The Damascus Road: Thoughts on Transformation and Conversion

January 24, 2015 - 5:18 pm Comments Off on The Damascus Road: Thoughts on Transformation and Conversion

Romans 12.2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God— what is good and acceptable and perfect.

2nd Corithinians 5

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Today’s theme has been extracted from a year long Bible study that I had begun to design when I was a minister and chaplain at Penn State… It was revived when I was considering full time chaplaincy through a local hospital, including hospice, and the theme then was how illness or crisis can lead to transformation…

Since today is the day in the Western religious calendar that commemorates the conversion of Saul into Paul on the road to Damascus, I want to share with you my more metaphysical interpretation and present some psychological theories and some applications to consciousness raising that I have learned and that I personally consider to be intriguing, compelling, and true…

First, let’s recall the Scriptures themselves… Paul offers us 3 versions, but the most complete is to be found and recorded by the author known as Luke in the Book of Acts Chapter 9:

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Acts 9: The Conversion of Saul of Tarsus into Paul

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to The Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’

The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days, he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias who would come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’

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But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings, and before the people of Israel; I, myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Without much doubt or debate, this is the story of how Saul became Paul is the most important transformation in Christian history and maybe even in Western culture! Here we have the chief persecutor of the early followers of Jesus and/or Christians becoming “miraculously” changed into the chief advocate teacher, evangelist of the whole Christian story, and is considered by some, to be an Apostle himself!

What can we make of this? It is so important that it is repeated 3x in Acts, and when it is so emphasized , we can draw an inference to its overall importance… Right? So how can we best understand what happened to Saul on that road? Was it a “fated encounter?’ Was it a pure miracle? Was it somehow foretold? What if it happened to you?

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As Jung wrote near the end of his life, in his last essay,  Approaching  The   Unconscious:

“As any change must start somewhere, it is the single individual who will experience it, and carry it through. The change must begin with the individual: it might be any of us (at any time!)… But since nobody seems to know what to do, it might be worthwhile for each of us to ask whether by chance his or her unconscious might know something that will help us.”

As Joseph Campbell put it in his book, A Hero With A Thousand Faces:

“The hero is given birth in each of us. The journey of our lives is no mere pilgrimage to an isolated place in time event. Our journey is closer to becoming a classic Odyssey-one that contains all the twists and turns of emerging growth and challenging, often competing realities that mark the evolutionary steps that move us from the primitive self and the extraordinary ego to the clear and vibrant self, with a tamed ego which moves us closer to the apotheosis of humankind or enlightenment. No journey is ever complete. Our lives attest to the reality we live and share; how much we know, how much we care.”

We can state, from an easy extrapolation from the Scriptures, that Saul was a cold-hearted and cynical zealot- someone who was intolerant and scrupulously aware of what rules he had to follow, and which one must be dogmatically enforced- without question! In the vernacular, we could say that Saul was joyless, harsh, severe… a sour, tight assed prude!

He was a person whose life experience informed him that one need not know God or have an experience of the divine to be, as we moderns put it, to be spiritual, nor do we need to experience a true relationship to the sacred that is found in the heart, not in one’s head, to be called religious! Following all the rules, looking or feeling religious while observing them was enough for him!

Without getting too raw or too bold, I would say, along with what Scott Peck has concluded, that few of our churches today are genuine communities or they are pseudo-communities because they do not foster that quality of spiritual aliveness and teach how to strengthen the deep connections to being a spiritual person that many of us long to have… (A Different Drum)

Because we are given such an unflattering picture of Saul in Scripture and that this unfeeling caricature of a religious leader can still be found, we then have to ask, how was it that he became open? How did he become receptive or at least be able to accept such a dramatic change? What could be a way in which we could explain what happened on the road to Damascus? How are we like Saul? And how do we release or permit ourselves to become more like Paul?

One of the ways I have found useful in my search for an answer comes from reframing the question or the situation… Namely, what kind of “cosmic alarm clock” went off? Since he received an incredible wake up call of utmost consequence for his life, we can then ask, what is this wake up call in this context? In his book, Callings, Greg Lavoy describes wake up calls as a call that has become desperate to get our attention! He writes:

“[They first start out as polite requests, gentle taps on the shoulder, whispers in the ear, and when they are ignored, they escalate into rude shoves, and barbaric yelps!… Wake up calls change your personal bottom line. What used to seem impotent before the call, does not now.]”

Saul received a wake up call that transformed his life. Nothing previous nor anything afterwards had such a dramatic effect. One of the foundational insights we can derive concerning the nature of such an “intra-psychic” transformation comes from Carl Jung’s observations. He contributed an understanding of the various energies and principles that can come together or that are active in the shaping and development of our individual personality. In his writings, he identifies that each of us has the need to understand our own psyche or inner workings. He states this:

To the man in the street, it has always seemed miraculous that anyone should turn aside from the beaten path with all of its known destinations, and strike out on the steep and narrow path into the unknown, Hence, it was always believed that such a [person] if he [or she] was not actually crazy, then they were possessed of a daemon or a god, for the miracle of a [person] to act otherwise than the ways humanity has always acted could only be described as having a gift of a daemonic power or a divine spirit… From the beginning, therefore, the heroes were endowed with godlike attributes.”

Before I go any further into the Damascus event, As I see it, we need a little more clarification and maybe a redefinition… While almost all church historians and traditional theological treatises on this event speak of it as the conversion of Saul to Paul, I see it a little differently… I see it in stages… That this event was a transformation that then lead to a more complete conversion, which I believe has to come before any lasting life choice, any depth of change can occur…

When framed in Christian metaphysics, before a true or authentic sense of conversion can happen there has to be an accompanying metanoia- a genuine change of heart… Now this change of heart is not some warm, fuzzy affirmative feeling… Nor is it a necessary emotional outburst- be it happiness or joy… It is certainly not a temporary high or an ecstatic feeling that quickly spikes and then suddenly disappears. What it is, or what the physiological and psychological shift becomes results in a foundational change in one’s character, and if it is genuine or authentic, it will include a shift in one’s ethical and moral outlooks or attitudes. It is or can be a dramatic shift, leaving behind almost everything you used to believe or that you trusted was right and good, to accept and later embrace a different or new reality. In short, a metanoia, or a true transformative experience that can lead to a conversion is an event/experience that turns you inside-out; It turns you into a new person! (2 Cor 5)

What we can glean from the description given to us in the Acts?

Paul was steeped in the Pharisitical traditions that paid acute detail to all the rules and laws that marked proper religious observances. That he was a middle aged Rabbi, possibly a widower, and that he was known as a staunch and zealous defender of the Jewish status quo and would not hesitate to exercise his power and control to preserve the structure of that acceptable society, and was overly concerned with the rigors of conformity necessary to keep the social peace and ensure personal piety.

Now, listen carefully to this concept… If anything is devalued in our conscious life, it then becomes deeply lodged or firmly situated in our unconscious- that loss of meaning, value or purpose creates an emotional or psychic compensation for what was lost, or denied. If our spiritual or emotional identity is lost, an unconscious compensation or counterfeit value or emphasis can take its place… That’s when we can begin to define ourselves by things we own, the clothes, or car we drive, etc. Without knowing it, we are compensating, and we are secretly longing for what was lost, for our now hidden spiritual sense of ourselves.

How does this teaching relate to Saul? To each and everyone of us?

Jung uses the Greek term, enantiodromia… Which is translated as our tendency towards doing or believing in the opposite. We can speculate that Saul scruples were so bound up in following the rules because he had lost the spirit or the spiritual intention behind the guidelines that were given to him. So to compensate, he became a severe legalistic judge because he could no longer feel or relate to his spiritual nature as a compassionate person- something affected him, afflicted him, in such a way that it appears to us, that he no longer could experience pleasure, desire, joy or love…

This lack of ability to express his inner feelings surfaced as the opposite behavior! Whether it was specifically jealousy, envy, anger, or any of the other toxic emotions we all have, Saul became a prudish scold and became incensed when he encountered the saintly Stephen, who was joyful and serene, living a simple and inspirational life…

So in order to keep repressing or holding down his own lost sense of self, he decide to punish anyone who exhibited the new life in Christ… And so he had Stephen condemned and then stoned to death and Stephen became the first Christian martyr!

The soul, or as I first learned it and not teach it, is the container of our whole consciousness, the light and the dark, the inspiration and the shadows, the blessings and the wounds. When we are spiritually and metaphysically trained to experience its heights and depths, our souls can become boundless, and we can feel limitless and free! For alchemists and mystics, it is an epiphenomenon– where the mystical heart becomes open, and we can dissolve the boundaries or borders between us as human beings, and be better able to make a gracious and transformative contact with others, with nature, with a higher reality we call God.

Saul, traveling on his self righteous mission, was struck by an unexpected yet powerful infusion of the Holy- that he experienced as light and heat… This experienced freed him of his limitations, hang ups and fears and set before him, new unlimited possibilities of understanding and a more exhaled or inspired direction for his life. In short, he discovered the sacred dimensions of his soul- and how a soul on fire with an active sense of grace, and a holy sense of love can begin to preach and work miracles!

Joseph Campbell gives us this conclusion:

“The hero’s task is to resist in order to serve higher aspirations and goals for the sake of humanity and for our world. We are not to pity the hero or the heroic in others, for those who seek and respond to the call to adventure are only following the essential tasks of reclaiming their own soul. Along the way, they might have to confront and slay the demonic in themselves and fight the dragons that have been spawned by the culture, know that systems of evil will try to swallow you up…”

Yet, “the hero helps you to live by resisting the world and its inhumanity… And to be heroic, we will need to listen to our own truth, and not to sociopolitical sicknesses and monstrosities.

Our lives call to us- they call us to decision, and the events of our lives evoke our character. These decisions are designed to elicit virtue, resiliency, insight, and strength from our own inner depths of psyche and Self. We are to enter and complete this journey living with the knowledge of its mysteries and with the acceptance of our humanness as we seek to restore, rebalance, save or heal the souls of others and save the soul of our world.”

Thank you… AMEN So Be It!

 

 

 

 

Thank you… AMEN So Be It!

 

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