In these pages I have described many times how analogy helps Catholics understand—and express—our experience of God. In a word, we learn about the unknown (God) by means of what we do know (the world). Do we believe in a personal God? Yes we do. Do we say that he is (all) powerful? Yes again. And so, the Scriptures refer to the “face” or the “arm” of God. But does God literally have a face: eyes, nose, mouth, skin, teeth, eyebrows and lashes? Of course not. Or biceps? Don’t be ridiculous. The Bible (1) uses, in this case, human qualities to direct our attention to divine perfections, even as we know that (2) he infinitely surpasses them. If we forget (1) or (2), we run into trouble. Without the first we create a chasm between ourselves and God so large that we cannot understand anything meaningful about him. Without the second, we associate God so much to our ideas as to create him in our own image and likeness, not the other way around. A great Catholic theologian (Balthasar) points out that the Christian imagination toggles between the two extremes. Catholicism (generally speaking) finds the presence of God within the inmost self, while Protestantism (generally speaking) clearly distinguishes between the divine and the human. Normally, I find myself much more comfortable with the Catholic sensibility, but I at least have to acknowledge the need to acknowledge, and even feel, that the grace of God does not originate within me but beyond me.
Perhaps that is why the person and example of St. Paul is so important, and why he plays such a central roll in Protestant Christianity. On January 25th, the Church celebrates the Conversion of St. Paul. We all know the story of Saul, the devout follower of the Law who zealously sought to serve the Lord by persecuting the fledgling Christian community. On his way to Damascus he encounters the Risen Christ, falling to the ground (no mention of a horse!), blinded by an intense light, and hearing the voice of an obscure figure who accuses Saul of persecuting him. “Who are you, Lord?” The voice responds: “It is I, Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The point is that Paul genuinely thought he was doing the will of God by attacking Christians. God had to “knock him off his high horse” to get his attention. God’s ways are not Paul’s ways, and he had to learn his lesson the “hard” way.
Today’s artwork is the 1601 Caravaggio painting, “The Conversion of Saint Paul.” The Italian painter created two masterpieces on this theme, the other more famous than the one on our cover this week. I love them both, but find myself particularly drawn to this one. The other painting, for all its power and beauty, is more serene and tranquil in tone. Our version, however, conveys a sense of chaos, frenzy, and confusion. I suspect that the artist intends that we behold the scene the way Paul does: blinded by divine light, and quite incapable of making out the image of Christ, who is kept deliberately obscure. Paul’s companion is also thrown into confusion, pointing his sword (without knowing it) at Jesus.
As a Catholic, I must learn that turmoil and turbulence in life do not mean that I am moving away from the Lord. On the contrary, grace can draw me closer to him, even as my inadequate notions of how God “ought” to act are turned upside down.