Who Was Saul, Before He Was Paul?
Small of stature, slender and all nerves, Saul at ten years of age showed a lively disposition for a study of the Sacred Books. A Jewish boy, educated according to the prevailing system for intellectual discipline, usually began to read the Sacred Scriptures at five years of age. At ten he studied the Law; at thirteen the Commandments. At fifteen the wisdom of the Rabbis was unfolded to him; at eighteen it was the custom to marry.
Saul, not yet having reached this marriageable age, his father, a loyal Roman as well as a most devoted Hebrew, resolved to send his son from Tarsus to Jerusalem. Here, at the great Temple, the Law was explained and interpreted to Jewish youth by the most famous Rabbis of the time. At Jerusalem and at the Temple the ancient moral laws were less influenced by the current Greek thought which was speculative and compromising.
The Jewish community at Tarsus, situated on the shores of the river Cydnus, maintained very good schools at or near the Synagogue. However jealously the Jews guarded their traditions and customs, they saw day by day the thought of the pagan world invading their own thought, a pagan world that barred them out of society on every side. The temples were filled with idols and the streets with sophists. Jewish youth were sorely tempted by the seductions of the city's life. Even the Greek language itself seemed to weaken the native vigor of the Jewish teaching.
There was no scarcity of learned teachers. Nestorius, who had been a Master to Marcellus on the Palatine, was now directing the higher schools of thought at Tarsus. As these schools were centers of idolatry, Saul could not attend them.
This boy with a vigorous intelligence and a keen mind had, like his father only more so, taken seriously the Precepts of the Law and the faith of his ancestors. It was most expedient, therefore, that he should complete his education at Jerusalem. Saul was a Hebrew of the tribe of Benjamin, a sincere follower of the Pharisees. He knew the Hebrew language as well as the Greek. He practiced a manual trade and would be a burden to no one, not even to his relatives who dwelt in the Holy City.
Saul, then in the twelfth year of his age, came to the city that was to saturate him with the glorious history of the Chosen People. There was the High Priest Caiaphas; Pilate the Procurator, the Temple and the Tower of Antonia where they respectively dwelt. These two buildings stood facing each other, high above the strange assortment of little houses that pressed one against the other, straggling up the hill with narrow, stony lanes intersecting them.
In the Temple the boy was probably questioned by the Rabbi. Perhaps he was the same Rabbi who had listened with astonishment some years before to a boy from Galilee called Jesus. By his ardor and alertness, Saul must have astounded the most illustrious Rabbi, Gamaliel, the nephew of Hillel and member of the Sanhedrin. Saul entered his school and was a frequent visitor at his home. He sat with the other pupils on a rug and, like them, he folded his arms about his knees as he listened attentively to the interpretation of the Bible. He followed the Hebrew text which the Master read from one of the parchment scrolls.
At school his knowledge became more accurate and more clear, aided as it was by the sacred atmosphere where no idol was to be seen. The Temple, the very heart of Judaism, dominated all. Everywhere palaces, streets and wells were records of national glories, like so many finger prints left by the one true God upon His Own holy city.
What sort of gods were these idols? They were devilish illusions. Their false divinity was a destructive influence so that even the Gentiles, who were sinners according to Hebrew morals, had done away entirely with any idea of the true God. The Promised One, expected by His people, the Messiah, would come to destroy the idols of the pagans, possess the Gentile peoples and establish everywhere the worship of the Most High God. Saul's soul was filled with this hope, as were the souls of all good Jews.
During the long nights the thought of this great expectation lighted his soul as by a flame of fire. Into this land, promised by God to the Hebrews, a host of strangers had come to dwell, like a hawk which has settled itself into the nest of a dove. For generations the children of Abraham and Isaac had been dispersed throughout the Empire of Assyria and Arabia, like so much pollen scattered about by the Spirit of God to fructify these lands. Millions of pagan idolators lived like people asleep, under the hallucination of foolish doctrines and the practice of loathsome rites. They hedged in or tore asunder the families of the Israelites.
The Hebrew people were despised, vanquished, and saturated with bitterness. They struggled to keep pure their idea of God and clung to the ceremonies of their worship as God had commanded and taught Moses on Mt. Sinai. They continued to hold to their faith with a tenacity made sharper by a sorrow which too easily turned to hatred.
Many Jews suffered from these conditions. Many became stiff with pride and looked upon the mass of pagans as packs of unclean dogs. Even Jews in rags, physical outcasts, would thrill with pride while reading and repeating the prophecies. They hailed with longing and desire the defeat of idolatry, when the descendants of King David should triumphantly re-establish the primacy of the Chosen People.
Saul saw all this, and in the depths of his soul made his own plans for conquest. He vibrated like an arrow about to be shot from the bow.
Meanwhile he studied with Gamaliel. We do not know how long he attended the classes. At eighteen he had not married, either at Jerusalem or at Tarsus, a rare thing among his compatriots. In all probability he was again living in Jerusalem when the Son of Man came to the Holy City to conclude the message of His Gospel by His Crucifixion.
In Tarsus Saul must have heard enough about the coming event to make him detest Christ as a heretic, One who was especially opposed to his own sect of the Pharisees, and Who, like so many others, had proclaimed Himself the Messiah.
Later on, when he was about twenty years of age, Saul returned to Jerusalem, drawn there by religion and other interests. He had reason to detest Christ still more. There, right in the city of Judea, in the very shadow of the Temple, he found the followers of the Crucified, at the very time when it behooved the Jews to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah by purifying their doctrines and preparing their minds.
A group of these deserters and heretics were whispering from door to door in semi-clandestine gatherings that the Messiah had come and had died. Worse still, He had died on that instrument of death so accursed in the sacred writings of the Jews-----the Cross. This Messiah was none other than the detested Galilean.
A Messiah who had come and gone, overcoming no enemy, without re-establishing the Kingdom of Judah, Who had not revived from east to west the former beauty of worship for the true God: to believe such absurdity was to break down the resistance of the Jewish people and to compromise their hope of a millennium.
When Saul met them in the porticoes of the Temple or when he saw them talking near the Synagogue, the Pharisee in him blazed up and he thought it an urgent and holy work to destroy those various groups of deserters. The zealous Jews detested them even more than they did the pagans. In their daily prayers they probably cursed them, and if the authority of Rome had not prevented, they would have assassinated them.
Saul, returning to Jerusalem to seek there the purity of the Law, found instead a people who had infected its purity with new ideas. Coming again to the capital of the Hebrew people to enjoy there the integrity of his race, he found that his own people were mingling with the Gentiles. It was claimed that they, through love, had taken into the very confines of the Temple of God those who were not Israelites but pagans. The natural structure of Judaism was falling apart; its legal integrity was being corrupted, a veritable landslide was threatening to destroy all that protected the Laws of Moses.
At once, in his impetuous faith, the young Saul was ready to spring to his feet in defense. When meeting these Jews he would fix on them his flaming eyes as if to reduce them to ashes. So Saul did not cease asking the elders of the Sanhedrin, who were rather fearful and hesitant, to act energetically and cut out this defilement with the sword.
The Sanhedrin was the supreme assembly, both religious and administrative, of the Jewish people, but the Romans had taken from them the use of the right to inflict the death penalty. Nevertheless at times when there was a vacancy in the office of Procurator, or when they succeeded in winning the favor of Roman authority, the Sanhedrin again used the right of the sword.
Had the Elders been as daring as Saul of Tarsus wished they were, they would have proceeded with vigor against the deserters as against dogs. But threats were not enough.
When it was intimated to the stubborn Peter and the deluded John that they should not mention the name of their dead teacher (Saul would not deign to pronounce it), what had been the result? Nothing. Peter under his bushy hair had resisted like a bull. His mouth, shut tight in defiance, only opened to say, "We must obey God rather than man." This was provocative.
And he had dared to add to this heretical profession of faith, "The God of our Fathers has raised from the dead Jesus whom you killed, hanging Him on a tree." 2 Saul, remembering this, clenched his fists, and his face grew purple with rage.
THE STONING OF STEPHEN
On the other hand, Peter's firmness had made an impression on the mind of Gamaliel. His was a meek spirit, and he was venerated universally for his wisdom and mildness. When he stood up and said, "Do not touch these men; if theirs is a human work, it will fall of itself; if Divine, you cannot destroy it," they listened to his words.
Saul would not have acted thus. He revered Gamaliel but judged him to be weak, good for other times and other affairs. Saul was asking for energetic action-----so that a new courage should renew the spirit of the people and initiate the Messianic era. One day when some of the most fiery of the Jews had laid hands on Stephen and led him to the Sanhedrin, Saul was in their midst.
Stephen was young like Saul. He, too, was of Jewish blood though Greek by birth. He, too, looked to the future with inspired and steady eyes; and he thought of a peace that was to be carefully guarded but not won by the sword. He was, as they said, a Deacon; that is, he was appointed to serve his companions in the faith. He gave them both bread and the words of life; faith and works belong together.
The young Stephen had acquired a certain popularity that the Sanhedrin feared. They thought it an opportune time to get rid of him, and for this cause witnesses were easily found. These accused him of saying that Jesus the Nazarene, Whom he followed, would destroy the Temple and change all the rites of Moses. This was the worst of crimes and the greatest shame a Jew could commit against Jews.
In the mob that pushed its way into the Sanhedrin to assist at the examination, Saul wedged himself into the front row. Light flashed from his eyes as Stephen stood erect before the High Priest Caiaphas, the same who had condemned Jesus. In the presence of the clamoring mob Stephen began to speak, recalling to the minds of his listeners the glories of the great personages in the Covenants of Circumcision. So far the old faith and the new faith were blending; but here was the abrupt turn, the changing of national Judaism into the universal spirituality of Christ.
Stephen unfolded before their eyes and their consciences the memory of the Prophets. How they and their forefathers had killed these just ones and even the greatest-----the All-Just One, Jesus. Here, in Jerusalem, in the shedding of His Human and Divine Blood, the great rupture had taken place. Hearing this spoken with such boldness by a mere youth, the High Priest, his face angry beneath his headband of gold, the Pharisees pale with emotion, and the bearded Scribes seated on their stools stiff with pride, gnashed their teeth.
Stephen, though sick at heart, stared into their faces, then turned his eyes to Heaven. He said he saw the heavens opened and the glory of God revealed, and the Son of Man on the right hand of the Father. The crowd rose in fury and dashed outside, dragging the accused with them. The younger ones, in their rage, attempted to snatch Stephen from the guards, striking him with their fists. Less than ever did they want, or fear, a regular trial for the condemned, since at that moment the stern Pilate was away in Rome.
Young Saul, the most uncompromising exponent and belligerent champion for the very letter of the Law, carried away with zeal, leapt into the midst of the shouting band. When they arrived outside the city, he took his stand on a heap of rocks, inciting the others as self-appointed leader.
That mixed crowd of Scribes, Sadducees, and beggars, was an exciting spectacle. The witnesses responsible for the false testimony and consequently for the murder, turned to Saul and entrusted their cloaks to his keeping, sure that they would be safe.
"Take this, Saul! Here, guard this, Saul!" Saul with the heap of odorous phylacteries, headgear and cloaks at his feet, standing erect and aflame with the indignation ot the Prophets, represented well the revolutionary youth, intolerant for the Law. The slopes outside Jerusalem were full of stones and with these they stoned the Nazarene as they would stone a dog.
Saul saw Stephen sink to the ground with a look of peace on his face, in sharp contrast to the fury of his murderers; and he heard him call on Jesus. Always that Jesus, Who had caused the destruction of Jewish traditions and ceremonies. That name rang in Saul's ears louder than the shouts of those who did the stoning.
This stoning took place under Tiberius, probably in the year 36, five or six years after the Crucifixion of Jesus. With it the red story of Martyrdom began, a continuation of the Crucifixion even up to the present time.
Saul had not taken part in the stoning but he had consented to the deed by keeping guard over the garments of those who did. He shared in it, not only through personal responsibility but also through a corporate one, since he was the most eloquent promoter of the war waged against the new sect. Now that the persecution had begun with the stoning of Stephen, Saul put himself at the head of the persecutors. He always followed an idea without swerving. Either he would exterminate those deserters from the faith of the Fathers or else they must renounce the new religion. His choice made, he went straight
Saul solicited and obtained full power from the Sanhedrin, for they could not resist the stimulating eloquence of that youth filled with the spirit of the Prophets. He began by seizing the Nazarenes all over Palestine, in the cities and villages, in the countryside and along the seashore. Men and women were taken and put into prison like herds of swine. Others were compelled to take flight beyond the confines of Judea.
Saul's fanatic ardor increased with every persecution, so much so that soon he imagined he had freed his country from this pest. He had passed through the land like a fiery column, erect and thundering. He had purified the house of his forefathers. His faith had been turned into action; and his life was wholly sworn to the service of his Jewish religion. Henceforward those who rejected the Law were no longer seen about the Temple. The land of Judea was restored to the integrity of the Mosaic tradition.
The name of Jesus was heard no more. It was urgent that this name should be blotted out even beyond Palestine. The Rabbis had added it to the list of the traitors. In a short time Saul had pushed himself into prominence, taking by assault the honors of the Jewish profession and surpassing all the other young men of his own age.
In the light of his success Saul obtained from the High Priest, who at that time was Jonathan, credentials to the Synagogues of Damascus in order to fill his net there also. Nationalism and ritualism in Judea had found a civil arm of defense, an arm controlled by an intrepid faith.
The Conversion of Saint Paul
Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 25
Saul, with all the air of a conqueror, started for Damascus with quick, bold intent. He was accompanied by an armed escort and provided with money. He passed through Palestine and on all sides he saw the results of his purifying activity. The Ancients and the people applauded and sent their blessings after him.
All the ardor of the Seers of Israel burned in his heart. He loved the glory of God, and believed it to be one and the same as the glory of his people. Being zealously religious, he understood that a good Jew was bound to devote himself entirely to the cause of the Most High, so that God's glory might never be dimmed by compromise.
If Saul loved glory it was only God's glory. As idolatry pressed in on all sides, Saul felt an urgent need of protecting the integrity of the religious spirit by a rigid exercise of the Mosaic Law. His soul was a rare one. Knowing that all he had came from God, he surrendered all to God's service.
Like every son of Israel he had been taught a trade. From the days of his boyhood he had worked with his hands, weaving tents from goat's hair. In Jerusalem he supported himself. He provided for his simple food, his poor lodging, and the oil for the lamp that enabled him to read at night in the Hebrew and Greek books of the Sacred Covenant. His ardent soul was absorbed in their spiritual wealth. He read even to the point of wearing out his eyes which became red and watery. During the day, as he combed goat's hair and sewed on the tents of rough cloth, he pondered over the words of the Prophets.
Now as he travelled on horseback to Damascus, the prophetic words from the past urged him forward, pressing him on. Hatred of Jesus rose up before him like a phantom, beckoning him on to the capital of Syria whose queer assortment of little houses lay flat in the scorching noonday sun.
Saul paid no attention to that. Like a hound, he tracked his prey, determined to clear away from Hebraism this nest of apostasy. He was planning to travel this road again on the return journey, with a cortege of men and women in chains whom he would goad forward with the whip. He advanced eagerly, his eyes darting about in an effort to locate some of the Synagogues he knew, while the sun beat down upon Damascus in a white glare of heat.
Of a sudden, from east to west, as if the ball of the sun had burst asunder, with a rumbling sound a wall of dazzling white light stretched before him. It was such a sudden and powerful flare that Saul's eyes, accustomed as they were to the glare of Syria, could not endure it, and he fell from his horse. His companions quickly dismounted to lift him up, but they drew back when Saul rose to his knees and was heard speaking to an invisible being. When he fell, he heard a voice in that flash of light saying, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?"
Saul, crushed and helpless, raised his eyes and saw a person in the center of that radiant brightness, but the brilliant white light burned the pupils of his eyes, and filled them with red shadows, like a flood of blood. Trembling, he asked, "Who art thou, Lord?" In the evidence of the blinding miracle, he could not doubt but that this was a Divine Being. And the Being answered, "I am that Jesus Whom thou persecutest."
The reply was a new outburst of light for the youth kneeling in the dust of the road, plunged into the darkness that succeeded such great brilliance and glory. He had known of Jesus, but believed Him to be an enemy of God. Now Jesus presented Himself to Saul with unmistakable signs of Divinity. Saul understood, in a confused way, that in every follower of His, in each and all of those men and women Saul had put in chains, he had chained and persecuted Jesus. This first idea, like a new light, was an arrow piercing his mind. Bent in the dust under this overwhelming revelation, he heard again that voice strong but gentle, speaking to him, "It is hard for thee to kick against the goad." Truly, it was hard.
Everything about him seemed to be crumbling; his boldness as well as his strength were shattered. Lying in the dust, all his Pharisaical self-assurance rebelled and struggled, until his love for the Most High God overcame his pride, and surrendering, he moaned:
"Lord, what wilt Thou have me do?" In his usual decisive way, and ruled by God's power, he at once put himself at the service of Jesus, and called Him Lord. And the Lord commanded, "Arise, enter the city, and there it will be told thee what thou must do."
The red glare that seemed to pierce him from every side began to fade out, darkness swallowed him up, and he felt utterly alone. His companions who had seen no one, did not understand, and it was only when he tried to rise that they ran to him. The daring youth was now as helpless as an old man, an utterly ruined old man without power or strength. He groped for the light, and tried to open his eyes; then he realized that his sight was completely gone in that brilliant, glowing glare. The pupils of his eyes were burned as if by lightning.
Saul with bent head and body took the road to the city, silent as one returning from a great defeat. He who was the leader of the company was now led by the hand like one of the many blind who went about in Jerusalem begging on the great feast days. Instead ot the bold envoy of the Sanhedrin, a weak and helpless blind man was led to Damascus, eager to hide himself from view. They took him to the home of one of his co-religionists named Judas, who lived in the street called Straight. There they left him in his blindness and his mental torment. For three days he refused to taste either food or drink, and lay in a heap of misery, wrapped in his racking thoughts and trembling in his fearful darkness.
His fright had been great, but his surprise was even greater. All that he had ever lived for, everything in his life was now turned topsy-turvy; his pride as a learned Pharisee, one who pretended to discriminate between truth and falsehood, to distinguish between the just and the wicked, the pure and the impure, all was now dispersed like a breath of air. All his plans for Judaism had collapsed around him and had only made his darkness more intense. On the contrary, those ragged Nazarenes whom he had judged to be traitors to his nation, were on the side of truth and justice. They were identified (and this thought pierced him) with the Lord Jesus.
Jesus of Nazareth! He had, until now, thought Him an impostor, Who had died a few years previously, put to death by the express order of the religious and civil authorities. And now that condemned One was God, the Son of God. All Saul's past education, his passions and youthful ideals, reacted against this revelation. His flesh and all his ambitions fought and clashed throughout his whole being until he was exhausted. Everything seemed to say to Saul that it must be an illusion.
Blindness shrouded him from everything, even from himself. Out of that darkness came the meaning of what had happened. In his mind he saw Gamaliel so indulgent. He saw again Stephen dying. From the inmost soul of Saul there came a new realization, a new warmth which made him turn to Jesus, to Jesus Christ. He felt himself born again for the second time. Out of a complete annihilation there came forth a new and different person. Are these the illusions of a defeated one? he asked himself.
Lying on his mat, curled up in a miserable heap against the whitewashed wall, Saul writhed and moaned. At one moment he felt that God was with him more than ever before; at the next, he was plunged into desolation and felt himself utterly forsaken. To his friends, who urged him to take some food and to drink a little milk or wine, he could only answer with moans. He wished he could disappear in his humiliation, sink and lose himself in his darkness.
On the third day, at the moment when his blindness seemed most to crush his spirit, he turned to the Lord in deep humility. At that moment he saw faintly the figure of a man whom he did not know coming towards him, who touched his eyes as if to take away the veil that blotted out his sight. Saul waited motionless and breathless, not understanding the meaning of this vision. After a while someone came to tell him that a certain Ananias wished to see him. Saul did not know the man, and no doubt wished he had not come to disturb him, but the stranger had already entered. Coming near he laid his hands on Saul's head with great tenderness, and then on his eyes, calling him, "brother."
"Brother Saul, the Lord Who has appeared to you on the way, has sent me, in order that you might see, and be filled with the Holy Ghost."
Saul, who had raised himself and had turned his face towards the voice, felt something like scales falling from his eyes. Now he could see!! And the first thing he saw was that brotherly face. Then he asked eagerly, "Do you know Jesus? Then I am pardoned? Then the Lord has not abandoned me?"
"Far from it!" answered Ananias. "The Lord told me in a vision to seek you; and when I remarked that you were a persecutor, He revealed to me that He had chosen you for an Apostle among the Gentiles and the children of Israel. He is calling you to bear much suffering for His name's sake. You are for the Lord, a vessel of election."
Although Saul had lived for three days in the very midst of Divine activity, at this news of his vocation he was still more amazed. He had been a persecutor, now God was calling him to suffer persecution for a great cause. God had chosen him from among his people to announce the truth to Israel and to others-----even to all people. For such a cause he would have to suffer much. The reward of his Apostolate would be suffering; but this did not frighten Saul.
He knew that whosoever gives himself to God must brave the anger of those who are against God. His character was too well molded on that of the Prophets, too well formed by the traditions of his people, to be concerned with suffering. He was ready for all things, knowing that if God were with him, he, a poor Hebrew, would be able to do all things for God.
The fiery youth had now become a most docile pupil. He got up at the request of Ananias and was Baptized, receiving the Holy Ghost. From that moment he belonged entirely to the Son of God Who had died and had risen again, to the Son of God Who had appeared to him in His power and His splendor. The miracle had been a great one, but only because a persecutor like Saul needed such a miracle to transform him into a "Servant of Jesus Christ."
Since he had come to Damascus with letters from the Synagogues, back to the Synagogues he would go. Verily, the old Saul was dead-----it was the new Apostle who there presented himself. His companions of the journey were stupefied, and waited for an explanation for this most extraordinary fact; and he gave it to them. Rising to his feet in the midst of the brethren, he told them about the apparition of Jesus.
"I had come to persecute Him and to blaspheme Him; but now I have seen His power. He is the Lord, the Son of God. Be Baptized, if you wish to be saved. Jesus is the Christ."
The Jews could not believe their ears. Was not this man the exterminator of all who had invoked that name in Jerusalem and in all of Palestine? A stir of emotion and anxiety ran through the Synagogues. Some believed, recognizing Saul's accent of sincerity, others rebelled, not wishing to abandon the faith of the Scribes and the Priests. They considered plans for killing him. Meanwhile Saul, having now given public testimony to Christ, withdrew into the desert.
IN THE DESERT
Saul was a deeply religious man. Just as formerly it was characteristic of him to be completely carried away by ardor and zeal in all his undertakings, so now he was as completely dominated by grace. To grace he surrendered himself without heeding the demands of flesh or blood. That he might listen only to the voice of the Holy Spirit, he withdrew into the desert beyond Damascus, into a country vaguely called Arabia.
That complete transformation, the revolution he had experienced: in his soul, had been so swift and moving that he needed quiet and seclusion to take account of himself. He knew God would speak to him during his nights spent in prayer and in the days spent in fasting. He wanted to make his new adjustment, and what could be better than to go into the seclusion of the great desert? The fathers of Israel had done this in their great hours of anxiety, either for what concerned their own personal problems, or in the great crises of their people. Already hermits were dwelling in caves and listening in silence to the voice of God coming gently to them from the bosom of time and from the vast universe.
Therefore Saul went forth seeking solitude in this barren region scorched by the sun. His departure was quite different from his coming to Damascus. Before he had come as a ruler, led on by irrational passions; now he was the vanquished one, but free with the: freedom of God. For many years he had sought the voice of God in the sermons of the Rabbis, in the ceremonies of Jewish worship, and in his persecuting zeal. Now he had found it. Like Moses he had seen God, Whose Voice, more enlightening than the column of fire, led the way before him. It was no more he who lived but the Spirit of God living in him. It filled him day and night with the knowledge that he now possessed Jesus the Christ, the long expected One Who had come. At night the stars spoke to him of God's laws, and the teachings of the Divine Master became more intense, more clear as they penetrated his heart one by one.
They were the treasures and the riches of the Gospel. In this new spiritual construction, the Law and the Prophets took on new meanings and purposes. Saul no longer saw the history of the Hebrew people as an escape from the rest of humanity. Now through them there would be a great diffusion of truth among all peoples. He saw the Messianic Kingdom of God becoming complete, not as the dominion of one people over others but as a Kingdom of God for all people. All are brothers one to another. His conscience, his soul, his spiritual perceptions grew deeper and wider.
The glory of God became in his soul a new flame of great light. He felt a vast hunger for souls, far beyond the confines of Israel, even to the very ends of the world. He yearned to bring all people to the feet of Christ, and while as yet he could only yearn for this, he placed himself there.
As the new life of the spirit grew inwardly in Saul, he punished his body in expiation for the sufferings he had inflicted on others, on the Christian Community, the Church, which he had come to recognize as the Mystical Christ. This revelation was becoming clearer and more precious to him every day. He relived in spirit the scourges he had made others suffer through a hatred for Christ. They tormented him now in his own flesh, since he was himself a member of that same Body which he had once endeavored to tear to pieces. And he wept for love of Christ.
The center of his former life had been the Law, with its ceremonies and denials. Now in the new economy of Christ, all these appeared fruitless and useless fatigue, merely external exercises. This new life had Christ as its center and love as its expression. In the heat of this love, the old hatred against the Gentiles was vanishing, and in its place there was born a sense of brotherhood towards all God's children, whether circumcised or uncircumcised.
Both had gone astray, both were deserving of God's love, both had to be led back to the Father, through the Son, and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In the apparition of Ananias Saul had been called by the Lord, "a vessel of election." Behold, his spirit was being filled with grace and wisdom from on high, to complete and supplement his old nature already richly endowed with intelligence and capacity for physical endurance.
Saul had had a thorough education in the Greek-Roman culture. He was born in a Greek world, and his education was perfected in Jerusalem, the Holy City. He had varied and outstanding qualities with which to testify before the Jews, before the pagans, the learned and the unlearned of the working classes. The grace of God gave a new power to all these qualities, and the doctrines of Christ blended them all into one. He was a vessel filled with Divine and human gifts.
After two years Saul returned from the desert and knew himself to be not only a disciple but also an Apostle. We can find no evidence that he had been instructed in the doctrines of Christ by other Christians. On the contrary, all testimony affirms repeatedly that he became a Christian and an Apostle by a direct revelation from Jesus Himself. Christians, in the person of Ananias, had stepped in but only to bring him into the Church.
Jesus, Who had personally taught Saul in a most unusual manner, had not supplanted the Church in order to do this; and Saul realized it. For this reason no one more than Saul loved the Church and praised it. Having been made an Apostle not by men but by Jesus Christ and by God his Father, and seeing in his conversion and vocation one of the greatest privileges ever bestowed upon man born of woman, he knew how honored he was and how gloriously chosen.
THE VISIT TO PETER A.D. 38
When Saul returned to Damascus his formation as an Apostle was full and complete. Jesus had taught him the Gospel and revealed it to him. He had filled his heart with a fiery zeal for spreading it abroad. Only direct teaching could give a man the key to such profound mysteries. Only such an extraordinary infusion of grace could have molded a man of Saul's size into an instrument of such might and power for preaching the faith. Some doubted then as now any intervention from on high. The same is true now as it was then, only those doubt who fear the action of God.
In Damascus, the new Saul, while remaining the same old Saul, gave himself completely to preaching that Jesus is the Christ, and this he did for four years. The Jews who refused to accept this revolutionary announcement tried to rid themselves of the announcer by killing him, as had been done to the importunate Prophets, to John the Baptist, to Jesus and to Stephen. They watched for Saul at the gates of the city as hounds watch for their prey. They hated him as much as they had loved him, probably even more so, since he personified the most dangerous desertion from the ancient faith and customs of Israel. The minister of King Aretas not only allowed them to do so, he even gave them some assistance that he might gain their favor and at the same time free himself from this source of disorder.
When the Christians of Damascus discovered the plot, they consulted among themselves how they might save the Apostle. They hid him for a time in their houses . . . Guards were set at all the gates of the city but, shrewd as ever, the Brethren eluded the vigilance of the government.
One night, perhaps a foggy one, they let Saul down from the wall in a basket. He was small of stature and very thin on account of his fasts, so it was small effort to lower him down among the bushes and stones. Once down, he turned with a salute to the Brethren, and went on his way with cautious, quick step down the slopes thick with trees that extended to the sea, and took the road to Jerusalem.
Saul knew now that the search for him in the cause of Christ had begun. The same search he had practiced against others for the sake of Christ. He was gathering from men the first fruits of suffering in the great Apostolate.
But why did Saul go to Jerusalem where he had no friends, and where his work was not needed? He explained the reason to the Galatians. It was to see Peter. He wanted to know the Head of the Church, who stood in the place of Jesus Christ, to receive from him some sort of ecclesiastical investiture. This, his first going up to Jerusalem, might be called his first visit "ad limina."
In Jerusalem, the attitude of the Christian converts as well as of the Jews not yet converted was one of diffidence and reserve towards him. The Christians doubted his change, and the unconverted reproached him with apostasy; knowing that he was daring and strong, they all feared him.
Only one disciple with open-minded intelligence and courageous energy could overcome his reluctance, stretch out his hand to the new Brother and introduce him to the Community. This disciple was Barnabas. Barnabas then presented Saul to the other Apostles, Peter, and James the "brother of the Lord." Then Peter welcomed him to his house where Saul stayed for fifteen days. The Chief of the Apostles gave the new recruit the full ecclesiastical recognition of his Apostolate. So much so that Saul, commissioned by the Lord and approved by the Church, undertook at once in Jerusalem the work for which he now lived: the Apostolate of Christ.
The daily program consisted of a sermon and discussion with Jews and pagans, with Semites and Greeks, without distinction. Since Saul spoke Aramaic fluently as well as Greek, he could dispute with citizens and with foreigners. No one could remain indifferent to an incendiary eloquence and logic as compact and clear as that of Saul. He whose soul was fed on the Scriptures, was now armed with an irresistible reasoning and especially with a burning love for Christ. Those, who did not believe him turned against him and, as usual, conspired to do away with him, a custom, it seems, of those thinking they are in the right when they are really in the wrong. This time the Christian brethren again intervened, wishing to spare his life and to protect the Church in Jerusalem from a fresh persecution, since it was now enjoying a period of peace following upon Saul's conversion. They therefore thought it necessary to send him away from the Holy City. The argument of saving his person from persecution was not sufficient to bend the will of Saul, so he asked the Lord what to do. One day while he was in the Temple, he was ravished in spirit. Jesus again appeared to him and said, "Hasten to leave Jerusalem, because these here will not receive your testimony of Me."
Saul was conscious of his past failings and wanted to make reparation; and he was not forgetful of his part in Stephen's Martyrdom. "Lord, they know that I threw into prison, and scourged in the Synagogues, those who believe in You. And when the blood of Stephen, Your Martyr, was being shed, I assisted and approved. Nay, I even kept guard over the garments of the murderers." But the Lord insisted. "Go, I will send you to a people far away."
One might say that Saul felt himself to be the one most responsible for the killing of the Proto-martyr, and therefore bound to make reparation by continuing Stephen's work cut short by the stoning. It seemed as if Stephen, when dying, had passed into Saul's hands the torch of his own intrepid eloquence.
Saul was a Pharisee, and loved with a special affection Jerusalem and his own people. Determined as he was to make expiation, he was nevertheless docile to the Master and to the Apostles. Towards them he felt so much the more humble, in that he had been the more guilty in the years of his ignorance.
When he was informed of the plotting schemes of the Jews (or more correctly of the proselyte Greeks, who were far more fanatic than the born Israelites) he obeyed the Church. He withdrew from the mission to the people nearest his heart, so that he might seek others farther away and make them his new brothers in Christ. He went to Caesarea and from there he boarded a sailing ship which coasted the shores of Phoenicia and Syria. Finally, he arrived at Tarsus in Cilicia, his native city.
This seemed to be his calling: to bring the Gospel to men, and yet to be pursued by men from city to city. He carried with him the burning torch of the Gospel. All the defenders of Traditionalism of the Old Order, and of Materialism (dressed up, as it were, in religious rites and ceremonies) seemed to hurl themselves at him as if to suffocate him.
He remained a few years at Tarsus, perhaps as a stranger, until the year 43. His relations and friends who knew his impetuous but sincere nature, may have believed him, but the majority turned their backs on him. Among these must have been those Jews who were all for business matters and cared very little for religious discussions. No doubt to them their fellow-citizen, now become so talkative, was only a scatterbrain. To the pagans he appeared merely as one of the sophists, who went lecturing along the Mediterranean coast with illogical and inconclusive discourses.
Saul had become one with Christ, and the charity of Christ burned in his veins. If unresponsive men repulsed him, he strengthened himself by waiting, and prayed without ceasing in his untiring demand for more strength. And perhaps it was in this period of mystical union with God, in a transport of love, that he was caught up (in the body, or without the body?-----he could never say) beyond the visible heaven to the Throne of God.
To complement the teaching he had already received, words were addressed to him which he never felt able to repeat or reveal. Only once, in a moment of expansiveness, and to reassure the Corinthians of his Divine mission, he made an allusion to them in a letter. So that he might not feel any pride over this mystical experience and that he might give to God alone the credit for these revelations, an incurable malady of the flesh afflicted him like an Angel of Satan sent to buffet him.
He asked the Lord three times to be rid of it, but the Lord said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in infirmity." "Gladly," said Paul, "will I glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may dwell in me." 3 Therefore, these infirmities were never wanting to him. As for his great Apostolic labor, he waited confidently, leaving all to God.
Saul was dynamic as few other men have ever been. This continuous waiting upon God's will and for His directions in all things kept Saul in unceasing communication with the Eternal and runs through all his life. This living in constant expectancy with God is proper to souls intensely religious. They have found the way of communication with God, a way closed for the majority of souls by the thick hedges of materialism.
This waiting on God was not a loss of time for Saul, but an accumulation of energy and an interior study of the Gospel which, drop by drop, penetrated his whole being. He matured in this retirement, and waited, until one day he saw again under a full beard the honest countenance of Barnabas, the Apostle of courageous speech. Barnabas now invited him to another field of labor. Saul did not hesitate but went with him to Antioch in Syria.
Antioch, the gilded city, spread her bath houses and temples along the River Orontes in profuse abundance. It was the second city of the Empire in importance and was meant to be the metropolis of Asia. Seleucia of Perea, only a few miles distant from the sea, served as its port. Antioch was rich in traffic and in its shining marble monuments. Syrians, Greeks, Jews, Romans and other races moved about in the streets and formed a crowd, gay and voluble. They were exposed to unhealthy idolatries that united an oriental sensuality with a Greek refinement. They were intent on getting rich and enjoying life; by nature, they were easily excited, and as easily checked. Since they were apt to turn from frivolity to more serious moods, men of ascetic and religious life were produced.
The seed of Christ had been brought among them by the disciples whom the persecution of Saul-----in which Stephen had fallen-----had scattered, and also by other disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene. The former disciples, scattered by Saul's persecution, were still imbued with Jewish exclusiveness and had limited their efforts in conversions to Jews only. Those others from Cyrene and Cyprus, probably after the example of Peter who had Baptized the centurion Cornelius, had announced Christ to these pagans also.
So promising a center of evangelization had been formed that the Head of the Church at Jerusalem had sent the courageous Barnabas to see it and to provide for it. Barnabas had seen that, for the movements of the Apostolate, Antioch was a vital point. A worker of exceptional resources was needed; Barnabas remembered Saul and sought him out.
Securing lodgings for themselves in the midst of that mixed gathering, they worked together for a year, converting a large number. So many that the people began to distinguish the followers of Christ from the other Jews and to call them Christians for the first time, a Greek name with a Latin ending which in the popular mind meant a party-----the party of Christ. This was a sign that the doctrine and life of the disciples appeared, even outwardly, ruled by Christ as the Head.
In the course of that year there came from Jerusalem a Brother named Agabus who foretold a great famine. It was in A.D. 44 or 45. The famine came, and the poor in the badly organized country of Palestine suffered most. Then the Christians in Antioch put together as much of their substance as each could spare, and sent it to the Ancients of Judea, delegating the two Apostles, Barnabas and Saul, to bring it.
After fulfilling their task as distributors of bread as well as distributors of the word of the Gospel, the two Apostles returned to Antioch. Meanwhile, in Palestine, probably with the intention of distracting the people from the thought of their misery, Herod Agrippa, a worthy descendant of Herod the Great, began to feed his brutal passions with murders rather than to feed the hungry with bread.
First, he caused the Apostle James, brother of John, son of Thunder, to be killed. Then, seeing that this pleased the Jews, he had Peter taken and put in prison; but Angels came to set him free again. He was not the only Apostle who should pass from a prison cell to the great capital of Rome.
How Saul Came to Take the Name of Paul
Up to now Saul had been the companion and co-worker of Barnabas. He served the Church at Antioch; fasted with Barnabas, Simon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, and Manahen, the half brother of Herod the Tetrarch. One day the leaders and teachers of the Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, sent Saul and Barnabas on a special mission.
It was probably in the year 46, or at the end of 45. The two, sent from Antioch, came to Seleucia and from there they sailed for the Isle of Cyprus which the poets say was dear to the Goddess Venus. Saul the Pharisee would have chosen to stay away from the licentious city, but Saul the Christian went there purposely to fight licentiousness. Landing at Salamis, the capital, they preached the word of Jesus, helped by John Mark a cousin of Barnabas and the future author of the second Gospel.
From Salamis, climbing the mountains into the interior of the country, these three tried to approach the prisoners who worked in the copper mines, and to announce to them their true freedom in Christ. Always preaching, they pushed on as far as Paphos, the residence of the Proconsul Sergius Paulus. He was a pagan official who was interested in religious matters.
In that age of much political polytheism the myths, which were older than the contemporary idol worship, had lost all meaning for the people. Philosophers and wise men, as well as women of inquisitive minds, turned to the oriental cults in order to draw from fountains that seemed to possess more life. In this way, they were often deceived by false sophists. Sergius Paulus, a prudent man, had just then taken into his household a magician by name Bar-Jesus, who naturally resented his master listening to the Apostles.
One day Saul the most resolute of the three openly faced Bar-Jesus. Saul, his eyes shining with the light of the Spirit of God scrutinized the Magician and said, "O full of all guile and of all deceit, child of the Devil, enemy of all Justice, thou ceasest not to pervert the right ways of the Lord. And now behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind for a time." 4
As Saul spoke he remembered another man who in that same way had been punished for his interior blindness. At his words, darkness and a mist suddenly fell on the eyes of the impostor. He stretched out his hands, tottering and seeking a support. That episode changed the heart of Sergius Paulus, who believed and was, as it seems, the first person of rank to embrace the new faith. It is also believed that on his account Saul changed his name to Paul. Was it according to a custom common in the Empire that Saul adopted the name of his illustrious convert? Or did Saul use the two names before, one for the Jewish world, and one for the Roman world? We do not know.
The change was a slight one; in Greek it was easy to pass from Saulus to Paulus. At any rate, St. Luke, who narrates the miracle, begins at the moment of this meeting of Saul with the false Jewish prophet, to give to the Apostle the new name: "Saul, who was also called Paul." 5 In the Latin world Paul was more acceptable than Saul. Even today the Hebrews frequently use the names more common among the people with whom they live, neglecting their Hebrew names.
Acts 5:30; 2 Cor. 12:9;. Acts 13:10, 11; Acts 13:9