Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Acts 9: 1-6

In his book on Teresa of Avila, Rowan Williams describes Teresa’s view of “good” people who occupy the third mansions of her interior castle. He notes that for Teresa, “To be ‘good’ without humility is to be condemned to a really wretched life, ‘weighed down with this mud of our human misery.’” Saul is a zealot of the first order. He believes that these disciples of Jesus are a threat to the primacy of the Law, to the necessary order of an orthodox Jewish life. They are a disturbance to the order and the peace of an obedient and well-ordered life. And so, they must be crushed and eliminated.

There is a type of goodness, strenuously and violently obtained, that in order to be maintained requires a “strenuous job of constant repression, projecting our own fears and uncertainties on to others and showing aggressive zeal for their improvement. In Saul’s case this excessive zeal, as we likewise see evident centuries later in the Inquisition and throughout history, means eliminating those who are heterodox for the sake of maintaining our goodness and purity.

As Saul travels to Damascus, his agenda is to arrest and imprison any of those “followers of the Way” that have infiltrated the synagogues there. A quest for a goodness and purity that is not ours as human beings will become in us ever more repressive and violent. At this point in their history, the followers of the Way of Jesus see themselves as Jews who are attempting to come to understand the meaning of this new revelation they have experienced in the person of Jesus. As the gospel of Matthew makes clear, these early Jewish disciples of Jesus experience the reality of Jesus as a new revelation that is somehow to enhance but remain part of their tradition. For example, as we read in Matthew 5:18, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

These disciples of Jesus, however, are a great disturbance for Saul. They somehow become to him a great threat to the order and peace he has, probably quite willfully, established for himself. Is there perhaps something about them and their lives that is appealing to the “more” in him which he has “strenuously repressed,” so that he projects his fears and  uncertainties onto them? It may be that the Jesus who so strikingly manifests on the road to Damascus had been for some time troubling the self-imposed peace and goodness of Saul. 

In the description of this encounter, we are told that a light flashed, and that the result of this light was physical blindness. It is impossible to read this account without recalling the words of Jesus from John 9: 39: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Up to this moment, things were very clear for Saul. He knew what was the truth, and who was in the right and who was not. The in-breaking of the truth, however, effects first in him the experience of his own blindness. When Ananias lays his hands on him and the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, descends on him, the scales fall from his eyes.

The story of the conversion of Saul, become Paul, is meant to speak to the story of our own continuing conversion, our own need for ongoing formation. It is of the nature of the human ego to attempt to construct an identity for ourselves as a good person, as a person of whom we can approve. For many of us, this is done through obedience to the norms of culture and religious tradition. This making of ourselves, however, has within it an element of violence, toward self and the world. I recall many years ago in religious life people would justify the behaviors of certain very harsh superiors by saying that they were tough on others, but they were tougher on themselves. This somehow was meant to be a justification for a degree of violent and abusive behaviors toward those “subject” to them.

The “wisdom” in this comment, however, was that we inflict violence on the world to the degree that we inflict it on ourselves. It is no doubt fair to say that the Saul who breathed “murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord” was continually doing the same to what he experienced as murderous threats within himself to his own uprightness and purity. While for the aware and humble person “nothing human is alien,” those who have devoted themselves willfully to the development of what they see as a “well-ordered” life are, as Teresa says, “shocked by everything.” Our anxious form of life is constantly trying to build an identity that is based on fear, but this inexorably leads to violence, toward self and others.

The announcement that the Lord makes at the moment of Saul’s conversion is: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” And as Ananias lays hands on him, he says, “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me.” The revelation that Saul receives is that his life is a common and ordinary one. The self that we attempt to build in life is the result of our pride form’s “search for glory.”  Saul’s zeal to purify the faith is but a projection of his zeal for his own glory. “To be ‘good’ without humility is to be condemned to a really wretched life, ‘weighed down with this mud of our human misery.’” As Jesus reminds the rich young man, “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10: 18).

It is of our very nature, as a human consciousness, to see ourselves and our consciousness as the center of the universe. We have no other perspective.  Holiness, unlike goodness, is the capacity, in humility, to begin to see anew, to see with the eyes of God, who loves with a love common to all. In ordinary human consciousness, we need enemies to enhance and justify our own goodness and significance. Those who are enemies are often those whose “otherness” points to the inadequacy of our self-constructed system. No less than Saul, each of us works to become powerful, or good, or significant, or prosperous, or well-regarded. All of this is built on the fragile foundation of our illusion of separateness. And so, there will always be others who will threaten “the truth” of our beliefs. The humility that Teresa says is so essential if we are not to become mired in our own misery is the comprehension that our truths are always partial. In fact, this means that it is possible to see otherness not as a threat but as a revelation of a truth that is so far beyond us. Once knocked off his high horse, Saul realizes that he has been persecuting the truth, the Mystery of life. He begins to understand that the Mystery abides in us all “in common.”

Later in his life, he will speak of all humanity as “the body of Christ” and implore all to have reverence for every part of that body. Was it, perhaps, his murderous hatred of the disciples that taught him how readily the eye could say to the hand that “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12: 21)? Those of us who live in the early 21st century are faced with the reality that, as Martin Luther King, Jr said, “We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools.” As we constantly see, however, we as human beings have incredible resistance to this truth. The “problem,” as Teresa of Avila sees it, is our lack of humility. While Jesus himself says “Why do you call me good?”, we are always trying to become good.  It is not by becoming “good,” as we tend to see it, that we can learn to live together, rather it is by becoming humble enough to love that which is other to us. Our usual answers to human evil consist in creating stricter order. We act as if the most we are capable of as human persons is to be reined in and even broken like horses. The mystics, like Teresa of Avila, however, speak of the possibilities that lie not in repression and violence but in the releasing of the distinctively human in us.

So, Saul is not told to stifle his energy and repress his aggressive impulses.  Rather he is told that the Lord, the goodness, he seeks is in those he has been persecuting. He is to “go out” to  his brothers and sisters in love, in proclaiming to them God’s love of them. He is to preach, in deed and word, a universal love, a love that is common to all. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin famously said: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, humanity will have discovered fire.” The power of the love of God lies in its very universality. At this moment in the world’s history, when fear is promoting a growing xenophobia, nationalism, and religious intolerance, the call to humility and receptivity to God’s love and will may be a matter of what Martin Luther King called in 1963 “the fierce urgency of now.”

Perhaps the weakness in Teilhard’s vision is his optimism about human technology and human power. Today it is evident that we are not able to “master the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity.” For, we are not masters. There are real existential limits to our mastery, to our functional potency. What is unlimited in its possibility is our transcendent form potency, or capacity to receive and to release into the world the love that is common to all. But that requires a conversion no less profound than that of Saul. We must actually abandon the illusion of our own mastery and understand our own ordinariness, but an ordinariness through which we uniquely manifest and proclaim, and even are, the love of God for all.

Goodness, in this sense, is a very long way from holiness: most of all, perhaps, because it rests on the abiding basis of a fearful and anxious self-regard or self-protectiveness and is not therefore instinctively generous. “It is very characteristic of persons with such well-ordered lives to be shocked by everything”, Teresa remarks tartly (III, 2, 13). “We have clear ideas of how devout people should act and if they don’t conform to these they are open to censure.” To be “good” without humility is to be condemned to a really wretched life, “weighed down with this mud of our human misery” (III, 2, 9); as in the first mansions, we are more and more the prisoners of ourselves. We are committed to the strenuous job of constant repression, projecting our own fears and uncertainties on to others and showing aggressive zeal for their improvement. Teresa would have had no difficulty in understanding the shrill censoriousness of modern Christian zealots for the moral reclamation of society; she might have had equally sharp words for the self-consciously consistent radical Christian, obsessed with the creation of an uncompromised lifestyle. As she herself patiently repeats, it is good to know where you stand and to have a measure of control over your life; not to feel at the mercy of intolerable inner tensions all the time. But we need to see the sensation of stability as a gift that is given to help us forward, not a possession or acquisition. We are being given strength for a longer journey; which is why we must on no account push away those things, internal or external, that break into our peace and contentment, or sense of order or safety.

Rowan Williams, Teresa of Avila, pp. 119-120


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