By Pam Shellberg
The biblical story familiarly known as Paul’s Damascus Road experience (Acts 9) is really less a story of his “conversion” than it is a brilliant portrayal of an archetype of a rite of passage or an initiation. As such, it has become, for me, a really meaningful meditation, both on the season of Lent and the resurrection promise of Easter.
Paul’s story begins, as initiations do, with separation. A faithful and zealous Jew, Paul was absolutely certain that Jesus of Nazareth could not possibly have been God’s messiah to Israel. Paul’s persecutions of Jesus-followers bear witness to this. And so, his encounter with the resurrected Christ separated him from his former life and ruptured his belief system, making his present moment radically discontinuous with his past life.
According to Acts (9:8-9), Paul was blind for three days, during which time he neither ate nor drank – symbolic of a death to self and also of ritual purification and preparation. While much is made of how Paul became a Christian apostle after his encounter with the resurrected Christ, I think the real heart of the story is this reference to Paul’s three days blind. Here Paul sits on a threshold, in a liminal space – no longer who he was, but not yet able to see who he will become. It is the second phase of an initiation.
This liminal space is one with which many of us might feel all too familiar, spending a good bit of our lives suspended at thresholds, between the “what was” of our lives and the “what’s next.” The pandemic has been one relentlessly long liminal time. Most life transitions – births, marriage, divorce, relocation, loss of meaningful work, aging, illness or injury, and, of course, death itself – place us in liminal spaces. We feel we have been changed, but it is not at all clear who we will become. These can be fearsome spaces – confusing, sorrowful, and disorienting. It’s challenging to live through them. It’s hard to stay confident about what waits on the other side of the threshold.
As a liturgical season, Lent was a threshold time, a liminal space into which we are invited to imitate the pattern of Christ’s dying, death, and resurrection – and thus, at Easter, be initiated into a new way of being. Lenten seasons hold and guide us, bequeathing their wisdom so that we might be spiritually fortified for all the other liminal times in our lives and not lose hope.
Paul’s story and the story of Christ’s resurrection both give me hope and reassurance that divine love will always draw life out of all the most death-dealing of circumstances. They reveal to me how God – known in nature, in relationships, in silence, in beauty and in love – will also be known to me in brokenness – in Christ’s, in Paul’s, and in my own.
The paradox of grace is that it longs for those who are broken to be made whole but
also summons those who are whole to be broken.
Belden C. Lane, in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes
I think Paul understood just this when he wrote to the Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Paul saw the resurrected Christ. Yet, he writes to the Corinthians that he wants to know nothing among the people except Christ and Christ crucified – not resurrected, but crucified.
In another letter, Paul quotes an early Christian hymn celebrating how Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). And what was this emptying but Jesus’ voluntary relinquishment of all the legitimate claims he had – because of his equality with God – to status, power, and privilege. In the midst of the torture, the humiliation, the pain, and abandonment, right up to the moment of his last breath, I imagine Jesus could have saved himself. But he didn’t. He emptied himself, voluntarily relinquishing his claims, and “was obedient unto death” (Philippians 2:8).
I think during Paul’s liminal time, he came to see that imitating Christ, having this same disposition to emptying, is what it means “to have the mind of Christ” – and to be initiated, reintegrated, restored, resurrected. During Lent we were invited to similarly empty ourselves. Now, in this Easter season, we continue to answer the summons, promised that we are on our way to a yet unknown wholeness.
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Sounds like the Holy Saturday that we all live in. Sometimes are darker and some have more light, but not there yet!!! Thank you for the reflection.
There is so much to meditate on in this reflection. For example, I never thought of Paul’s 3 days blind as liminal space where he was “no longer who he was, but not yet able to see who he will become…” That speaks to much of life during these turbulent times and helps us see that God can use these times to transform us.
Thank you for taking the time to respond here, Cathy. Paul was, for a very long time, kind of the guy I loved to hate – until I started to consider how traumatic his experience of the risen Christ actually was for him. As Christians, we inherit his mature reflections on the experience in his letters – and I think they’ve become, over centuries of interpretation, to be read in rather prescriptive, dogmatic way. But I think when we read back from his letters to his former life, we get the strong sense of the demand to release and relinquish on our way to, as you say, a transformed life. We are drawn to all the hope and promise, but it’s so much harder to sit – as Paul’s three days represent for us – in the grief and sorrow and actual fear of the letting go.
It brings me peace to empty myself and let the spirit of Christ in.
Thank you for commenting here, Judi, and for witnessing to the peace of Christ. Although I suspect that Paul did not immediately experience peace immediately – the way he was led to empty himself did, in fact, lead him to peace. So much so that he wrote in the letter to the Philippians, “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). He came to know a deep peace, and a peace that kept him “in Christ.” It’s beautiful that you do, too.
Thank you, Marcia. I appreciate these kind words. It is just like Holy Saturday. Three days – three days blind, Jonah in the belly of the whale, Jesus in the tomb. All times of death and rebirth. The three days is symbolic for an experience we know sometimes goes on in such a seemingly unending way. But, we have hope!