The Conversion of St. Paul — and Its Lessons for the Faithful

The happiest souls are those who are open to trusting that God will be with them every step of the way in their lives

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. What happened to Saul of Tarsus for him to change so radically into “St. Paul”?

He went from being a devout pharisee who was personally trained by Gamaliel, a leading authority of the Sanhedrin, from having a mission to round up and kill Christians — to an ardent apostle of the Christian faith.

So what happened?

It began with a dramatic encounter with the person of Jesus Christ: “It happened that while he was traveling to Damascus and approaching the city, suddenly a light from heaven shone all round him. He fell to the ground, and then he heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ he asked, and the answer came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9: 3-5).

Saul was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians and Jesus knocked him off his horse and delivered this tough message.

He was blinded by the light and remained so, until the prophet Ananias was sent to visit him: “He entered the house, and laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, I have been sent by the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, so that you may recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ It was as though scales fell away from his eyes and immediately he was able to see again. So he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food he regained his strength” (Acts 9: 17-19).

Jesus appeared to him and set him aside for a very challenging mission, which required him to do the exact opposite of what he had originally set out to do.

He would now be sharing the Christian faith and helping others discover the beauty of Christ’s message. He was open to change and willing to listen — and God worked with that humble docility.

Even though Paul was a rugged, type A man, he knew his limitations and was aware of the need for God’s grace in his life. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he wrote, “I am who I am through the grace of God.”

For a man who endured shipwrecks, stonings, and all types of persecutions and difficulties, this was a strong statement of humility and dependence on God.

In his letter to the Romans, he also said that “nothing could separate me from the love of Christ” — and without a doubt this was the driving force behind all of his actions.

Related: How Prayer and the Faith of Others Can Transform Us

Suffering was not a burden but a huge gift for Paul, an opportunity to grow in his love for Christ and in his transformation from within.

The cross was a central theme of Paul’s conversion message: “We are preaching a crucified Christ: to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the gentiles foolishness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is both the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 23,24).

Paul understood early on that the privilege of friendship with Christ meant following in his footsteps, especially along the way of the cross. He saw this “dying to self” as a necessary means of allowing Christ to live in him. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI used this analogy in his encyclical, Spe Salvi: “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God’s tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?”

We must make space in our busy lives for a weekend retreat or some quality time with Christ in the Eucharist, so that we can hear His perfect plan of fulfillment in our lives.

The vessel that is your heart must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work. It’s painful. But in this way alone do we become suited for which we’re destined, he explained. Not only do we become free for God, we also become open to others. By becoming children of God, “we can be with our common Father.” God’s sweetness and love can only penetrate a purified and renewed heart.

Conversion begins and ends with an encounter and a personal love for Jesus Christ. He calls us to die to ourselves so that we can experience the joy of living for Him and for others.

It requires being “all in, all the time” — and going where God wants to take us. The happiest, most peaceful, and fulfilled souls are those who are open to conversion and trust that God will accompany them with grace and strength every step of the way. We must make space in our busy lives for a weekend retreat or at least some quality time with Christ in the Eucharist, so that we can hear His perfect plan of fulfillment in our lives.

Not everyone will have the experience of Paul. Most of us will need to walk this path of conversion by faith — and this is actually a special blessing as we see in the words of Jesus to his apostle Thomas: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29).

Fr. Michael Sliney is a Catholic priest based in the New York City area and an adviser to the Lumen Institute, a professional business group.