Pondering the Perplexing Personality of Paul

January 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

I’ll confess from the outset:  For a long time, I had trouble appreciating St. Paul.  Eventually I came to really treasure Paul’s mystical side, his lyrical, poetic passages and prayers.   But even then, Preachy Paul, who could be something of a scold, sorely tried my patience. 

I am no scholar of Paul.  Nor am I any kind of expert on scripture.  But lately I’ve gained some compassion for Paul’s tendency to be judgmental and scolding. How or why this change of perspective on Paul came about I can’t explain.  It’s a good feeling when God changes your heart.  And that’s what this feels like.

God’s mercy is never-ending.  And it often comes when (and how) we least expect it.  Even at times when we may least deserve it.  I can attest to that – from my own experience.  And Paul is a perfect example!

This Mercy of God, so Undeserved, so Relentless in its pursuit of people.  Well, to me it’s one of the greatest proofs of God’s unique care for each of us, God’s stunning willingness to upend things and prod us to rethink and change direction.

So I think of Paul.  A scholar of Jewish law.  A zealot, by his own admission.  A party to persecution.  A witness to martyrdom.  A tent-maker.  A man who kept the Commandments.  Was zealous about prayer, scrupulous about performing the duties of a pious Jew.  And who, for a time, felt deputized to scour the countryside in search  of wayward Jews… new followers of a strange prophet, who’d been crucified and was rumored to have been raised from the dead.

We know very little about Paul before his conversion.  But from the little we know, we have to assume, I think, that he was a passionate man.  That he had a passion for God.  A passion for Torah.  A passion to take matters into his own hands?  It would appear so.  A bit prideful?  That too.  Hasty at times?  He was definitely a man on a mission.   Judgmental?  Yes, indeedy!

Now we know even less about God’s choice of Paul.  But from the disciples Jesus chose, we can make some assumptions.  We can think of Moses and Abraham and Jacob – all chosen as well.  We can think of prophetsso many of whom tried to decline the Divine intervention in their lives, viewing themselves as sinful or not up to the task.

But Paul is unique in a sense.  An intellectual.  A zealot on a self-chosen mission.  A man versed in Torah.  Venerating Torah.  So dedicated to Torah he was willing to exterminate those he viewed as veering off the Torah path.  But a man who turned on a dime, so to speak.  Becoming one with those he was persecuting.  Because Jesus’ appearance, especially his words – “Why are you persecuting me?” – made it clear that Jesus was ONE with them.

It seems to me that Paul’s mystical side relates especially to this encounter with Jesus.  To the moment when his whole life was turned inside out and upside down.  When Holy Mystery took hold of him and, suddenly, he knew this Mystery – to be the Risen Christ.  And his judgmental side?  I wonder if that is the thorn in his flesh, which bothered (and humbled) him.  We all have these limitations.  Yet God pursues us and bids us welcome… nonetheless.  I find that very comforting.

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§ 2 Responses to Pondering the Perplexing Personality of Paul

  • Fran Schultz says:

    I have pondered about Paul as well. Interesting to note my son’s middle name is Paul, of which I chose for some unknown reason at the time. Paul certainly does have his mystical moments in his writings. I don’t remember exactly when my view of him softened and/or changed. It was pretty recent. I recall asking God about it and asking Paul too, as well Jesus.

    What I think occurred within me was to read him again and take Paul in his whole being, in the time he lived, as well the mission he was given by God through the Risen Christ. Everyone has a different mission. It is difficult to put into words this new sense that I received one day. I did receive that and I did ask Paul to forgive me for my doubts. In taking him within an entire context and the many persecutions he suffered and was able to endure perhaps is what triggered a more loving & merciful understanding of him.

    Paul is also perplexing after reading the Gospels, for some reason. It is a real shift to try to grasp. The way he speaks is different than Jesus. Also, one has to filter through our own indoctrination which to many seemed to stunt the growth of our Faith, made it unhealthy and unwise. Perhaps after some unlearning we can approach Paul differently.

    Also, I have pondered the idea before that the writings of Paul and other Epistles may have been tainted by others when they were re-translated at some point in time which can cause cynicism. That sort of added to some confusion or misunderstanding as well. Yet, I persisted with asking the questions that led to a change of heart.

    Also, I had to ponder that Peter also accepted Paul into the early Christian/Jewish fold, despite Paul’s complicity in St. Stephen’s, the first Christian/Jewish martyr. I believe that is what ties the Gospels of Jesus to how true followers of Jesus ought reconcile with sinners who have converted. They did not put him to death. This also might have helped Paul to understand about the new law of the spirit of Christ. Paul does take quite a few readings to grasp. I do not claim to understand it all.

    Yes, it is comforting. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, TheraP.

    • TheraP says:

      Thanks for your long and fascinating comment, Fran. Yes, there are big differences between Paul and the Gospels. The entire New Testament is so varied. With four different Gospel views. Then Paul. Acts, as Luke’s view of Paul. And even the imitations of Paul. Then again the whole Bible is so varied! Thanks again for your thoughtful musings.

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