Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Conversion of St Paul

A meditation from Sister Wendy Beckett for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul.

On the whole, artists were not especially interested in St Paul. The one event though that did attract artistic attention was his dramatic conversion. St Luke describes vividly in the Acts of the Apostles how he fell to the ground while he was on his way to Damascus "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord".

Nobody could have better appreciated this all-consuming anger than Caravaggio, perhaps the most violent artist in history. I sometimes think, equally, that no artist might have so longed to be overthrown, turned from his headlong career into savagery, and brought to his senses as St Paul was. Caravaggio enters fully into the shock of this incident but maybe his fellow feeling is almost envious.

This was the central event of Paul’s life, "a conversion" that changed him completely, but which poor, angry Caravaggio was never to know. He shows us St Paul, or rather, not yet St Paul but still the hostile Saul, flung from the security and eminence of his horse. Saul’s head almost juts out into our space; he is upside down, dislocated, we cannot see his facial expression, but must read the whole story from his body language. A bright light is shining full upon him, blinding him, and he hears the voice of Jesus: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" All Saul can stutter in reply is, "Who are you Lord?" The heavenly answer must have chilled him to the bone. His use of the word "Lord" means that Saul understood well that it was God who was speaking to him. And God says, "I am Jesus who you are persecuting."

St Paul was to spend his life unravelling the depth of that reply. How many of us understand it? All he had done against the Christians in Jerusalem, Jesus saw as done against himself. Years later, in the Gospels, it would be remembered "whatever you do to the least of my brethren you do to me". This was something Jesus tried again and again to teach His Apostles. St Paul, "last of the Apostles, an Apostle born out of due time" may well have been the first to understand to the full the impact of this teaching. He had not consciously persecuted anyone but those who he thought were enemies of God. But to persecute is an act wholly alien to God’s love. St Paul was to learn from this shattering experience that our neighbour, any neighbour, the most obnoxious neighbour, is still Jesus. Caravaggio dwells upon Paul’s horror and abasement. The very horse seems to withdraw from him; notice that uplifted hoof, and his companion looks down on him in sad amazement. But those arms, outstretched in fear and astonishment, are also outstretched in surrender. It never enters Paul’s mind but to obey the vision and change his entire lifestyle.

Picture: The Conversion of St Paul, Caravaggio © Bridgeman Art Library, London.
Text: Sister Wendy Contemplates Saint Paul in Art © ST PAULS Publishing.