Converted By Love: A Reflection on the Conversion of St Paul
“It is with trembling that St Paul recalls his vocation: ‘And last of all, as by one born out of due time, he was seen also by me. For I am the least of the apostles, and am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.’ Thus writes Saul of Tarsus, whose personality and drive fill history with awe.”
St. Josemaria Escriva
Christ is Passing By, no. 3
No one is more aware of the passage of time than a convert. There is a clear before and after whose threshold is a life-changing encounter with Christ. Saint Augustine’s celebrated exclamation is the most iconic expression of this: “Too late have I loved Thee!” In more recent times the famous British journalist and Catholic convert, Malcolm Muggeridge, poignantly entitled his 1972 autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time—an allusion to a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 106, whose theme, in a context far removed from religious conversion, evokes the imperfection of things past as prophetically foreshadowing present fulfillment.
Looking at conversion in hindsight, as an isolated moment in time, might make all of the before time seem wasted. But considering the past in the light of grace, connections emerge that reveal the hand of God steadily at work even in the midst of our worst mistakes. A string of unlikely events and providential encounters that bring a soul to the point where they are prepared to meet the Lord and say yes to Him is a divine work that grace alone can accomplish.
In fact St Augustine insists that even the sins of those whom God calls to Himself are resolved providentially for the salvation and sanctification of the individual. Citing St Paul,1 Augustine affirms that for those who love God, “God co-operates with all things for good; really, absolutely all things, so that even if any of them go astray, and turn aside from the right path, even this itself God makes to profit them for good, so that they return more humble and more instructed.”2
That is an encouraging truth for those whose track record is a nagging source of regret and shame. But whether we have little or much to make up for, the assurance that God can ultimately make right what we have done wrong relieves the soul of a sense of irreparable harm caused by sin. It also tells us that God is not simply a great “mastermind” who knows how to make beautiful artwork out of rubbish, or to assemble a complicated puzzle blindfolded. Instead, God does these things because He loves us. There is no need to complicate that.
Saint John Chrysostom, the greatest Pauline devotee of the Patristic era, does not complicate it. He deems it the hallmark of St Paul’s holiness: “He knew himself to be loved by Christ.”3 The great Father elaborates: “[Paul] had the greatest possession of all in himself—the love of Christ. With this love he considered himself more blessed than all people…. With this love he wished more to be among the most lowly of the punished than, apart from it, among the elite and honored.”4
This love freely given to him by the same God “who loved me and gave himself for me”5 is St Paul’s powerful justification for moving ahead from his past: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”6 This is the imperative of one who has received God’s gift of merciful love as freely as it was given him.
Time is only wasted if it fails to bring us to the point where we can see that all time exists to prepare us to love and be loved by Christ. Time is only squandered if the fullness of time passes us by and we never recognize the extent that we are loved by Him—because Christ’s love is the only thing that can change us. “I don’t like to speak of fear,” says St Josemaria, “for the Christian is moved by the charity of God, which has been shown to us in Christ.”7
We cannot return to our past, but we can, in the same Apostle’s words “redeem the time” that we have left.8
Time lost, time wasted, can become time redeemed if we spend it in union with Christ, in loving Christ, in letting ourselves be loved and changed by Him. Saint John of the Cross offers a terse application of this: “When evening comes, you will be examined in love. Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own ways of acting.”9
Jesus sent His Apostles into the world precisely to teach this love. He commanded His disciples: Abide in my love and then go into the world making disciples of the nations by announcing to them that they are loved. Let them know that if a man loves me and keeps my word, my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. This is the charter of the Universal Church, and how simple it is!
It is nothing but the love of Jesus for us—the love about which we hear so much every day. Our eyes see it, our ears brim over with it, our very mouths are filled with it. It is nothing but that age-old love that once threw Saul to the ground and then brought him through shipwrecks, beatings, imprisonments—all because in the fullness of time Jesus came to him and told him: Saul, you are loved. Forget about the past, embrace the present. Approach the future confidently with me.
For many, it takes years to be assured of and be fully converted by the simple love of Jesus. Saint Paul himself stood by with folded arms and saw the love of Jesus on the face of St Stephen, and heard it in his voice, as he presided over his violent execution. He was unmoved. The next time we meet him in Acts, Saul is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”10
On a smaller scale, are we much different? We see and hear about the love of Christ, every sacrifice we make, every prayer we say, is inspired by that love. And yet sometimes we find ourselves speaking and acting in ways that betray a very imperfect awareness of being loved. Maybe God has even used that sense of emptiness to bring us to Himself! But here we are seeking Him–a visible proof that God has loved us. We obeyed the invitation of an inaudible Voice, the encouragement of an invisible Face, and the only explanation is that God’s love must have moved us to desire to come to Him.
We marvel at the total conversion of the man whom we celebrate today. We marvel at his zeal, his influence, and his transparent honesty in speaking about himself: “I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”11 That sums up the importance of this feast for us, who are among those who follow in Paul’s footsteps and believe in Jesus Christ for eternal life, and are still making good on our own conversion.
In the end, the same thing that converted Saul is the only thing that will convert us: the deep conviction that “Christ loves us with all the inexhaustible charity of God’s own heart.”12 For St Paul the time came and then everything changed—he changed, the world changed. He discovered that he possessed the age-old love which the Lord had pledged to his fathers: I have loved you with a timeless love.13 And “in being loved by Christ,” concludes Saint John Chrysostom, “he thought of himself as possessing life, the world, the angels, present and future, the kingdom, the promise, countless blessings.”14
1 Romans 8:28-30. Saint Josemaria also treasured Rm 8:28, on one occasion directing that “Omnia in bonum” be artistically inscribed onto a wall of his residence in Rome.
2 De correptione et gratia, c. 24.
3 Cf. Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. 3, p. 1323.
4 John Chrysostom, Saint. De laudibus Sancti Pauli, Homily 2, trans. Margaret Mitchell, in appendix 1 of The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation. (Louisville: Knox, 2002). 449.
5 Gal 2:20
6 Phil 3:13-14
7 Christ is Passing By, no. 58
8 Cf. Eph 5:15-16
9 The Sayings of Light and Love, no. 60
10 Acts 9:1
11 1 Tim 1:15-16
12 Christ is Passing By, no. 59
13 Cf. Jer 31:3
14 Liturgy of the Hours, loc. cit.