Immediately it was as though scales fell away from Saul’s eyes and he could see again.
“Amen, amen I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
When I was a child, one of the worst characterizations my parents could make of a person was the she or he “was full of” her or himself. The Saul to whom we are introduced in Acts 9 is truly such a person. His blindness and narcissism create in him a rabid hatred of the heretics who are followers of the Way. In his self-righteousness and doctrinal purity he has projected all of the evil in the world onto these believers in Jesus. As embodiments of the evil he refuses to recognize in himself, they must be apprehended, imprisoned, and obliterated.
As we well know, however, on his way to Damascus in order to purge the synagogues of the despised Christians, Paul is somehow knocked off his horse. At this moment of conversion and transformation, Paul experiences all the doubt and ignorance he has been repressing. “Who are you, sir?” Jesus then reveals himself to Saul, but does so by inflicting blindness upon him. I can still remember as a boy when I would learn in school a new exciting fact about the world, I would come home quite puffed up and throw my new found knowledge at my parents. I recall at times when my father, especially, would attempt to nuance my understanding and how arrogantly and forcefully I would assert my partial and limited truth. As a child, I would get so excited about what had I come to know that I would fail to recognize all that I did not know. To truly come to see, we must first experience the radical truth of our own blindness.
Saul, become Paul, comes to realize that everything he has come to know and possess, everything he has striven to be and to become, must, if he is to truly live, die in him. He must come to be nothing, as he has measured life, in order to become the life of Christ who lives in him. “In other words, through the Law I am dead to the Law, so that now I can live for God. I have been crucified with Christ, and I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:19) As Brother Ryken experienced at the age of 19, this coming to life begins with being put in our place, a place that at first seems dark and empty to us.
When I was young, a metaphor for the Eucharist that was frequently employed was that of fuel for a vehicle. We went to Mass and received the Eucharist, as often as possible, so that we would have the grace, which was the fuel, to live a Christian life. In the Eucharist, Christ entered into us, so that we could avoid evil and do the good he wanted of us. Yet, in this metaphor we remain central. As fuel Jesus is strengthening and enabling us. Jan van Ruusbroec, however, has a very different understanding. For him, the Lord who comes to us in the Eucharist does not fill us but rather makes us ever more hungry and thirsty. For him, we do not take the Lord into ourselves and consume Him, but rather we are taken into Himself and consumed by Him.
The Sacrament of the Eucharist is a sacrament of our true life, a life which is not our own but rather the life of Christ in us. Paul is struck blind because he must learn how to see anew. His life of strict observance, of incredible zeal for the rightness of his beliefs and convictions, is an illusion. Conversion and transformation for him will not consist in being refueled with more strength and vitality to create the world in conformity with his beliefs. Rather, it consists in blindness and unknowing. It begins with a humble and tremulous question: “Who are you, Sir?”
Inevitably life “gets old” for us at times. We cease to see creation, including ourselves and all others, in awe and wonder. We feel to some degree trapped or at least bored. Such experiences are signs to us that we are closed in on our own false, illusory self. Even the Eucharist becomes routine, at best a hoped for respite and strengthening of our very repetitive and tedious life. We have forgotten, as Ruusbroec says, that the Sacrament is of our true and hidden life. “But I ask you, Lord, of your great nobility, that you take me fully into yourself and consume me, so that I might become one life with you and in you and that I, in your life, might be able to rise above myself and above all particular forms and exercises to a state devoid of forms—that is to a state of formless love where you are your own beatitude and that of all the saints.” The life we live is, in the words of 2 Timothy 4:6, “being poured out like a libation. . . “, so that our true life in Christ may begin to emerge.
Saul hates the followers of the Way because they are a threat to his life, a life of “forms and exercises” that he confuses with his deeper identity and call. He, as we much of the time, sees the world through a bad case of cataracts. It is our own designs, our own exercises and forms, which are the filter through which we see reality. We are now at such a distance from the initial revelation of Jesus that we have lost the sense of how radical he is being, in his world of Jewish practice and obedience to the Law, when he says, “I am the Way.” Over time, we have turned him into yet another set of exercises and forms. Yet, this is but our own blindness. We must live a life of ever stronger hunger and thirst for “the truth” of the One whose life is our life. We must allow ourselves to be consumed that we might be raised “to a state of formless love.”
I am therefore bold and outspoken, forgetful of myself and of all my transgressions because of your grace, for you yourself have said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you” (Mt 11:28). You have also said that you are our living bread which has come down from heaven and that anyone who eats it will live forever (cf. Jn 6:51). You are also the living spring which flows out of your Father’s heart by means of the Holy Spirit. As a consequence, Lord, the more I eat, the more hungry I become, and the more I drink, the more thirsty I become, for I cannot take you fully into myself and consume you. But I ask you, Lord, of your great nobility, that you take me fully into yourself and consume me, so that I might become one life with you and in you and that I, in your life, might be able to rise above myself and above all particular forms and exercises to a state devoid of forms—that is, to a state of formless love where you are your own beatitude and that of all the saints. It is there that I will find the fruit of all the sacraments, of all particular forms, and of all holiness.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, II, B