Saturday, January 26, 2008

St. Paul and us: The event of an encounter along the way

Here is the promised, but overdue, post on St. Paul. This falls under the heading of being loyal to one's circumstance. It is neither necessary nor even desirable to change our circumstances to live as Christians, as people who have experienced the event of an encounter with Christ. To wit, I have no other circumstance, no other reality, than the one I am living. While it is true that I may wish for, or even work towards, changing my circumstances, it is necessary on my way from here to there (which is the best description of life- as journey or pilgrimage) to attend to and be aware in my present situation, that is be fully present, or loyal to my circumstance.

The Conversion of St. Paul by Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto (1518-1594)

The circumstance that Saul of Tarsus found himself in, which can be read about in Acts 9, was going from Jerusalem to Damascus to continue his persecution of adherents to the Way. After the event, that is his encounter with our resurrected Lord, Saul still went to Damascus, but this encounter on the way made it a very different trip. Instead of persecuting Christians, he went to the house of Ananias, who had been told in a vision where and how to meet Saul. Therefore, the Lord was not content only to show himself to Saul on the road to Damascus, but also in the person of Ananias and in the whole community of disciples in Damascus, who knew of Saul and his reason for setting out for Damascus and, while scared of this notorious persecutor, were loyal to their circumstances, which they lived in light of their encounter. The Christian- the Christ event- is on-going through many encounters.

We can verify what happened to Saul of Tarsus in and through our own experience. To do so, however, we must be loyal to our circumstances and not seek to live in a realm of fantasy, a realm that too many think faith requires. If we are loyal to our circumstances it will be for us as it was for Saul: everything will be changed, different, not because we enter a different set of external circumstances, but because along the way we have an encounter, enter into an event, that changes everything, an event that is on-going and that happens in our circumstances and that cannot possibly be conjured up, lest it be only an affective or emotional, to quote Von Hildebrand, "egospasm".

We meet people who forever change us, we read books, see films, hear music, view paintings, drink incredible wines, eat delicious meals, experience the profound beauty of creation and the wonder it thrusts upon us, all of which stir up desire and point us to the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty. We also experience loneliness, restlessness, fear, anxiety, and sadness that even lead at times to a kind of angst, which is also indicative of our desire, which is bigger than the world. Such circumstances force us to confront our contingency, our smallness, our mortality. Because we are changed by the event, which is on-going through many encounters, we can become a true friend- that is a witness- by living our circumstances in the awareness of Christ's merciful gaze, a gaze with which we, too, look at others with compassion. This is a fact, Christ is a fact. Therefore, this gaze is not a mental trick or in any way dependent on how we may feel about it in any given moment. It is real, it constitutes reality. Our witness, which is always a form of friendship, an open invitation to "Come and you will see", may even lead us to write books, compose music or paintings, direct films, cook meals, scientifically study creation, run for elective office, etc.

The gaze of Christ is so powerful that it blinded Saul, a blinding that could only be taken away, just as it occurred, in real circumstances. In this case, the circumstance took the form of a compassionate touch, given by Ananias, and which was yet another encounter, an encounter for both Saul and Ananias. The touch was accompanied by these words, spoken by Ananias over a man who had come to Damascus to persecute and maybe kill him: "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 9,17 ESV). By this act, Ananias is a friend, that is, a witness, as was Stephen, whose prayer, uttered while being stoned to death at Saul's instigation, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them," is partially answered by these encounters, all of which are constitutive of the event.

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