Thursday, 10 October 2013

Why Paul?

Many of my friends know I am going to be confirmed in the Church in about a week, and probably most of those know that a baptismal or confirmation name is generally taken from a saint, reflecting the character, gifts, interests or aspirations of the confirming person. What is not so public is who I have chosen: Saul of Tarsus, also known as St Paul the Apostle.

I have toyed with various names: St Francis of Assisi, St Francis Xavier, St Augustine of Hippo, St Ignatius of Loyola, etc. Each reflected something that I find in myself or revere: il Poverello had an extraordinary love for people in need, for animals and for God’s creation. Francis Xavier was a brilliant missionary, and a brother Jesuit. Augustine of Hippo was a brilliant theologian without which Christianity would be a very different religion. Ignatius of Loyola is founder of the Jesuits, and gave the world the Spiritual Exercises, a powerful way of spirituality.

Even so, the Apostle Paul has touched me, transformed me, intrigued me and shared much more with me than any of these great saints. All the others have inspired me in some way, or are my companions in some manner, but Paul: far more. What follows is a ramble of why I am taking Paul as my confirmation saint.

My closeness to Paul started with reading about his conversion: I had always been a relatively militant atheist, then I became a theist and subsequently a Christian in quick succession. He had always been a Jew, a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” a persecutor of the Church of God, and extremely zealous for his beliefs. Our conversions both rested on the same single data point: this Jesus fellow, even though we both disliked him and his followers, had really been resurrected – this changed everything.

What this meant for us, both cholerics, was profound: I think cholerics have a tendency to take what is true and important and centre our lives around it to such an extent that it is somewhat uncomfortable for others. We take things too seriously, some say, or we get accusations of extremism. Cholerics have a temperament of intensity: we find it difficult to be lukewarm about things, which drives us in many cases to be extraordinary – the greatest saints, but also the worst sinners, seem to have a strongly choleric vein. In this concrete case, both Paul and I seem to view the facticity of the resurrection of Jesus as something which should either radically change one’s life, or be rejected – for us, there is no middle ground.

Of course, this can be dangerous. Like I said, great saints have been cholerics, and those of our temperament in the population have done enormous good – but at the same time, because of our drive we have also done a great deal of harm. Batman is portrayed as a choleric…but so is the Joker. Like a hot fire, it can be used to melt metal and produce the great metallurgical industry (arguably a good)…or to burn people in the form of napalm (evidently wrong).

Whatever our purpose, cholerics like Paul and I can often be distinguished by our passionate commitment. Now, I do not want to claim that Paul and I are on any similar standing with regards to holiness: clearly this apostle had matured far beyond me by the time he was writing his epistles. Then again, taking Paul’s age at his conversion to be 17, one of his earlier epistles[1] is already at least seventeen years later,[2] so he clearly has a head-start.  But even the differences between us (and there are many) in mind, we have taken implicit vows of obedience to Jesus Christ – it certainly seems counter-cultural for me to gladly say with him: “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” – yet I do. I remember a time where I could not have said it, but I would be someone quizzical if someone said that I should be Christian and not believe that.

Lifestyle attitudes for us tend to come from dogmatic commitment, and for Paul and I there is no doctrine more central than that of grace. Issues surrounding grace have traditionally been what divided Protestants and Catholics (although today there is a post-modern distaste towards institutions, such that less historically grounded Protestant groups find this the sticking point), and Paul is certainly known for being forceful on this issue. He can often been twisted to espouse a perverted form of grace that would put him at odds with Jesus’ teachings on salvation, or he can be taken to extremes such that deny his own words – even so, it is clear that Paul is the apostle of grace. For some clarity as to how sola Gratia has impacted me, see Time in the Evangelical Church.

Although Paul and I are both converts because of something we saw in the resurrection, although we both have strong views on the sufficiency of grace and marked commitment to following Jesus wherever that might take us, and although we share the same temperament, this does not make him unique: an encounter with Christ in a poor person also changed Francis of Assisi. In the sense that we have both been moved by Paul the Apostle and have become converts to the Catholic faith from elsewhere, perhaps Augustine of Hippo and I are more similar.

Yet the manner of approaching matters is similar for Paul and I also, starting even with our pet prides. His pet pride seems to be quite clearly his relationship to wealth: he is content with practically nothing, but even when he effectively has zero to his name, he is still not going to burden any of the churches he has founded. He is glad that people have given him gifts, but sees it more as the Gospel of grace taking root in people’s hearts over and beyond any material gain that he would have. I also am content with very little (although I must say, luxuries such as a computer and internet are ones I value highly – they are very useful in today’s world), and I take a certain pride in not costing much to run. I eat cheaply, I don’t get drinks outside my home, I wear clothes that are all from charity shops (with the exception of my shoes, underwear and socks), I always use my bike or public transport… It’s not the romantic poverty of St Francis – indeed, it’s not even a poverty that precludes material wealth. It only excludes attachment to material things.[3]

The way I am most like Paul, however, is not a personality or personal-history similarity, though. Not only do we see in the resurrection a source of trust in God, or a sign that this man really has heralded the way: we see in Jesus’ resurrection the future. In other words, there is an eschatological dimension to the resurrection which necessitates evangelism, which requires us to go out and proclaim the Word.

This eschatological and thus evangelistic dimension is something I and many of the recent Popes have seen (since at least Paul VI). Something which I admired in the Mass, even for a few months before I thought I could conceivably be Catholic, was that the sacred liturgy still remains, after almost 2000 years, deeply eschatological: for instance, we pray (like the psalms do) that God would not forget his People, neither those living nor those who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection. This echoes the worry of the Thessalonians, where Paul addressed the issue of people who died before the second coming (the “parousia”) – there is a sense in both the liturgy and in the first epistle to the Thessalonians that the end is coming, and even though some may have fallen asleep, all of us are living for that future hope that we have in the resurrection of the body. Of this, Christ is the first-fruits, a pointer to the coming time when the world will be set straight by God.

For these reasons, I will take Saul of Tarsus as my confirmation saint: the odd apostle, the practical apostle, the legendary apostle who shaped Christianity and spread it as one of the Church’s greatest evangelists. Interestingly, the reasons Paul is a role model for me are quite similar to the reasons God seems to call me to the Jesuits.

[1] To the Galatians – somewhere in the mid-fifties AD is when I would date it to. I think Philippians was probably his earliest epistle, although 1 Thessalonians might be.
[2] Three from his conversion to the first visit to Jerusalem [cf. Gal. 1:18], fourteen more until the Council of Jerusalem [cf. Gal 2:1], and he must be writing it sometime after that.
[3] This is the essence of the Jesuit vow of poverty – Jesuits are notoriously practically-minded.

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