conversion of paul: mysticism of the body

I was raised in the ambience of all kinds of suspicion of Saint Paul: that he was the one who “invented” Christianity, that he was a misogynist and an enabler of slavery, that he was sexually frustrated, that there is a little too much Paul there and not enough Jesus. But I have always tended to support the underdog; I wrote my very first paper “defending” Paul when I was18 years old. (It was against the charge of misogyny and being a slavery sympathizer, by the way; which is not to say that he wasn’t either of them but just that that is not what was being conveyed in his kerygma.) What that has been replaced with over the past couple of decades is recognizing St. Paul as a mystic. Mind you, I know enough about mysticism to know that someone can have a genuine enlightenment experience, a mystical experience––and still be unenlightened on social issues, and still not get the facts right. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he or she could also be a mystic.

And for me the main focus of St. Paul’s mysticism is his sense of the Body of Christ, and it stems back to this experience on the road to Damascus. The poem called “St. Stephen” by Malcolm Gutie is addressed to Stephen but this part is about Saul/Paul:

When Saul departed breathing threats and slaughter,

He had to pass through that Damascus gate

Where he had held the coats and heard the laughter

As Christ, alive in you, forgot his hate,

And showed him the same light you saw from heaven

And taught him, through his blindness, how to see;

Christ did not ask, ‘Why are you stoning Stephen?’

But, ‘Saul, why are you persecuting me?’[1]

I remember the first time I heard it said explicitly in a homiletics class, and it never stops striking me deeply: when the Risen Christ appears to Saul, he doesn’t ask Saul why he’s persecuting Stephen, or why he’s persecuting “my followers” or persecuting “my church,” but why are you persecuting me. ‘Whatever you did to the least of these, you did it to me.’[2] Is it the intuition of that carries over into Paul’s marvelous teaching in the Letter to the Corinthians chapter 12 with his great description of the Body and all its parts, and even more subtly and more movingly in the Letter to the Colossians when he speaks of making up what is lacking in the sufferings of the body of Christ? For Paul “body” is not a metaphor––the Body of Christ; it is an organic reality, it is a real thing.

But it is not just the baptized, nor is it just humanity that is the Body. It’s all creation. Recall (yet again!) that marvelous passage in Chapter 8 of Romans when Paul writes that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. These two things are intimately connected for Paul and in the Christian vision of the cosmos––the redemption of our bodies and the destiny of creation. All of creation is groaning and in agony while we work this out. So the rest of creation isn’t left behind in this economy, because in some marvelous way, as Paul writes at the end of his discourse on death in 1 Corinthians 15, God will be all in all. And remember what we used to pray in the old doxology, “…world without end, Amen!” The world in some way is not going to end. It is merely going to be brought into right relationship with God (again?). The Body will be made whole through, with and in Christ, and then through us, the priests of creation, through the work of our hands.

And that is why the Christ event is an axial moment, a pivotal moment in human history, because in Jesus’ body the matter of the universe is taken up into the Godhead. The matter that exploded in the Big Bang fifteen or twenty billion years ago itself, in Jesus, is transfigured. In Jesus, the matter of the universe is made totally conscious and becomes one with God. And so Paul says He––Christ––holds all creation together in himself. After the earthly life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Christ is not limited to Jesus’ historical being: Christ is that whole Body! And perhaps all of this traces itself back to that original experience on the road to Damascus.

This is a marvelous notion that passes into the Christian mystical tradition. Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, taught that each individual human being bears within himself/herself the whole of the human race because humanity as a whole “forms a single living being.”[3] So what happens in one human being––as in the case of Jesus––happens for all human beings. And not only that, in some marvelous way what happens in one human being happens also for and to the whole world, for all creation. “In Christ’s humanity, the world is transfigured.” Gregory Palamas goes so far as to associate Paul’s conversion experience with the Taboric light, the transfiguring light of Mount Tabor where Jesus is transfigured, as well as the light of the burning bush that Moses saw, unconsumed by the flames. In Christ’s humanity the “seed of resurrection is communicated to us by the ‘mysteries’ of the Church,”[4] “…the one flesh of humanity and of the earth brought into contact with Christ”––through the Word and Sacraments––; the one flesh of humanity and of the earth, brought into contact with the fire of Christ’s divinity, “is secretly and sacramentally deified.”[5] So it is first of all the church, the fullness of him who fills all in all, as St. Paul says in the letter to the Ephesians who is the Body. It is also the one flesh of humanity. But that body of Christ must also include all of creation, which is groaning and in agony as we await the redemption of our bodies, ‘til God be all in all, the one flesh of humanity and the earth.

Someone just sent me this from the Big Sur poet Robinson Jeffers that goes along with this line of thought. The human person “dissevered from the earth and stars and [our] history––for contemplation or in fact––is atrociously ugly,” he says. “Integrity is wholeness; the greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.” This also reminds me of Alessandro’s words convoking our General Chapter last year: “to live the highest (God) in the deepest (soul) in communion with the whole.”

How shall we make ourselves attentive to this groaning of the one flesh of humanity carrying the weight of sin and separation? How shall we give voice to the suffering of the Body of Christ, the agony of the Earth, groaning under the weight of pollution and exploitation? Let’s let this be our own groaning in prayer, even only if in sighs too deep for words. But then how shall we also sing about this redemption of our bodies in the resurrection of Jesus and bring this hope and vision to those drowning in despair? And how will this lead us to make concrete decisions about our own style life? Let this be our vision and our mission, together with Paul, bathed in the transfiguring Taboric light.

cyprian 1/25/18

[1] “St Stephen,” Malcolm Gutie, from Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year.

[2] Mt 25:40.

[3] Catechetical Orations, 32, Clement, 47.

[4] Clement, 338.

[5] Ibid. 46.

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1 Comment

  1. Beautiful homily, for which many thanks. (Minor typo- it’s Malcolm Guite not Gutie).

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