(From an ancient Celtic prayer)
O Son of God, perform a miracle for me: change my heart.
Your creation is a million wondrous miracles, beautiful to behold.
I ask of you just one more miracle: beautify my soul.
The Christian tradition through the centuries is peppered with remarkable, powerful conversion stories.
Almost without trying I thought of St. Augustine, St. Alban, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis...
I have my own story - I’m sure many of you do as well - and I would have to say I feel a particular sympathy for St. Paul not only because of, but especially because of this watershed event.
In reading the multiple accounts of this moment recorded in Acts, I am always struck by a sense of forcefulness and power - a sudden, even violent upheaval of Paul’s journey - both literally and figuratively - physically and spiritually, his journey to Damascus and his journey through life.
By his own account, he is struck blind by the brightness of the heavenly light… He falls to the ground… His mission is entirely derailed. And his entire life as he has known it to this point is turned upside down.
Also by his own account - in his life up to this point, he has been a “violent persecutor” of the Church. I can’t help wondering if perhaps the violence of his own life had to be met with similar force in order to bring about the radical change which God intended for Paul - as he says, from even before he was born.
Of the many paintings of this scene, I am always struck by Caravaggio’s “Conversion on the Way to Damascus” painted in 1601. It is the second of his two canvases on this subject. Very different from his first version, and most other representations of this event - both before and since - the canvas is dim, and (relatively) still and empty. The background is dark - and the only figures are Paul, his horse, and an old groom. There is no heavenly splendor, no angels, no crowd of hangers-on, followers, or soldiers, no stable of horses, all in a tumult over the revolution happening before their eyes.
In this canvas - just three solitary figures.
Paul, a young man here, also unlike other paintings - Paul lays on the ground, bathed in a soft light, blindly reaching upward. He seems not so much startled, or frightened, or distressed in any way - but almost serene.
Caravaggio has masterfully captured the intensity and power of the moment, within a remarkable sense of stillness - slow motion (if any motion at all)... None of frantic, sudden panic of other scenarios.
It is a revolutionary moment in the life of Paul - and an important moment for the young Church - presented to us with a revolutionary aura of calm.
It’s a strong contrast to the scriptural narrative.
And I think its power is in the fact that this is how more of us experience it - not so much the high drama, certainly not the crowds of people… - but more personal, and interior; perhaps even (like the canvas) dark and mysterious.
We may, like Paul, be able to identify a moment of impact… but that’s just the beginning - we just might spend years falling. It might take months to form the words, “Who are you, Lord?” And how much longer then until the scales fall from our eyes?
I think what Caravaggio presents is that moment - maybe a split-second - just after impact, and before Paul’s mind has been able to catch up to the fact that something enormous has just happened, has just begun. It’s that briefest of moments just before anything like fear or confusion can show up; before words collect around pure experience - just an instant in which everything is changed, and everything is fine. And then...
Certainly, by St. Augustine’s account, and Thomas Merton’s, it was a long trip (many years) to the moment of impact, and a long fall - years more - to the point of surrender.
Paul himself says he took three years in Arabia and Damascus, before travelling to Jerusalem to meet Peter and James… and only then his ministry begins in earnest.
The point of impact - whether a moment of conversion, perhaps baptism, or confirmation… any number of different personal moments of change - these are merely pivots, or gates along the way - along our individual roads to Damascus… while what happens next often unfolds slowly, vaguely…. Something is happening, we might not be quite certain what… but it does unfold, powerfully, unmistakably, and irresistibly.
There is Power in that moment of impact: Power that is conveyed to us, revealed to us, Power that is poured into us - Power that, for Paul in twenty-something years, leads to him standing before King Agrippa, defending his faith boldly and without fear.
It is the Power that Caravaggio captures within deep serenity and mystery.
Years later, Paul himself will acknowledge that he is still only a beginner - I have not yet reached the goal, he says, “but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:10-14) He will urge his friends to have within themselves the mind of Christ - to come to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ - to build up the Body in love. (Phil. 2:5; Eph. 4:13, 16)
Human as we are, this is not and cannot be the work of a moment (however powerful) - and it cannot be only something we do. To have the mind of Christ, to come to the full stature of Christ - this is what we are called to be. It is the Power revealed and poured into us in our own moments of impact, the power that forms the very ground of our Being - from which flows everything we do, all we need to do, all we are called to do.
Indeed there is so much in this world that we are called to do - in order to be the Body of Christ, to have the mind of Christ - to share in the power of His resurrection.
The coming of God’s reign is the conversion of the world, and we must actively participate with God in doing this work. The Dalai Lama spoke well and wisely when he said that while it may be difficult to change the world one person at a time - it is the only way. So we must begin with ourselves - our own hearts and lives - with every tool of prayer and worship, study and service at our disposal - with all our heart and soul and might.
Paul says that the gospel he teaches was not taught to him, but was a revelation of Jesus Christ. And elsewhere in his letters he counts this moment among the appearances of the Risen Christ. (1 Cor. 15:8) Most assuredly, no lesser power than that of the Risen Christ could have brought about this remarkable change in the person of Saul…
No lesser power than that of the Risen Christ could bring about this remarkable change… in me, in you - no lesser power will bring about this change in the world.
Yet how differently we engage the world, when we meet it with an open heart - a heart which is being continually converted, changed and beautified - perpetually falling… into the heart of God.
O Son of God, perform a miracle for me: change my heart… beautify my soul.