The Road to Damascus
A man's mind plans his way, but the LORD
directs his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
Some years ago I was part of a committee that worked with a young man over a period of months to determine whether to recommend him for ordination to the Episcopal priesthood. We were merely the first step in an elaborate process that also involved psychological testing and interviews with a bishop and a diocesan screening committee. In some ways, I felt I had come full circle, since I had gone through a similar process myself more than 30 years earlier. In my case, I remember the bishop telling me that candidates for the priesthood must be called by the church as well as by God, which were not necessarily the same thing. The more I thought about that, the less certain I became that my calling had anything to do with the ordained ministry. I ultimately withdrew as a prospective candidate, a move that I have never had reason to doubt was the right one for me.
While still immersed in the process, I got to thinking about St. Paul and how he might have fared under similar circumstances. To put it mildly, he brought an unusual set of qualifications to his position in the early church. He was a Pharisee who had started out as a notorious persecutor of Christians before he abruptly switched allegiances. His fellow Christians were understandably wary of him at first, and he was never all that easy to get along with in any case. He eventually emerged as the chief apostle to the gentiles, which put him at odds with the “Jewish” branch of the church centered in Jerusalem. He was by turns stubborn, opinionated, quarrelsome and boastful. (He was also a misogynist, par for the course in those days.) It seemed everywhere he went – and he went nearly everywhere in the ancient world – riots and discord ensued. He was beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and thrown into prison. With such credentials, one can only guess how he would have fared had there been screening committees in the apostolic church.
Paul’s chief credential was his famous conversion on the road to Damascus. Having already participated in the stoning of St. Stephen, Saul, as he was known at the time, was on his way to Damascus to round up more Christians. As he approached the city, he was suddenly blinded by a light from heaven, and a voice demanded, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" One need not speculate on how the psychiatric profession might view this episode had he been properly screened, since there have been no lack of medical diagnoses after the fact. The most common theory is that Paul suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, which would account for the bright light, his temporary blindness and the fact that he was described as having fallen to the ground. Religious types complain that such ex post facto diagnoses serve to discredit Paul’s conversion on scant evidence. On the other hand, given the secular drift of our age, they can be thankful he was not simply marked down as deranged.
The story of Paul’s conversion strikes me as authentic – if for no other reason than he was so manifestly unsuited for any role in the church that it had to be true. Only God would have been able to foresee that Paul’s apparent shortcomings – or at least some of them – would prove essential to the survival of the early church in the face of fierce persecution by both Jewish and Roman authorities. As a Pharisee, Paul had the credibility to stand up to more senior church leaders who were reluctant to evangelize among gentiles. As a Roman citizen, he could invoke his rights to escape the clutches of local authorities. As an all-around tough guy, he didn’t fold when beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and thrown into prison. He had an uncanny knack for drawing strength from adversity. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,” he wrote. Although his conversion is usually portrayed as a dramatic turnabout in his life, the truth is that his face was set toward Damascus from his earliest days. He just didn’t know it.