The Rev. Susan E. Hill
Today, Friday, January 25, is the day we remember the conversion of Paul. The story of Paul being suddenly struck from his horse by a blinding light while on the road to Damascus is immediately familiar to us, from the several bible passages that describe it (Acts 9:1-22, 22:6-21, and 26:9-21; Galatians 1:11-24). Even if you don’t remember anything else about the story, you are likely to be able to visualize one of the many paintings of Paul’s experience on the road – one of the most famous is by Caravaggio (click here to view). Here’s a fun fact, though: despite the vividness of the horse in various paintings and in our imaginations, there is no mention of a horse in any of the scripture stories of the event!
A more important and often overlooked aspect of the story is that Paul’s conversion is not as instantaneous as we have come to think of it. The narrative in Acts 9 is the most detailed, and it does indeed show the very dramatic moment when Paul (at this point still called Saul and described as a persecutor of those who followed Jesus) was felled by a light from heaven that flashed around him on the road to Damascus. As he lay on the ground, struck blind by the light, Saul heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” We tend to think that this was the moment of conversion, when Paul saw the error of his ways and instead devoted himself to Christianity.
But when we keep reading, we are reminded that the story continues with Jesus telling the still-blind Saul to go along into the city, where he then fasted for three days. Meanwhile, a disciple named Ananias had received his own vision of the Lord and was asked to help take care of Saul by laying hands on him so he could regain his sight. Despite being afraid of Saul the persecutor, Ananias took seriously Jesus’ mission for him and his promise that Saul had been chosen to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. When he found Saul and laid hands on him, “something like scales fell from his eyes,” and he could see again. He was baptized, ate, regained his strength, and only then began to preach and proclaim Jesus as the Son of God.
So the “Road to Damascus” story that is often used as a shorthand for a striking and sudden conversion actually took many days, involved the continuation of a journey as well as spiritual practices such as prayer and fasting, and was quite dependent on the healing touch of a brave but often forgotten hero, Ananias. Perhaps we may remember the fullness of Paul’s experience as we reflect on our own faith, and especially on the winding paths of our journeys over time, our spiritual practices, and our brave companions along the way.
O God, by the preaching of your apostle Paul you have caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: Grant, we pray, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show ourselves thankful to you by following his holy teaching; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.