25 January, Wednesday — Our God Moment

25 Jan – Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

St. Paul (3-65) was a Jewish Talmudic student and a Pharisee. He was a tent-maker by trade. Saul the Jew hated and persecuted Christians as heretical, even assisting at the stoning of St. Stephen the Martyr. On his way to Damascus to arrest another group of them, he was knocked to the ground, struck blind by a heavenly light, and given the message that in persecuting Christians, he was persecuting Christ. The experience had a profound spiritual effect on him, causing his conversion to Christianity. He was baptised, changed his name to Paul to reflect his new persona, and began travelling and preaching. He died a martyr for his faith.

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Acts 22:3-16
Mk 16:15-18

‘Stand up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told what you have been appointed to do.’

Today, the Catholic Church commemorates St. Paul’s Conversion. What do we make of Paul’s conversion?

A ‘conversion’ refers to a shift from one religion to another, or from an irreligious to a religious profession/stance. The Jesus-movement at the time of Paul’s experience (only a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion), was not what we know and think of as a self-standing ‘religion’. It was more of a new sect or movement within the larger Jewish tradition. (It should be noted that Paul’s ‘persecution’ of Jesus-followers was directed solely at fellow Jews whom he must have regarded as having seriously problematic beliefs and practices).

Prior to his conversion, Paul (then Saul) was simply doing what the Law required of him. He persecuted the Church because he was a fierce opponent of everything Jesus stood for: Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:3b). Under the Law, he was righteous and blameless (Phil. 3:6) persecuting the Church and Christ’s disciples.

Paul describes the experience that led to his conversion as a “revelation” and a “calling” (Galatians 1:11-17). Paul refers to Gentiles who accepted his gospel message as having “converted” or “turned” to God and away from their ancestral gods (idols) (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). According to Paul, Gentiles/pagans “convert” from polytheistic worship to worship and serve “a true and living God”. However, Jews like him come to the correct understanding of what their ancestral deity requires of them.

Now I understand why the Conversion Experience Retreat (CER), a retreat conducted by the then Archbishop of Singapore (today Cardinal), is named the way it is. Before its popularity, many Catholics often asked why they needed to go for this retreat since they were already Catholics. I was guilty as well. Being Catholic doesn’t necessarily mean we have a correct appreciation of what the faith means, or who Jesus is. Bishop asserts that the CER is for Catholics who have not had a Christ experience; those who haven’t been touched by Jesus, to make a radical change in their lives.

Paul never knew who Jesus was. He had a dim and hazy image of Him. However, as he travelled to Damascus, a bright light from the sky shone all around him, blinding him. What caused Paul’s blindness was his inability to recognise and accept Jesus as the Light and Truth.

“On that journey as I drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’

I recall my own CER back in 2011. By then, I had been a Catholic for 19 years but still had a dim and hazy image of who Jesus was. Frankly, I didn’t see any bright lights, lightning bolts, nor did I feel anything. For me, my conversion was slow and progressive. But it was a few years later in 2013, right at the seminary chapel where we were having holy hour, when it finally happened – my moment! I was bent over and asked Jesus – to please show me that He was real and present. I had waited years after that retreat and suddenly I felt incredibly hot, and then I suddenly broke into a gaggle of words that I could not control and it was overwhelming, embarrassing (in the silence of Holy Hour) and very tiring. Yes, Jesus in His time, gave me a very visible sign. He must have waited all these years before giving in to this stubborn girl who needed a clear and visible sign. After that, my life radically changed, which led me to 9 years of fruitful and joyful ministry work (a sharing for another time).

I believe that conversion is a continuous process. It happens again and again. Many times in our lives, we fall and refuse to see and accept the Light and the Truth. We doubt both our faith and ourselves. This causes us to be blind and deaf to the reality of Christ. As a result, we never hear or respond to Christ’s call. To hear the call, regain sight, and know God’s will, we must continually renew ourselves and draw closer to Christ, as Paul did.

I had another mini conversion recently during a much needed break and trip to Medjugorje. I have been struggling with my faith journey recently, being caught up in everyday busy-ness and studies that I barely had time to pray. Bad excuse, but the truth. I have been questioning my ‘worth’ as a Christian – was I just drifting day to day, what was I doing to be purposeful in His Kingdom during this season of my life, what next after my course of studies at this ripe old age? Have I heard God’s voice or just following my own? I have shared previously how I lost the joy of service.

Then one day in Medjugorje, our guide brought us to see Patrick and Nancy. I was wondering who these people were and why we were paying them a visit on our vacation. People referred to their house as ‘The Castle’. When we arrived, we realised why. In 1999, Nancy and Patrick Latta began building a castle in Medjugorje to serve as a retreat centre for priests, nuns, seminarians, and religious. You can watch a video of their testimony at your own time at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meraccQxpTk. This couple gave up everything they knew in Canada, including their successful careers/businesses and money, to “live next to Mother Mary,” as Patrick put it.

When I first met Nancy, she gave each of us (complete strangers to her) a warm, welcome embrace. I was also moved by the volunteers’ sincere kindness as they served us lunch and cleaned up after us. The couple warmly invite pilgrims and members of the clergy to stay on their grounds each day, providing them with free lodging and food. I am immediately reminded of how I have lost the zeal of servicing with love, feeling so ashamed of myself…so selfish…unworthy.

As I processed this experience later with my travel companions, I realise that this was my God moment at this pilgrimage. In spite of my wretchedness, God reminded me that He calls each of us in different ways, to use the various gifts and talents He has given us. I don’t have truckloads of money to build castles for priests, religious, and seminarians, but He reminded me of how I gave of myself, time, and resources to the Church about 8 years ago; and He reminds me to keep my heart, ears and eyes open to His call. Just like St. Paul’s conversion.

Be attentive and watch out for that light on our own way to Damascus and ‘Get up and go….., and there you will be told about everything appointed for you to do.’

(Today’s OXYGEN by Geraldine Nah)

Prayer: Dear Father, we pray to have hearts that are open and ears to hear your voice and respond to your call. Help us to live lives worth of our titles as sons and daughters of God.        

Thanksgiving: Thank you Father, for the gift of Your Son. Thank you for the spiritual companions you place in our lives.


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