them.

Another and a very manifest reason for this distinction in the case of St Paul, is the knowledge we have of the particular purpose, for which God raised him up; namely, to be the apostle of the Gentiles, and to bestow by him on the Church very great and remarkable blessings. It has pleased Providence that his example and character should be much more fully set before us, than that of any other saint of the New Testament. In him, more than in any other, we are given to see the Church of God, such as she was intended to be in her conflict with the wicked world. I mean the Church of God in action: enduring toils; overcoming difficulties; silencing blasphemies; directing consciences; winning her way against opposers; casting down unholy or proud imaginations; bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Jesus Christ. […]

Among other things which particularly fitted him to govern and guide the flock of God, is that which is mentioned in the text; that he was ‘made all things to all men’ (1 Cor 9:22). This is an expression which might easily be mistaken, and has been so before now: as though St Paul recommended, by his advice and example, a sort of craft in religious matters, pretending to agree with men when you really do not, humouring them in bad ways, concurring with them to a certain length in what you know or fear to be wrong; but all the whole for their benefit, and with a view of doing, on the whole, more good in the end. […]

[T]he difference may be put in a word: it is not accommodation which St Paul encourages, but sympathy. He does not say that he practised what would please others, to win them, but he says that he always had an eye to them; he put himself in their place. He thought with himself, ‘Were I a heathen, or a Jew, a young man or an old, an advanced or an imperfect Christian, a rich man or a poor, a master or a servant; what would my thoughts, and feelings, and fancies be, when such and such holy truths, or divine commandments, were made known to me?’ And according to what his wise and charitable heart, guided by the Holy Spirit, told him of the needs and feelings of other persons, so he ordered his ways towards them, and his manner of speaking to them, and dealing with them.

As he says to the Galatians, he was accustomed to ‘change his voice’ (Gal 4:20); not always to please and soothe them. Sometimes it was quite the other way: as when he smote Elymas with blindness, calling him ‘the child of the devil, the enemy of righteousness’ (Acts 13:10). He knew that such fearful words, and the judgment which accompanied them, ’not seeing the sun for a season’, was just what the case of that unhappy person required. And we may remember, St Paul himself knew well, what were the feelings of a person struck blind, and how such a stroke of God’s anger might lead to repentance. For he himself was blind for three days after his conversion, ‘and did neither eat nor drink’ (Acts 9:9); and what he went through in that time, no man knows; but we know how he served God afterwards.