Catholic Activity: Conversion of St. Paul
A wonderful description of the life of Saul/St. Paul the Apostle to relate to children.
On January 25 comes the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, apostle for apostles, missionary for missionaries, and if we are looking for heroes for boys and girls, little or big, there is none better.
St. Paul never even knew Christ in the literal sense of the word. He was born in another part of their world, he was about fifteen years younger, and the closest he came to the body of Christ was his continual hunting down of His followers. In that sense only, up to the time of his conversion, did he trade blows with the living Christ. But there were crossings of their paths long centuries earlier in their family lines.
Far back, long removed grandfathers to Christ and St. Paul were brothers. Juda and Benjamin were two of the brothers of Joseph, the same who was sold into captivity and turned up later in Egypt interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh. After the affairs of Joseph and his brothers were somewhat settled and they married and began to raise families, as the hundreds of years rolled by, the families came to be known as tribes.
The meeting that concerns us here took place when King Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, sat brooding in his tent one day, rankling over the insults of Goliath. An officer came to announce that a shepherd boy at the front, visiting his brothers, was insisting that he could vanquish Goliath.
"Bring him here."
So the boy David, of the tribe of Juda, was brought in, and he persuaded the king that he could do it. For families who have not read it there is a delightful surprise waiting for them in David's conversations with Saul and Goliath (I Kings 17).
First, David was armed with brass helmet, coat of mail, sword, spear, all the rest. Then David said he was sorry but he couldn't move around in all that armor; so he took it off (I daresay this episode was quite noisy.) Then he went over to a brook running through the camp and chose five smooth stones to put in his purse. At this point it is supposed by some that Saul and his men exchanged glances and asked one another, "Whose idea was this, anyway?"
David reassured them. Once he was attacked by a lion, and once by a bear who came to steal his sheep, but with the help of the Lord God he slew them both. Should he doubt God's help now? And he added with the marvelous wisdom of the young and full of faith: "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine who hath dared to curse the army of the living God?"
The rest of the story you know. Goliath thought David was a great joke and it turned out that he wasn't. One stone and one swing and that was the end of Goliath.
There is a contrast between David and King Saul much like the contrast between Christ and Paul. Saul the warrior calling for conquest by the sword, and David the stripling vanquishing with faith and the power of God, are like Paul the murderer (still called Saul) chasing his enemies down Damascus road and being overcome by Christ, the meek, in whom is all power in Heaven and on earth.
Saul was a Jew and a Pharisee, so proud of both that he wrote of himself: "Hebrew, son of Hebrews . . . Pharisee, son of Pharisees; according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee." And as a Pharisee he was educated well and painstakingly in all the exactness of the law. It was said that ten thousand regulations had been appended to the Law of Moses. The strange thing about the Pharisees, even the best of them, was that for all their religion they had little humility, and it went against their grain to think that the Messias would come in any but the most fashionable manner. So when Jesus of Nazareth arrived and with His followers began to preach a New Law which would be the crown and fulfillment of the Old, it was men like Saul who set out to put a stop to the thing and quickly. The first sight we catch of Saul in the New Testament is in that scene where he stands over Stephen holding the coats of the men who stoned him to death (Acts 7). That done and approved, he sought permission to follow the Christian Jews who had fled to Damascus, and here is the scene of this feast.
It was 180 miles to Damascus, and ordinarily it would take men on horseback about seven days to make it. But Saul was in a passion and he would have none of the ordinary pace; both men and horses drove themselves to the breaking point. High noon that day they were riding wildly when suddenly a light brighter than the sun fell upon them. Their horses screamed in fear, rose in the air, and Saul was dashed, blind, to the ground. Where he had been scanning the distance to Damascus there was blackness, and he heard for the first time the voice of his Enemy.
"Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute Me?"
Imagine the terrible impact of the fall, horror of sounds, stamping, fright, cries, gritty dirt in his mouth, blood on his tongue, all shattering the driving, driving, driving toward murder. Like a child he must have whimpered when he asked: "Who art thou, Lord?"
"I am Jesus, whom thou art persecuting."
And there is the doctrine of the Mystical Body again. It cannot be said too often or with too much emphasis that the lesson of this feast is Our Lord teaching this doctrine Himself Christ had ascended into Heaven. Paul knew that. He was chasing Christians, and Christ said to him: "Why dost thou persecute Me?" We are part of Christ in His Mystical Body, the Church, and when Saul hunted Christians he hunted Christ.
This is his first meeting with the doctrine that as St. Paul he would preach so eloquently, with so much love. He was biting the dirt when the knowledge came to him. Our Lord added: "It is hard for thee to kick against the goad." It was a tender rebuke, one we might imitate — or try to, when we rebuke our children, and there is a lesson for children in it too.
It would be easier for them to understand it if we said: "It is hard for you to pull against the bit." Little boys who know about horses know about bits; the more a horse pulls away from the direction his master wants him to go the more cruelly is his mouth cut by the bit. He explained things such simple ways, Our Lord did. And He knew so well about anger. It is evil, and the more we give in to it the uglier and more evil we grow inside, and all the time miserable, until finally we are hating everyone and the world as well, and we go about kicking things and taking our meanness out on people who have done us no wrong.
Surely Saul, who loved the Law, could hardly have forgotten: Thou shalt not kill. But his sense of propriety had been offended to hear the Apostles preach from every street corner that Jesus, the stable-born One, was King of the Jews. He became angrier and angrier until his temper was wild and he risked his soul on an errand steeped in murder.
Now he knew. Blind and helpless, he whispered: "Lord, what wilt thou have me do?"
We must use this feast to teach our children that submission to God's will is not weakness, but a chance to begin again. In one flash of light, Paul's life was undone, his works rubble. Not knowing how he was to take one step and follow it by another, now he waited to be told what to do. Paul teaches the little boy who defies authority that it is not worth it to continue to scream and save face. Give in, turn back, be sorry — and there will be forgiveness and love and help. He teaches the adolescent girl who balks parental cautions that there is wisdom in obedience and love beneath the intolerable restrictions.
So many lessons for the whole family to learn from Paul.... But back to that day. He was given a mysterious direction. "Arise, and go into the city, and it will be told thee what thou must do."
So they made their stunned way into Damascus leading by the hand the one who had always been so sure. For three days he waited without food or water, and prayed.
Now there lived in Damascus a disciple named Ananias. As Our Lord spoke to Saul, He also appeared to Ananias and told him about Saul waiting in the house on Strait Street. But Ananias was doubtful. He recalled Saul's reputation, and then Our Lord told Ananias something of the future of this violent ugly little man — that he would go to preach His name "before Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel."
That was enough. Ananias went right out to find him. Entering the house where he waited, he laid his hands on Saul's head and restored his sight. Far more wonderful, he baptized him. Saul, stopping only long enough to break his fast, rushed (he always rushed) out to the steps of the synagogue and started to preach Christ crucified.
The people were dumbfounded. Here was the man always so full of hate suddenly so full of love. It didn't take them long to gather their wits, however, and soon it was whispered that men lay in wait for Saul to kill him before he could slip through the city gates. But God had plans.
One night when the city was sleeping and the enemy keeping watch by the gate, a silent group of men made their way to the city wall carrying a rope and a large basket (perhaps some good wife's clothes-basket). They climbed to the top, tied the rope to the basket, and tucked someone in, and then — as in Peter and the Wolf — they "carefully lowered it down" and saw him land safely and scurry off in the direction of Jerusalem. Maybe one day later on, a message arrived from the city: All comes out in the wash. Who knows? It was the kind of thing the early Christians did. They were not above using code messages and symbols, cryptograms and signs to communicate right under the noses of their enemy.
There is more to the story of St. Paul, but this is the beginning and the episode we celebrate with this feast. The children must know, in addition to all this, that he was a tentmaker by trade, and why, if he was named Saul, he is called St. Paul. Tarsus was a city governed by Roman law, and Paul was as proud of being a Roman citizen by birth as he was of being a Jew. Paulus was the Roman (Latin) for Saul, and he liked to be known by that name.
Activity Source: Year and Our Children, The by Mary Reed Newland, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1956