This Tuesday was the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
Something about that struck me differently, this year. I’d normally think about Paul being struck down and all the following drama — because that’s what I usually hear emphasized, and certainly how we usually allude to it in passing: the whole dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus. But today, when I saw the name of the feast, it registered as if anyone else’s name had been there. The conversion of Kevin. The conversion of Sally. The conversion of Robin. The conversion of Paul.
Perhaps because, the evening before, I had caught myself falling into a familiar shortcoming: caught myself, and caught myself. Stopped, and turned around, and walked back up that metaphorical slope. And then, instead of berating myself for backsliding, I caught myself there, too, and instead thought through exactly what had happened: what had been the stimulus, and the opportunity, and how exactly I had started to fall back into it, and how I noticed what I was doing, and how I stopped.
I narrated all that to myself, and found that I experienced it as a moment of grace — a grace that I would not have encountered, had it not been for my slipping on a banana peel, flailing wildly, trying to keep my balance, and…… succeeding, with the help of that grace.
Catholics usually speak in terms of an “occasion of sin.” It’s in the traditional Act of Contrition: I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to sin no more, and avoid the near occasion of sin. I was 7 when I learned what it meant: a place, or situation, where you are more likely to fall into sin. Like a bar for an alcoholic in recovery, I would say now; I don’t remember whether we were given a less venal or more child-friendly example in our first communion class.
But if there are occasions of sin, must there not also be occasions of grace? Ordinary ones, not only the sacraments. Sin as an occasion of the grace of the sacrament of penance, that absolves and reconciles us, is almost trite — or perhaps I’m confusing it with the despondent reminders from the pulpit that we should come to confession (with nary a word as to why).
Sin can be an occasion of grace: grace that not only helps us to stop sinning in that moment, but to perceive the machinations of mind and heart, of desire and will, that lead us to sin. To understand how we got there. We firmly resolve to sin no more: that resolve is immensely aided by such understanding.
For all that the visual drama of the Road to Damascus scene inclines us to assume that Paul’s conversion occurred instantaneously — or, perhaps, began when he was struck from his horse and was complete by the time he hit the ground — scripture implies otherwise. Rather, that moment was Paul’s realization of what he had been doing, Whom he had been persecuting.
Scripture tells us almost nothing about the next three days. They take almost no time to read about, so it’s easy to overlook them, or perhaps ascribe a purely symbolic meaning to them, alluding to Jesus’ three days in the tomb. But think back on your own experiences of suddenly realizing that what you have been doing is wrong: doesn’t it take some time and reflection to understand how you got there, and which habits of thought veiled your perception of right and wrong, and what you need to change to avoid falling back into those same old habits again? I think that’s what Paul was doing, those three days.
We know that like all of us, he continued to struggle with habitual sins, because he wrote about it in his letters, lamenting, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” Even for St. Paul — with apologies to the liturgical calendar! — conversion was not a single event, but a life-long process.
Conversion is a turning, a turning away from sin, a turning towards God, again and again, over and over, a dance that goes on, we hope, all our lives. And at every turn, grace meets us, supports us, steadies us, gently guides us, if we consent to be met, and supported, and steadied, and guided.
Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.