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On the Road to Damascus or In the Back of the Temple

December 18, 2012

conversion-st-paulFor many Christians, Saint Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is considered to be the gold standard for the process of salvation: the Lord is directly experienced and a person’s life is changed radically, immediately, and triumphantly. A blinding light from heaven, the voice of the Lord, and an astonished and trembling Saul asking what he should do portray an emotionally powerful experience for which many spiritual seekers long. It seems similar to the experience of the Apostles Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor when they were allowed to glimpse the Lord in all His transfigured glory.  Yet, both Apostles Peter and Paul would learn that such experiences are mere beginnings foreshadowing the glory stored up in heaven for the righteous. These experiences were, moreover, miracles belonging exclusively to Christ. They were not benchmarks of their own spirituality, but of His graciousness and boundless love. The Apostles would learn that such experiences are really no measure of spiritual growth, but a preparation for the real work of discipleship in humility and repentance.  Saint Paul would later refer to himself as “the chief of sinners”, “the least of the apostles that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God,” and advise the Colossians to clothe themselves with humbleness of mind. For the remainder of his life, Saint Peter would weep bitterly for his betrayal whenever he heard the cock crow in the morning and he would counsel his flock, “humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.” Where was the spiritual progress of these earthly angels and heavenly men? They became exceedingly humble at all times, even in the absence of light from heaven and the glory of Tabor.

In secular matters, one measures progress by salary increases, job promotions, and material comfort. In clinical settings, patients are asked repeatedly to rate their symptoms, their feelings, and their thoughts on a scale from one to ten. It is natural to try to measure our spiritual progress in a similar fashion, but how can we do that? If we measure it and find that we have advanced, will we not go backwards through pride and vainglory? If we measure it and find that we have not advanced, will we not fall into despondency and lethargy? The whole idea of measurement of one’s spiritual progress is problematic. Do we measure how close we feel to God? Do we measure how well we fast? Do we measure how much we pray? And what do we do with those measurements, how do we interpret them? Measuring the spiritual life is a bit like measuring the soul. The heart is deep and the measuring sticks of the human mind are not adequate.  The fathers do suggest reckoning where we are, but it must be done with a degree of watchfulness and care that is not necessary in other aspects of secular life. The Prophet Micah once said, “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” And he does give us some important areas where we can take an account of whether we have acted with God’s righteousness and merciful compassion before our eyes and whether our Christian walk has been one of humility.

Pharisee and PublicanIn the spiritual realm, we should not seek after Saint Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus or Saint Peter’s experience on Mount Tabor, for those are not within the our power, but gifts freely given by God when He sees that such are necessary. The experience of the Christian life par excellence is that of the repentant publican in the back of the Temple who quietly prays beating his breast, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Saint John Chrysostom notes that what the publican demonstrated was not so much humility, as it was honesty and gratitude. He was aware of sin, and with a broken and contrite heart, a heart humbled by the knowledge of his sins, he confessed his condition before the Lord Whom he recognized as merciful and good. With eyes cast down, he prayed and etypten to stethos, which literally means, “he kept on beating his breast,” striving continuously to shake up the core of his existence, the source of his every thought and desire, and awaken it to repentance. This persistent and all-consuming prayer that allows no room for casting a judgmental glance at others should be the gold standard for Christian prayer. Through it, publicans were justified it, prostitutes were purified, and the Apostles were given the strength and stability to teach and illumine the entire world. Through such prayer, such humble prayer, we can gain the strength to do and be all that Christians are meant to do and be. We can become ministers of His peace, His love, and His compassion. And it all begins with a simple prayer that can’t really be measured when said with all one’s heart. And that prayer is God be merciful to me a sinner.

From → Humility

  1. Bruce permalink

    Father Bless!!!

    As I read your entry today, it reminded me of how this topic is dealt with in AA literature. Bill Wilson (author of the Big Book of AA and AA confounder) described his own ‘conversion’ experience which was quite sudden and disruptive in the 1st chapter of the Big Book. Confusion around this topic lead the authors to add Appendix 2 with the 2nd printing of the Big Book back in the late 1930’s. Appendix 2 is brief and powerful and one of my favorite passages. It reads:
    The terms “spiritual experience” and “spiritual awakening” are used many times in this book which, upon careful reading, shows that the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism has manifested itself among us in many different forms.

    Yet it is true that our first printing gave many readers the impression that these personality changes, or religious experiences, must be in the nature of sudden and spectacular upheavals. Happily for everyone, this conclusion is erroneous.

    In the first few chapters a number of sudden revolutionary changes are described. Though it was not our intention to create such an impression, many alcoholics have nevertheless concluded that in order to recover they must acquire an immediate and overwhelming “God-consciousness” followed at once by a vast change in feeling and outlook.

    Among our rapidly growing membership of thousands of alcoholics such transformations, though frequent, are by no means the rule. Most of our experiences are what the psychologist William James calls the “educational variety” because they develop slowly over a period of time. Quite often friends of the newcomer are aware of the difference long before he is himself. He finally realizes that he has undergone a profound alteration in his reaction to life; that such a change could hardly have been brought about by himself alone. What often takes place in a few months could seldom have been accomplished by years of self-discipline. With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.

    Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it “God-consciousness.”

    Most emphatically we wish to say that any alcoholic capable of honestly facing his problems in the light of our experience can recover, provided he does not close his mind to all spiritual concepts. He can only be defeated by an attitude of intolerance or belligerent denial.

    We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program. Willingness, honesty and open mindedness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable.

    “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”
    Bill Wilson is referring to William James book ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ specifically his chapters on conversion.

    I find myself using this phrase ‘profound alternation in my reaction to life’ as a way of describing and critically examining my own journey of recovery. The principles he outlines of honesty, open mindedness, and willingness are the fundamental principles which allows this journey to both begin and find some sustainability in the Light of His Grace.

    Thank you again for all you are doing as help to remind us to seek first His Kingdom!!!

    • Bruce,

      The Lord God bless!

      Thank you for sharing this passage from the AA Big Book that is truly apropos. What matters most is the ultimate goal, His Kingdom, and using every means we can, every thought we can, every feeling we have, every action we do, to draw nearer to it until we realize that it is within and we experience it deeply in our hearts.

      In Christ born of the Virgin,

      Fr. Alexis

  2. It is interesting that I often have felt more kinship with St. Paul, not in his conversion (mine was/is not so dramatic or miraculous), but in his going away to Arabia, then Damascus to be silent for three years (Gal. 1:17). Thinking about how he had to rethink everything through prayer and communion with the fulfillment of all that he believed and practiced must have been both joyful and painful (in the “growing pains” sort of way, not as a negative thing). I often feel like I’m in “Arabia”, needing to rethink through prayer.

  3. R V,

    Saint Paul’s going away to Arabia to be silent and pray is a precious detail that we must never overlook. Saint Gregory the Theologian talks about the need to be illumined before we try to illumine and Saint Paul is a wonderful example of the fact that even after the light from heaven, illumination required time, quiet, prayer, and sensitivity to that still small voice.

    In Christ born of the Virgin,

    Fr. Alexis

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