My affection- more accurately love- for Saint Paul began strangely-with intensely passionate dislike. His writings about the required obedience of wives to their husbands rankled...especially during the years when Christians like me were alien. They were people with beliefs I did not understand, almost as if they lived in a different universe. On occasion, I attended weddings where the bride and groom selected readings like this one:
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything...
My reaction was usually visceral: automatic clenching of the gut, teeth, and jaw along with wonder at how the bride could possibly agree to the archaic words? And then, everything changed.
Following my conversion to Christian Catholicism, individual sections of St. Paul’s letters began to find their way into memory. Like this one from Letters to the Ephesians:
We are strangers and aliens no longer but are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God...
And this from Letters to the Philippians:
Although he was in the form of God,
Jesus did not deem equality with God as something to be grasped at.
Rather, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave,
Being born in the likeness of man,
He was known to be of human estate,
And it was thus that he humbled himself,
Obediently accepting even death,
death on a cross!...
The apostle’s lyrical prose is evocative, the underlying theology irresistible. For this new Lent of 2020, I am keeping another snippet of St. Paul’s wisdom to the Philippians very close to my heart: In everything you do, act without grumbling or arguing. So that you may prove yourself innocent and straightforward, living among a twisted and depraved generation among whom you will shine like the stars in the sky.
I view him now as strangely contemporary. Born in Tarsus, the young Saul learned early the ways of a twisted and depraved generation. The sacrifice of babies to pagan gods, all kinds of sexual depravities were common during those times. During his thirty years of travel throughout the Roman Empire, he was never known to criticize the state or its leaders. St. Paul sets a high standard for those of us working hard to be perfect, just as our Father in heaven is perfect.
....Of one thing I am sure, however. After a year of immersing myself in the life of the young man called Saul, I am convinced that he is a man for our times.
I undertook this book for many reasons, but primarily because I came to see Saul as a man who had no interest in sidestepping the meaning of things, or in appeasing hurt feelings or bruised consciences. Saul was interested in just one thing: truth. Whether it was the truth about the God he chased for the first part of his life or the God he died for, or about himself, Saul permitted no margin of error. Saul lacked any tolerance for artifice or mitigation. And, upon learning the depths of his early arrogance and transgression, he spent the rest of his life risking it for the Christ he had persecuted. As I said … he is a man for our times.