Today’s feast of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus points us to a core truth of Christian spirituality that I take as the theological anthem of all my work: the Cross. It was Paul’s leitmotif:
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 1 Cor. 2:2
Not I, But Christ in Me
I was listening to an old lecture by Orthodox theologian Fr. Tom Hopko yesterday on the spiritual life, and he made a powerful point in his characteristically striking way:
The Christian vision of growth toward wholeness is healing by death and resurrection. Death to self, life for God. Contemporary models of faith healing are so often merely spiritualized versions of our feel-good, consumer-driven, quick-fix and ego-saturated culture. Lazarus was raised from the dead so that he could later be martyred. We are healed so that we can freely bear more corsses and trials; so our old self might die and our new self might love with the same love with which God loved us in Christ crucified. Any “mysticism” that avoids the cross, as Fr Schmemann used to say, only serves to join us to that “other” trinity: mist, I and schism.
In this vein, the dazed Paul, who stumbled into Damascus after his encounter with the Risen Christ, was greeted with this haunting message that Jesus commanded Ananias to bring to Paul,
Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.
Paul’s deepest conversion was not to “join” another religion, but rather to find himself confronted by a mystery: at the heart of Israel’s God a wise folly wherein power is found in weakness, life is born from death and majesty is exalted in its abasement.
But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
As I mused today over what that looks like in a heart that embraces this royal road of the cross, a quote from St. John of the Cross filled my memory:
God values in you the inclination to dryness and suffering for love of him more than all the consolations, spiritual visions, and meditations you could possibly have.
That’s a tall order, but, as Paul relentlessly affirms, grace alone can turn us from self-less to love more.
I then wondered in what way this demanding vision could ever be made “attractive” to anyone? Then I thought: saints. Saints are the supreme aesthetic proof of God’s existence: saints are, therefore Beauty is.
When you meet this royal way in action, alive in real people who have striven their whole life to live love’s self-death, you are absolutely captivated and irresistibly seduced by it. These people are all around us and I have known, and know, many. When I leave their presence I feel lighter, more joyful, more human, as if I had been for them the most important person in their world.
In fact, just the other day I was with one such person, and as he walked away from me I immediately thought of St. Augustine’s famous line: “God loves each of us as if there was no one else for him to love.”
May grace make me thus inclined to love.