Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Sermon: Conversion of St Paul

There is one simple point I wish to focus on today: the PRIMACY of God’s action in our lives.


Today is the feast of the conversion of St Paul.

When we speak of  ‘conversion’ we speak, usually, of someone who changed their mind:

“He’s a convert” -usually means: he used to not be a Catholic

Now, he is a Catholic,

AND, If you ask him, he’ll tell you what intellectual conviction led him to the Catholic Church.

The problem with that narrative is:

That God doesn’t fit into the conversion account

-this description is about the man changing himself, changing his MIND

-this description isn’t about GOD changing him.

Perhaps most worryingly, 

not just about “the convert” but about “the seminarian”

-this description is one that lends itself to PRIDE

I have MADE myself into this GREAT man you see before you

I, the perfect seminarian.

I, the perfect formator.


Saint Paul was not a self-made man.

In contrast, we might say: SAUL was a self-made man.

But God took that “Saul” guy and knocked him off his horse, both literally and symbolically

God took him, and by His mighty providential planning,

By His mighty works of miracles -the voice, the blinding, the healing,

By His mighty grace -worked an inner transformation that made a NEW man:

Saul no longer, but Saint Paul.





I read a meme this week, quoting Fr Garrigou-Lagrange, who was probably the greatest theologian of the 20thcentury.

It said:

There are two doctrines that preserve us from pride:

One, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo

-If I have been created out of nothing, what pride can I take in myself!?!

Two, the doctrine of the primacy of God’s grace

-Even my ability to RESPOND to His grace is itself a work of grace within in.

We might note, not on that particular meme, but in St Thomas:

Concerning freedom, 

(for those of you who get concerning pondering this)

When God works in us by His grace

He moves us such that we become MORE free because of His action

Not less free

In a crude analogy:

When a father lifts a child so the child can reach something,

The father increases the child’s freedom, he doesn’t diminish it.

-even more so with God’s grace in us.



Back to Saul.

Saul, as we know, was what the early Christians would have seen as a boogy-man:

A man to frighten little children by telling tales of him.

Determined, organised, out to get them.

Travelling city to city, getting the proper documentation and authorisation to hunt and destroy them.

Saul was a very UNLIKELY CHOICE for an apostle.

But if God can make something out of nothing,

He can, even more easily, make an apostle out of a persecutor and sinner.





Now, where does this leave us?

I have many things in my life that don’t seem to change

Or, that seem to change only very slowly.

As long as I think my change is about ME,

Then my failure to change is a cause to despair.


If my change, my conversion, is about HIM,

Then the whole problem looks different.

GOD is in charge,

GOD knows what He is doing.

If He can make an apostle out of Saul

Then He can make a saint out you and me.

He orders all things mightily,

As St Paul would later put it,

All things work to the good, for those who love the Lord,

For all He has called according to His purpose, called to be saints. (Rom 8:28)

He can take my being one who “loves the Lord” 

Even if I only live Him weakly,

He can take that, build on that, and work all things to the good. 



One of my favourite booksthe Spiritual Combat, by Don Lawrence Scupoli,

Expounds at length about how, even in His permitting my specific sins and falls:

He works to help me grow in humility,

Helps me grow in awareness that I need to place my confidence IN HIM.

Even in my failings,

“All things work to the good, for those who love the Lord”.

Why did God strike Saul from his horse?

Why did He blind him?

Because He had a plan for him, 

Because He loved him.

And it has been the same in my life, and yours,

He allows your sin,

To lead you humility

To lead you to more

He sometimes slaps us around a bit,

Because He has a plan for us

Because He loves us


To conclude,

Today we celebrate a conversion;

Today we celebrate the working of God’s grace;

God’s grace converted Saul, 

It was not Saul who converted Saul.

Let us rejoice to think: He can even convert us.

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