Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the conversion of St. Paul.
If we met Saul today, we might be tempted to think he was beyond redemption. Saul was a Christian killer. He took an active part in the martyrdom of Stephen. At one point he confessed that “beyond measure” (his words) he persecuted the Church. This is not a person harmlessly misguided, not just a slackard with no appetite for serious prayer and deepening his life with God, not just a bumbler. But a murderous persecutor of Christians.
Yet, God is not through with this Saul. Instead, he has great plans for him. This murderer will become one of the principal persons to proclaim the Gospel.
Today’s first Mass reading gives us one of the accounts of how God accomplished this. When Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, he is irrevocably changed. Jesus appears to him, speaks to him, invites him and he becomes a different man. No longer Saul, he is now Paul, “a chosen instrument of [Jesus] to carry [Jesus’] name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel.”
If even someone as seemingly beyond redemption as Saul, can be turned from darkness toward the light, how can we doubt the healing power of Jesus? There are some people who have a tendency to think, “It’s too late for me” or “After what I’ve done, God can’t possibly have any use for me.” (Alternatively: “it is too late for that person. God can’t possibly have any use for them.”) The story of the conversion of St. Paul is a vivid demonstration of the fallacy of such thoughts. It is never too late for any of us.
Conversion is always possible – for everyone.
Today we celebrate Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader in the American civil rights movement until his assassination in 1968.
King took to heart Jesus command to love our enemies. He believed that a key to our ability to do so is to discover the element of good in them, the starting point for which is recognizing that none of us is either all good or all bad. In a sermon he gave in 1957, he said
I’ve said to you on many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life. There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Ovid, the Latin poet, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.” There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Plato that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Goethe, “There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.” There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Apostle Paul, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.”
So somehow the “isness” of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.
Neither the command to love our neighbor nor King’s call for us to find the good in all people is always easy. But we see from the state of the world in which we live the consequences of our failure to do so. I do not beleive King guilty of hyperbole when he said that if we are to survive we must learn to do this. The words he uttered so many years ago are ones we still need to hear today.