Friday, May 29, 2009

1-25-2009: Conversion of St Paul (B)

Jonah 3:1-5,10/Psalm 25/1 Corinthians 7:29-31 /Mark 1:14-20
Theologians often refer to the God of Christians and Jews as the Lord of history; today reminds us that he is the God of geography as well.

This Sunday coincides with the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul under whose protection and patronage the pope has placed this liturgical year, commemorating the second millennium since Paul’s birth. Paul’s conversion from Saul to Paul, from ardent persecutor of the followers of Jesus to Jesus’ most audacious apostle, is recorded - not once - but three times in the scriptures. The dramatic experience occurs while Paul is on a mission to rein in those Jews who were following the new way of Jesus. We, and those proto-Christians, would understand Paul’s mission as one of persecution; though he, no doubt, would have thought of it as a purification – a righteous and necessary act. The life-changing event that changes his perception happens for Paul while on the road to Damascus.

And, in the first reading, the prophet Jonah is called by God to go east, to Nineveh, to preach and convert. Jonah responds by running away - in the opposite direction -toward Tarshish, which could have been on the island of Sardinia or even as far west as Spain. (We contemporary Americans might sympathize with Jonah’s decision to run away when we realize that ancient Nineveh is none other than modern-day Mosul in Iraq).

There’s something to this idea that travel sparks a desire for change, a surrender to conversion. A psychologist once told me of his astonishment when he inadvertently discovered the power inherent in a change of geography. He asked each of his patients what precipitated their decision to make a significant change in their lives. Virtually all of them told him the decision came to them when they were “away”: traveling on college break, or while vacationing, on a business trip or studying abroad. They were not unlike Jonah or Paul; they were all on the road, away from home, in unfamiliar territory. I can testify to this experience as well. I remember vividly the moment I made the decision to search for my birth mother. I was thirty-one years old and studying in Korea at the time. I had been in Korea about a month, suffering from culture-shock and feeling quite isolated and alone. I realized then that those feelings were not really foreign to me; I had always felt that way. I decided at that moment that when I returned to America I would begin my search. It took me but a few months to finalize a journey that began three decades before.

In literature, traversing a difficult geography is often emblematic of a character’s interior pilgrimage as he painfully shifts perception. From Homer’s Odysseus to Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, the external journey is symbolic of a dramatic interior conversion of ideas and affections. As Huck Finn travels down the Mississippi with the runaway slave Jim, the river evokes the realization on Huck’s part that the old way of seeing things no longer applies; it must be washed away. And so, America’s original sin – the chattel slavery on which the economy rested - could only be excised by an enormous price in blood (the Civil War claimed 650,000 lives). As Barack Obama assumed the Presidency of the United States last week, a very painful and costly journey has finally come full circle, and we as a nation have turned a bend in that great river. As both Americans and Catholic Christians the river of history will continue to carry us through difficult terrain and uncharterred territory ahead. At times our courage will no doubt fail us as it did Jonah long ago. And we will blindly stumble along the way, as did Paul after his divine encounter on the road. But we needn’t be too afraid, for the God of history makes good use of his geography as well – always calling us where we’re at and not where we wish we were.

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