a Bruce Springsteen song of the same name off his 1973 album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N. J. However, the post is not about that estimable song, being partly about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, partly about the nature of any significant character change.
There is art and there are two music playlists: a green-bordered PodBean player, a red-bordered Spotify one. Most songs describe those who have not been blinded by transformative light, those in the grip of urges, but a few songs (Spotify: 23 - 26) describe those who have found faith and resolve. Biblical quotations are from the King James Version, and I acknowledge the possibility of scriptural misreadings. I also acknowledge the opacity of certain verses cited in Romans 7:14 - 23. Forty-seven scholars translated the 1611 Version, with a seven-man committee specifically assigned to the New Testament Epistles, and I'm sure they did their best ... plus King James probably understood it. But as for the rest of us, some of it is heavy sledding.
Saul's journey was traumatically interrupted by a flash of light that caused him to fall to the ground. He then heard a voice ( Acts 9:4), asking: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" The voice was that of Jesus, and Saul was blinded by the experience for three days, during which time he neither ate nor drank. Afterwards, with the intercession of Ananias, Saul's sight was restored, he was baptized and transformed –– into a Jewish believer in Christ, the promised Messiah. The conversion proper occurred not on the road to, but in Damascus, at Judas's house (no, not that Judas) on Straight Street.
|Michelangelo: The Conversion of Saul (c. 1542 - 1545)|
Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain
I will skip the various explanations, theological, neurocortical, psychological, that attend Saul's conversion from hateful Pharisee to the Apostle Paul, to focus on the poetry of the event.
|Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul (1600/1601)|
Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain
That the process took three days evokes Jesus's crucifixion and transformation in the tomb from bodily self to abiding spirit. And as with Jesus there was no pleasure in the process: Saul's conversion was an affliction, a painful gestation into a new identity.
Paul never forgot the before-and-after of this, who he was, what he became, how hard it was, the imitation of Christ that inaugurated it. Meaning: the replacement of bodily imperatives by a spiritual faith in what he calls the "law of God," a faith always at odds with corporality (Romans 7:14 - 23):
14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I
am carnal, sold under sin.
15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I
would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.
16 If then I do that which I would not, I
consent unto the law that it is good.
17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin
that dwelleth in me.
18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,)
dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present
with me; but how to perform that which is
good I find not.
19 For the good that I would I do not: but the
evil which I would not, that I do.
20 Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I
that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
21 I find then a law, that, when I would do
good, evil is present with me.
22 For I delight in the law of God after the
23 But I see another law in my members,
warring against the law of my mind, and
bringing me into captivity to the law of sin
which is in my members.
It's hard to be good, hard to stay the course. Willpower wars with an implacable internal enemy and proves insufficient to the task: Paul doesn't do what he should but instead does what he shouldn't. Continuously in the grip of competing "laws," he easily falls short of the mark, as do we all in Pauline theology.
What helps? For the most part, we are saved by faith; or in Paul's phrasing, a resolute hope in the unseen:
24 For we are saved by hope: but hope that is
seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why
doth he yet hope for?
25 But if we hope for that we see not, then do
with patience wait for it.
This is interesting. Transformational hope is of a special kind, one that exists in the absence of evidence, one that exists because of absence of evidence. There is no roadmap to salvation that demonstrably and visibly works: no self-help program, no steps or levels, no laws of the Torah that if scrupulously observed will succeed in expunging indwelling"evil." Paul's Epistle to the Romans is not Dr. Paul's Guide To A Cleaner, Healthier, Holier You.
Rather it is a call to faith, with emphasis more on faith than correct religious practice. It is as if you've hit a reef, are shipwrecked, find yourself swimming against the tide toward a faraway shore. You can focus on your strokes and their tempo, your breathing, the resistance of the water; or if you're Paul, you can focus on the certainty of your eventual arrival on land. This is not just a shift of attention or, cynically, a distraction from immediate peril. It is a shift of attention that alters the experience of passing time; that is, it becomes possible to patiently wait because you feel confident in the outcome.
Forget shipwrecks. Say you're tackling some bodily craving, and are growing frustrated by the day with your modest progress toward a seemingly unreachable goal. It's sensible to keep up the good work, follow this or that program –– but it's wiser still to relegate methodology and rate of progress to the background, while sustaining and making foreground an image of an improved you. It won't hurt, it will bolster willpower, and time will pass more easily.
I am at best nominally Christian but I like elements of Paul's story: that conversion begins with being knocked silly, shocked out of the habitual; that death of one state precedes rebirth into another; that the rebirth process is painful; that willpower may not be enough; that movement away from blindness rouses resistance from an inertial "law" of familiar, instinctive behavioral tendencies; that faith –– a steadfast vision of a new you –– lightens waiting-time, undergirds patience and dedication; that bonds of cohesive fellowship can maintain one through this process (this last, in that Paul was addressing and fostering nascent Christian communities after the death of Jesus).