One of my favorite images of the Conversion of St Paul is found in the Apostolic Palace and is pictured here. It was painted by Michelangelo between 1542 and 1546. January 25 is a big deal for us Daughters of St Paul. St Paul’s conversion is the only conversion celebrated liturgically and it is such a powerful day for us who try to live the experience of St Paul in intimate prayer and courageous evangelization. For this mystery of holiness to happen in our own lives, we too need to go through a Damascus event as did Paul.
At the center of our spirituality is Christ, and his desire to possess us entirely. Every thought pattern and attitude and tendency of our personality. Every desire, preference, behavior…. Everything without exception. This is quite different from making new year’s resolutions at the beginning of January! In the Conversion of St Paul it is Christ who comes to meet Paul where he is, in his frailty (although Paul thought he was someone important doing something significant).
There are several aspects of this painting of St Paul’s conversion by Michelangelo which attract me very deeply. At the top of the image, which doesn’t appear here, is the person of Christ reaching down to Paul through a column of light. There are many people milling around in this image, but Paul is clearly the one who is addressed by Jesus. And Paul is the one who must take responsibility, take the risk, and answer. Isn’t it that way with us, in our unique call from the Lord?
Another aspect of this image which attracts me is the way Paul is almost held by one of the characters in the image. The circular image that is created by the arms of the person reaching down to him, as well as the position of Paul’s body, is almost soft, receptive, intimate. This is not Caravaggio’s strong blinded Paul fallen from his horse. This is a Paul who is being drawn into the mystery of God’s plan for his life and the way God will use Paul to announce the Gospel to the world. It was absolutely moving for me to pray in front of this painting in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican a couple of years ago, and to see on the other side of the chapel the depiction of the crucifixion of St Peter. Two men who were flawed and frail and human who allowed God to do with them all that he desired.
This is what God desires for you and me. We too have our Damascus event. They aren’t as stunning as what we call the conversion of St Paul, but they can be nonetheless life-changing. I include here a prayer of our community which reflects on the challenge of our own Damascus events.
Light and darkness,
sight and blindness,
power and weakness,
control and surrender.
The “Damascus event” in Paul’s life is often played out in my own,
though in a less dramatic manner.
Lord Jesus, I meet you in so many ways:
sometimes in silence and prayer,
or by stumbling to the ground of my existence.
As I journey through the days of my life,
call out my name,
send me your dazzling light,
and take hold of me as you took hold of Paul.
Even when I kick against the goad,
even when I lack courage or when fatigue overtakes me,
even when I fall again or lose my way—
in all these moments I trust that you are with me
and that your grace is sufficient for me.
Like Paul, let me know how to be companioned by others,
allowing myself to be led by those who can point out the way to you.
Help me to be willing to listen to what you are saying to me through them.
As you sent Paul on mission, I ask that you send me forth,
to those persons with whom I am to share your Gospel.
Give me, like you gave Paul, the words and gestures
that will reveal your mercy to me,
and the love you bear for every person you have redeemed.
Photo Credit: Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons