THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS
The scene of St. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus has been retold many times and is symbolical of the many conversions which have been effected by the grace of the Holy Spirit from that day until the present. The following excerpt adheres closely to the well-known account in the Book of Acts and is by a famous writer who himself entered the Church by the same road (1893-1952).
Saul set out on the road to Damascus with death in his heart. He could not know that he was about to keep a rendezvous with Life itself.
To Saul's mind "Pharisaism or Jesus" was the sole issue. And Saul the Pharisee went out to battle the upstart Church with a sword in his hand, and a troop of cavalry and foot soldiers at his command to pursue the Christians who had fled Jerusalem.
The military unit was the gift of Caiphas, high priest of the Jerusalem Temple. In Saul, Caiphas had recognized the perfect instrument to wipe out Christianity: a resolute man, well-educated, seething with zeal. Caiphas had given him a packet of official letters, waxed and imprinted with the seal of the high priest, and addressed to all the synagogues to the north.
Saul meant to scour the land as far north as the great desert. He promised Caiphas he would bring back, bound and captive, every Christian that he found.
But for many days and nights he rode without finding a single follower of Jesus, without excitement of any kind until he was drawing near to Damascus. From his white horse Saul could see the well-tended green gardens lying all around the ancient city and the two rivers whose embrace made this plain a lovely place of rich harvest. Even under the heel of Rome, as Damascus now was, being governed by an ethnarch called Aretas, a local king set up by the Roman Emperor, the people looked happy.
Saul, covered with dust, his throat dry, was anticipating the good dinner and the sweet night's repose he knew he could expect at the principal inn under the roofed bazaar of the "Street That Is Called Straight."
The border of the town was not more than half a mile away when Saul suddenly swayed in his saddle.
Everything he could see and hear and feel all around him underwent a change. There was a chill wind blowing at him, a blinding light shining on him from the heavens, and the roar of great waters in his ears.
Saul clutched at the reins but his palsied hands could not hold them. He pushed with his heels against the stirrups, but his ankles quaked and all power had gone out of his legs. With a great gasp he realized he had no strength to help himself. He fell to the ground and lay there helpless.
Then the roaring sound ceased and he heard a Voice assuring but compassionate:
"Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute Me?"
Groaning, not daring to lift his face from the earth, Saul replied:
"Lord, who are you?"
And the answer came in winning tones:
"I am Jesus, whom you persecute. It is hard for you to kick against the goad."
There could be no answer to that. Saul knew what the words meant, especially in relation to himself. A goad was a long stick about nine feet in length, sharpened at one end for poking at cattle. And the cattle could not kick against it, for the herdsman was nine feet away. Saul felt very much as helpless now. He sensed, dimly, that that same futile rebellion had been at the root of his emotional storms in the weeks since Stephen's death.
Trembling and astonished, Saul faltered the question that spelled his immediate, instantaneous surrender:
"Lord, what will You have me to do?"
The voice of the Lord replied to the man lying face down in the dust:
"Arise and go into the city and there it shall be told you what you must do."
And the Voice seemed to pale away in the wind.
Saul raised his head, drew himself up to a sitting position, and shook himself. His soldiers stood, amazed and troubled, in a great circle. They, too, had heard the Voice; and yet they had seen no man speak except Saul, their captain. They stood in silence that was like a spell. Then two of them took Saul by the armpits and raised him to his feet. But Saul's groping hands, as they made to let go of him, told them a shocking truth.
Saul was blind!
Saul never doubted he had actually seen Jesus. Years later, in the first letter he wrote to the Corinthians, he would rehearse the familiar history of Christ's death, burial, and Resurrection. He would remind the people of Corinth that the risen Christ had appeared to Peter and the rest of the twelve, that He had been seen by more than five hundred disciples at once, many of whom were still alive when that letter was being written. And then he added, with fervent humility and thanksgiving:
"And last of all, He was seen also by me, as by one born out of due time.
"For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle because I persecuted the Church of God.
"But by the grace of God, I am what I am; and His grace in me hath not been void, but I have laboured more abundantly than all they: yet not I, but the grace of God with me."
Skeptics still scoff at this encounter. Nearly two thousand years away from evidence, with no testimony for their own theories, they dismiss Saul's conversion as an epileptic fit. The line of years from then to now quakes with countless epileptics, not one of whom has written a single letter that affected the world, nor converted peoples, nor captured the imagination of posterity. Only Saul did that; Saul, of whom no fit was reported before Damascus or since. No skeptic can dispute the complete change in life of Saul, or what suffering he endured for it.
In that one blinding, falling moment Saul became another man. The hunter of Christians, the heresy detective became in one instant full of yearning to be a Christian.
He had seen God. And trembling before that glory, stripped naked of his intellectual pretenses, he had cried out in the hope and fear of all believers:
"Lord, what would You have me to do?"
Saul let his soldiers lead him slowly toward the open gate of Damascus. Strangely, he felt no humiliation in being blind, helpless in the hands of underlings.
He was going into the city, as the Lord had commanded him, to wait to be told what next he must do. To him nothing else mattered.
For three days, Saul was a problem in the house of a Christian who bore the unfortunate name of Judas.
The infamous reputation of the betrayer of Jesus had been such that this second Judas, this good man, has not fared well in the memories of the faithful. Yet he deserves to be remembered with hosannas.
His act was of sublime charity. He knew that Saul was the Christians' worst enemy. He also knew that Saul had met with some sudden accident outside the city gate. Judas was not so gullible as to hope that kindness would appease Saul; mercy in the eyes of the anti-Christians was a weakness. Judas had nothing to expect and much to fear when he opened the door of his house, behind the Street That Is Called Straight, and allowed the weakened Saul to be laid in his own bed.
For three days and three nights the soldiers of Saul stood guard over Judas' house while their captain lay in bed.
"Saul talks to himself," they said to one another. "He is a very sick man."
But none of the advice or the weird prescriptions of Damascus doctors were of help. Saul was blind. He ate nothing and he drank nothing. His lips moved, and he whispered softly.
One man in Damascus knew what Saul was trying to say. His name was Ananias and he is not to be confused with the liar of the same name. Here was a new part of Christian history with a new Judas and a new Ananias, accidentally serving as symbols of a better future.
To this second and admirable Ananias the Lord spoke directly, in a vision:
And not unlike devout men of the Old Testament, Ananias replied:
"Behold, I am here, Lord!"
And the Voice continued:
"Arise! And go into the Street That Is Called Straight! And seek in the house of Judas, one named Saul of Tarsus!" A name to ignite panic in any Christian heart, Saul of Tarsus!
"For beholdhe prays!"
Ananias had been instructed in the mercy and forgiveness of God. He knew that God will forgive trespasses only as we forgive them who trespass against us. But Saul was a living terror, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord."
And even while Ananias was cowering in the presence of such fearful instructions, a kind of vision came at the same time, halfway across the city, to the distracted mind of blinded and helpless Saul. He saw someone entering the bedroom of Judas' house, a stranger who laid pale and trembling hands over Saul's eyes.
At the instant of that vision, Ananias was already pale and trembling.
"Lord," he protested, overwhelmed with his terror, "I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And right here in Damascus he has authority from the chief priests of the Temple to bind everybody who dares to invoke Your Name."
There was a moment's silence, and then the Lord spoke with a firmness of command not to be mistaken:
"Go your way. For this man is to Me a vessel of election, to carry My Name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him what great things he must suffer for My Name's sake."
There could be no reply except instant obedience.
A minute later, Ananias set off down the narrow and deserted paths of early morning, to look for Saul in the house of Judas.
The sun was not yet up, and the room was dim as the messenger of Christ stood by the bed and spoke to the tossing, blinded man of Tarsus:
The hands of Ananias, pale and trembling, touched the eyelids of the stricken man.
"Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me."
A sound like a groan came from the lips of Saul, weighted with profound and grateful relief, as if he had waited in anguish for this call.
"The Lord Jesus has sent me," Ananias repeated; "He that appeared to you in the way as you came; that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Ghost."
To see again. Oh, yes, please, merciful Lord! And to be filled with the Holy Ghost! The Holy Ghost that I had sworn to drive from the hearts of men in the name of God and the Sanhedrin.
"And immediately there fell from his eyes, as it were, scales, and he received his sight. And rising up, he was baptized."
Saul baptized! Now, there was a tale the Christians back in Judaea would find it hard to believe. By the grapevine that passed from Damascus to Joppa, from Nazareth and Capernaum even to Jericho, and through Galilee into Samaria and wherever the Christians were hiding in the underground, the word would go out that Saul, the persecutor, had been stricken blind near the western gate of Damascus; had seen the Lord Jesus and heard His Voice, had been healed of his blindness by a Syrian Christian, and that now he was himself a Christian.
Who could be expected to believe a wild story like that?
Yet it was literally true. Barely able to stand in the weakness of joints and waist and thighs that was the aftermath of his fall, Saul nevertheless held himself stubbornly erect and suffered Ananias to pour the water over him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
Saul could see the room filled with sunrise; the bed, the chairs, the table, and the sweating candle; he could see the face of his new friends, Judas and Ananias.
In that moment Saul became truly, irrevocably, a new man. He was born again.
And he chose to mark that hour of transformation by shedding the Hebrew name Saul, by which all men knew him. He chose instead to be known by the name he had seldom used, his official name as a Roman citizen.
Instead of Saul, the man of Tarsus would from that day of baptism till the end of time be known as Paul.
Selection from A Treasury of Catholic Reading ed. John Chapin (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1957).