Yesterday the Church celebrated the conversion of St. Paul. His conversion story is told in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 22, verses 3 to 16. Paul’s life changed radically after his encounter with Jesus. He was told to go and to preach, to heal and to instruct, but first, he had to be healed himself.
This account made me reflect on the kind of life that follows from an encounter with Jesus. I must have had an encounter with Jesus at some point in my life, or else I would not now be committed to living and preaching the Gospel. I don’t remember a specific moment. So I asked myself the question a slightly different way. Were there moments when, like Paul (Saul), I was “thrown from my horse” and had to ask the questions, “Who are you, Sir?” and “What shall I do?” Did these moments require a period of healing before I could go on?
I immediately identified four such times, and there are probably a few more. The first of these moments occurred when I was in my 30s. Like all doctoral students, I had to take written and oral qualifying exams before beginning to write a dissertation. I failed the qualifying exams – not once, but twice. Failing these exams was traumatic for me. I was thrown for a loop, if not from a horse. It was my first major failure at something I had always been good at – academic achievement. I had excelled in school at every level. I was a teacher and was planning to spend the next part of my career teaching in higher education.
This failure was debilitating and demoralizing. My recovery took many months. I turned to family. They allowed me to be sad and “not quite myself,” even during Christmas holidays. A good friend whom I usually met with whenever I was home for holidays, persisted in inviting me to lunch, even when I had refused several times. “You have to eat anyway, so let’s just eat together,” she insisted. Our friendship was not based on our respective achievements or failures.
I don’t know if I encountered Jesus in this experience of failure, but I know that I gained a new attitude about academic achievement and the need to be recognized as “the best.” I learned that sometimes “good enough” is good enough. I also vowed that I would never put another graduate student through this kind of experience as an academic exercise. Moreover, because of the traumatic nature of this failure, I would later develop compassion for others in their times of failure, as well as the skills to help them begin to heal. I guess it was a conversion, after all.
Sometimes I have to search a bit for a song that is relevant to my reflection. Today, as I came to the end of my story, a hymn about conversion (turning around) found its way into my thoughts. It is “Turn to Me” by John B. Foley, SJ. (You can find a performance of this song on YouTube by googling the title and composer.)
Turn to me, O turn, and be saved,
says the Lord, for I am God;
There is no other, none beside me.
I call your name.
- I am God who comforts you; who are you to be afraid
of flesh that fades, is made like the grass of the field soon to wither.
- Listen to me, my people; give ear to me, my nation:
A law will go forth from me, and my justice for a light to the people.
- Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth down below.
The heavens will vanish like smoke and the earth will wear out like a garment.