saint paul and the mysticism of the body

I was honored to offer three conferences and preach for the Liturgical Composers Forum in St. Louis January 24-25. This was my homily for the Eucharist on the Feast of the Conversion of Paul. David Haas sent us a marvelous modern image for this feast that in the midst of cleaning up a hack job on my email account I lost. If someone could re-send it to me I would add it here. I’ll put this one in for now. At least it doesn’t have that darned horse.

 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 genuine mystic. Mind you, I know enough about mysticism to know that someone can have a genuine enlightenment experience––an immediate/unmediated experience of God, a mystical experience––and still be unenlightened on social issues, and still not get the facts right. But that doesn’t take away 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. I recently stumbled upon this poem by Malcolm Gutie who is described on the back cover of his book as a poet, priest and singer-songwriter from Cambridge. (I realized that, outside of the Cambridge location, “poet, priest and singer-songwriter” applied to several of the people in that particular assembly.) This poem is called “St. Stephen”; it’s 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]

(Since I was in a chapel full of songwriters and/or lyricists, I thought it would have been a propos to question the rhyming here. Perhaps at Cambridge one can get away with false rhymes like this? I could handle rhyming “Stephen” with “heaven,” but he lost me on “slaughter” and “laughter.”)

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 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 billions years ago at that point 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.” As a matter of fact Eastern Christian writers such as Gregory Palamas go 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.

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 the ground bass, the ostinato under our song. And then how shall we sing about this redemption of our bodies in the resurrection of Jesus and bring this hope and vision to those most in need of hope and vision? Let this be our song, together with Paul of Tarsus bathed in the transfiguring Taboric light.


[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. Do you believe that all must enter the Damascus gate at one point or another in their personal spiritual journey?

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