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Reflection on Carrivaggio's
Conversion of St. Paul
by Jimmy Blankenship
Every one at Mass has heard the story of St. Paul and his conversion to Christianity. He persecuted Christians.
St. Paul, while riding his horse one day, was bucked off and Christ asked, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me." This jarring event began one of the world's greatest conversions. Look at the picture and ask yourself, "Am I converted like St. Paul?" "Do I lie on my back looking up to the almighty reciting the words of the Psalmist, 'Have mercy on me O God'?"
Conversion is a topic that most do not think about but it is a topic of great importance, especially during the season of Lent. Most believe that conversion to faith is a one time process. A person lives a life of sin as a friend of the world, converts, and then lives a life of grace as a friend of Jesus. However, according to the mystics and great spiritual writers conversion is a long process with different stages. Three conversions are necessary for one to attain a perfective and holy state of life. What is essential in each of these conversions is a knowledge and experience of the passion and sufferings of Christ.
The spiritual life has three ends or goals. First and foremost is the glorification of God. All our actions, be it prayer or good works, are for God's glory; as St. Ignatius so aptly puts it, "Ad majorem Dei gloriam" (For the greater glory of God). The secondary ends of the spiritual life are ones own salvation and sanctification. Salvation is the attainment of heaven and is the perfection of our sanctification in this life.
To understand what it means to have sanctification as a goal of the spiritual life, grace must be understood. Sanctification is being perfect, conforming ourselves to Christ so that we become "another Christ", as St. Paul says, "It is not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me." Grace is the way to this life of Christ. Most of us learned in our catechism classes that you can keep getting more and more grace. Most view grace as something that you have.
Although this is a correct way to understand grace, there is a deeper way to understand grace, which will shed light more on the conversion process. Grace is the divine life of God in our souls. When we receive grace, it conforms our person to God and makes us more like God. The "more" grace we have the more godlike we are.
An example is needed to understand this point. In the days of old, well before the age of the internet, people used to send letters via a courier and often sealed their letters with wax and a stamp. Hot wax was poured on the envelope and a stamp was placed into it to give an imprint signifying who it was that was sending the letter. If the letter was from the king, a stamp would be used with that had the imprint of the king's seal. The hot wax is like your soul, ready to receive the imprint of the stamp. The stamp is like God ready to give the image. Grace is the imprint in the wax. When one grows in the life of grace, God pushes harder down into the wax, making his image is more apparent in the wax.
Grace is necessary in the spiritual life and in the conversion process. Conversion begins with God's grace as an impulse to turn toward God, and ends with God's grace as the life the person is living. St. Thomas Aquinas, along with other spiritual writers, distinguishes three stages in the spiritual life: beginner stage, proficient stage, and perfective stage. More modern terminology is purgative, illuminative, and unitive stages. Both are perfectly acceptable and interchangeable, since both sets of names signify the same stages.
The first conversion takes place and thrusts one into the beginner stage of the spiritual life. Normally, some life changing event is the impetus (along with God's grace) for this conversion. This might include a death of a loved one, a natural disaster, a car accident, etc. The list is endless and could include just about anything. What ever the event might be, some sort of crises or moving event is necessary for conversion.
When the person converts, they go from loving the world, to loving God more than the world. They receive in them the life of grace and begin to live a life that resembles the life of Christ. For the Apostles, this life changing event was their call by Christ.
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange says, "Their first conversion took place when Jesus called them with the words, 'I will make you fishers of men.'" At that point they loved Christ more than they loved the world. They lived with Christ, listening to Him preach, saw His miracles, talked with Him, traveled with Him, ate with Him, etc. They gave up their life as fishermen to follow Him whom they loved.
The love one has for Christ in this first stage of the spiritual life is supremely imperfect. It is characterized by a "sensual" love of Christ, a love through the senses, a feeling. Fr. Lagrange says, "Those who, with out being conscious of it, serve God from self interest, because they are attached to temporal or spiritual consolations, and shed tears of self-pity when they are deprived of them."
The Apostles were physically present with Christ. Their imperfect love is demonstrated by the many times that they fell into sin or simply messed up. How many times did Christ have to correct them, or at least Peter: "Get behind me Satan", "If I do not wash your feet, you will have no part in my kingdom", etc.
God, desiring to completely possess a soul and enjoy their love, must move the soul to a more perfect love. He does this through the second conversion which leads to the proficient or illuminative stage of the spiritual life.
This conversion has two motivating factors.
First, the soul responds to the commandment, "Thou shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" (Lk 10:27). The soul about ready to under go the second conversion sees that God must be the only object of their love and therefore desires to love Him with their entire person.
The second motivation for their second conversion is "the price of the blood of the Savior". The beginner in the spiritual life began by simply knowing Christ and the story of his life. However, the more one knows Christ, the more one understands why He came to save us by His death on the cross. Christ's words, "This is My body which will be given up for you … this is My blood which is shed for you" begin to take on more meaning. It was shed for me and by my sins. It was my sins that pierced His hands and feet. It was my sins that put the crown of thorns in His head. And it was my sins that pierced in His side. At this point, God begins to convert the soul for a second time.
Let us look to Peter to see what this conversion is like.
At the last super, Christ predicted that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock crows. When Peter denies Christ and hears the cock. The Gospel tells us "The Lord turning, looked on Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, as He had said: Before the cock crows, thou shall deny Me three times. And Peter going out, wept bitterly."
What a grace Peter must have received that he instantly saw his sin of self-love and wept bitterly over it. The other Apostles, although not being mentioned in the Gospels, must have gone through similar conversions in intensity. They saw their friend and Lord beaten, scourged, crowned with thorns, tormented and humiliated, and finally crucified. Their conversions were, no doubt, a result of our Lord's passion. Then they were deprived of His physical presence for three days.
Fr. Lagrange says, "It was in fact expedient that they should be for some time deprived of the sight of His [Christ's] humanity, so that they might be elevated to a higher spiritual life, a life more independent of the senses, a life which would later find expression in the sacrifice of an heroic martyrdom" (39).
Conversion for us, like the Apostles, consists in the deepening of our love for Jesus.
There are three signs of this second conversion in the soul.
"The soul finds no pleasure or consolation in the things of God, but it also fails to find it in any thing created …
The second sign … is that ordinarily the memory is centered upon God, with painful care and solicitude, thinking that it is not serving God, but backsliding because it finds itself without the sweetness in the things of God …
The third sign … is that the soul can no longer meditate or reflect in its sense of the imagination … For God now begins to communicate Himself to it, no longer through sense but by an act of simple contemplation to which neither the exterior nor the interior senses of the lower part of the soul can attain."
As the passion initiated the second conversion in the Apostles, so also Christ's passion must draw us to conversion. Just as the Apostles were deprived of Jesus sensibly, we must be deprived of Jesus sensibly so that we can love Him with a more perfect and spiritual love. It is only after this conversion that one enters the second stage of the spiritual life. Since the point of this meditation is conversion, I will skip talking about the characteristics of the spiritually proficient soul. However, I need to mention that the soul in this stage, although having a deeper and less selfish love for God, is still imperfect. This soul still has a self love.
Have you ever heard the saying "God is a jealous God?" I think that this applies perfectly to this stage in the spiritual life. God wants us all to Himself. He does not want to compete for our love. He wants our love totally and completely and is jealous of us that we still love ourselves. In His "jealousy", He moves the soul to the third conversion of the spiritual life.
The third conversion is to strip the soul naked of self and clothe it completely in the garment of God's grace. This conversion is called by many spiritual writers "the dark night of the soul." In this stage, God denies all pleasures and attachments of the soul, moving it to a perfect and unitive love of Christ. Let us again look to the Apostles to see how the third conversion took place for them.
After they experienced the horror of the passion, Christ rose from the dead and appeared to them in His glorified body. For a time they again experienced consolation by the physical presence of Jesus. Their third conversion began at the time of the Ascension. They see their Lord, whom they lived with and who died and rose again, ascending into heaven. They lost Jesus once, they were loosing Him for a second time. But this time was more intense than the first.
Fr. Lagrange explains it in this way:
When we consider that our Lord had become their very life and that they had become daily more and more intimate with Him, they must have had a feeling of the greatest loneliness, like a feeling of desolation, even death. And their desolation must have been more intense since our Lord Himself had foretold all the sufferings that were in store. This was no longer merely the crushing of their sensibility, as it was during the time of the Passion, it was a complete blank which must have seemed to take from them all the power of thinking. During the Passion, our Lord was still there, now He had been taken away from them and they seemed to be completely deprived of him. It was in the night of the spirit that they were prepared for the outpouring of graces at Pentecost.
On that day, which some consider to be the birthday of the Church, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and ended their final purgation. The symbol of tongues of fire is so fitting for this event. It was through fire that they were brought to perfection and conversion and now the fire of God's love burned in their hearts. From this point on they loved God with their whole person. They so loved Christ and were so intimate with Him, that they devoted their lives to preaching His mission even unto their deaths. Christ loved us so much that He died for us; the Apostles loved Christ so much that they died for Him. In this unitive stage of the spiritual life the soul is so conformed to Christ that it is no longer the soul that lives, but Christ in the soul.
When one looks at Caravaggio's depiction of the Conversion of St. Paul, one cannot help but think of the privileged that he received. The jarring event which began his conversion was not a death in the family or a natural disaster, but Christ Himself. St. Paul was thrown from his horse landing on his back to see a vision of Christ. St. Paul rapidly moved through the first stage of conversion.
We know from the Scriptures that he was blinded and did not regain his sight for some time. This time of blindness must not have only been physical, but spiritual as well. Christ loved Paul so much that immediately, through the work of grace, Paul was progressed from the first stage of the spiritual life to the second and then to the third. Paul was physically blinded; he was depraived of the sensible consolations that are characteristic of the second conversion.
The blindness must also have been spiritual as well. When he regain his sight, it was not Paul that lived, but Christ that lived in Paul. This is demonstrated in the fact that He changed his name from Saul to Paul. The old Saul was dead, and the new Paul was live with Christ.
This Lenten season, we must reflect on our own progression through the spiritual life. Have we been converted? Are we a friend of the world or a friend of Christ? Do we love Christ more than the world? Are we ready to completely give up ourselves and live the life of Christ? Are we ready to suffer with Christ "to make up what is lacking in the Body of Christ?" Let us pray that God gives us the grace to daily convert ourselves so that, it is not us who live, but Christ who lives in us. Praise be Jesus Christ, now and forever.
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