Beware of being knocked off your high horse, like St. Paul

Sometimes we wish that the Lord would give us some obvious sign. We want to be like St. Paul, struck by a flash of insight that will make us unshakably convinced of the truth of the faith and irrevocably committed to doing the will of God. If God is almighty, we reason, can’t He just reveal His goodness and His will for us clearly?

By Br. Stephen J., MIC

I once spoke with a young woman who was struggling with perfectionism. She sometimes asked the Lord, “Why can’t You just make me be good?” If some miracle occurred that would make her holy, set her on fire, and send her on a mission, she figured that would be just perfect.

I have met this attitude in many people, including (occasionally) myself. Sometimes we wish that the Lord would give us some obvious sign. We want to be struck by a flash of insight that will make us unshakably convinced of the truth of the faith and irrevocably committed to doing the will of God. If God is almighty, we reason, can’t He just reveal His goodness and His will for us clearly?

Zero-to-hero conversion
The Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, which we celebrate on Jan. 25, adds fuel to the fire, since such a revelation actually happened. Saul the enforcer of Judaism, “breathing murderous threats” against Christians, suddenly sees a flash of light, falls off his horse, hears the voice of Jesus, is baptized, and starts to preach Jesus Christ publicly, all within a week (see Acts 9:1-22)! Furthermore, the conversion “sticks” all his life, and he becomes, not only a saint, but an apostle, just like the Twelve whom Jesus Himself chose. Paul’s “zero-to-hero” conversion story is so impressive, even in the apostolic age, that it is told three times in the Book of Acts (in chapters 9, 22, and 26), a record perhaps surpassed only by the four narratives of Jesus’ own Passion!

Saint Paul’s story, which we celebrate each year on Jan. 25, is no one-time “exception to the rule” of hard work and slow conversion. We have many similar stories in our own day. Dr. Scott Hahn, a Protestant pastor, experienced the Scriptures in a radical new way at a Catholic daily Mass and became an influential Catholic apologist. Roy Schoeman, a Jew, an atheist, and a Harvard professor, converted to Catholicism after a vision of Our Lady. He now spreads the faith to others. Father Donald Calloway, MIC, after being kicked out of Japan at the age of 16, read a book about Medjugorje that sparked his spontaneous Marian devotion and never turned back.

So why don’t we see these miracles every time? Why doesn’t baptism, or even the first moment of faith, strike everyone with such extraordinary graces of conversion and healing? 

Caravaggio, “Conversion on the Way to Damascus," c. 1600-1, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Uniqueness of human souls
The answer is hidden in God’s Providence. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, every creature is made unique in order to reveal a particular aspect of God’s wisdom through the order of the created universe. This includes the uniqueness of human souls. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s sister famously compared two souls with different callings to a glass and a thimble full of water: One soul holds more grace and another less, but both are filled with Christ. Saint Faustina compares different souls to straw, iron, or pure gold, and warns confessors that “Each of these three types of souls needs different kinds of training” (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 112). The best analogy, however, is given by St. Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 12 — we are many parts of the one Body of Christ.

Saint Paul’s analogy of the Mystical Body has several applications to this question of dramatic conversion. He writes that the less honorable parts of the body are treated with greater propriety and that the weaker parts of the body are, paradoxically, all the more necessary. The dramatic converts and fiery apostles may be the most admirable members of the Church, but they rely on the quiet, consistent support of more hidden members. Saint Paul also says that no part of the body can exclude other parts as if they do not belong, since a complete human body cannot be composed of only one part, such as an eye. It is not right to declare someone outside the Church simply because his calling within the Church is misunderstood or looks less important than another’s calling.

His will for us
Finally, St. Paul says, no part can exclude itself from the body, or wish to be other than what it is. We should not consider ourselves “bad” because we are not the holiest people we know. We should not think ourselves inferior Christians because we are not full-time apostles, nor should we demand for ourselves any graces that the Lord does not wish to give us. Sometimes his grace moves us to “strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts” (1 Cor 12:31), but we must distinguish our own will from His will for us.

The will of God begins with unconditional Love. Remember, His Love creates us and sustains us, long before we can do anything to repay him. Each one of us is made in the image of God (see Gen 1: 26-27), and, as the proverb runs, “God doesn’t make junk.” Thus, even before we can do anything good, God looks at His creation — us — and sees that we are good. Gratitude for the first unmerited gift of creation should make us a little humbler in asking Him for extra favors.

Just as Paul was knocked off the “high horse” of his pride, we usually need to let ourselves be knocked off the high horse of expecting God to do an exceptional miracle for us (although miracles do indeed happen). He is the One who gives: We are only the recipients, and unworthy recipients at that.

I’ve tried to summarize this attitude of gratitude and obedience in a little prayer, which I recommend to you. When you’re tempted to ask the Lord, “Can’t you just make me good?” try this instead: “Thank you, God, for making me good. Now, how do You want to make me holy?“ This prayer may not produce great miracles, but if you stick with it, faithfulness will begin to sprout and grow, though you know not how.
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