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 prophets, so 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.