In preparing to sing Mendelssohn’s St. Paul Oratorio, I embarked upon a project to read the story of St. Paul’s life and his letters, beginning with “Acts” in my King James version of the Bible. I was struck by the sudden and overwhelming moment of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. His out-of-body experience leaves him utterly changed, humbled and almost speechless. In some accounts he is struck blind by a shaft of light from the heavens. He emerges from this experience a new man, now a true believer of the religion that he had found odious before.
Some scholars dispute the historical accuracy of the Book of Acts, including Paul’s conversion story, even though it has stayed fairly consistent throughout various translations and editions of the Bible. More importantly, whether we know or not what exactly happened, the received story has a life of its own, having been retold, painted, and told in music for centuries; it is the story we believe, in some fundamental way, if only as a metaphor for a sudden, life-transforming experience.
Paul becomes obsessed with sharing his vision, sees angels, and believes voices tell him where to go and the true way to believe. He wanders the pagan world, mostly on foot, he and his followers often hungry and without shelter; and he remains celibate for the rest of his life. (He also rails against the excesses of the flesh, “fornication” being one of his favorite words.) He is a quirky collection of obsessions and arguments: vegetarian, intactivist, avid polyglot, populist and radical egalitarian. (In my reading I found little evidence that he was a misogynist or homophobic, beyond what would have been common in attitudes of the time.)
He roams as a somewhat crazed but convincing and charismatic man, the prototype for a long line of evangelists, continuing to this day. He particularly pushed the promise of eternal life for those who put their trust in one God and his earthly emissary Jesus Christ, and took great joy in converting people to this belief.
Paul has something in common with two quirky individuals, William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg, men who also were subject to visions, saw levitating bodies, and spun new theories from their imaginations. All three were looked upon as a bit touched in the head, and in Paul’s case, downright dangerous. By today’s standards and awareness, they may all have been considered schizophrenic.
For me, they illustrate the connection between mental disorganization and creativity. Of course, Paul wasn’t the only prophet subject to visions, and the Book of Acts refers to several other believers, including Stephen and Ananias, who were struck by visions—but Paul’s story stands out as a life-changing event, full of rich drama and detail, including God’s speaking to him in Hebrew.
Recent biblical scholars have re-evaluated his letters and radically revised our picture of the man. Contrary to common belief, some argue, Paul was not anti-Semitic. He announced to everyone he encountered that he was a Jew and a Pharisee. He had some empathy for the people who attacked him, whatever their ethnicity or culture; and he was set upon, bound and detained wherever he went, from Greece to Jerusalem.
Although he subscribed in the main to Jewish law, went to temple frequently, and underwent purification rites, he had strong objections to the practice of circumcision. For Paul this was an empty ritual that served to separate rather than bring people together; for him, it signified nothing of spiritual growth. He also maintained that you might conform with all the religious laws and rituals and still not be an enlightened and moral person.
Several times throughout the Book of Acts, Paul recounts the history of the Jewish people as told in the Old Testament, establishing continuity between his new belief and monotheism and connecting the prophets of the past with Jesus. He says his priority for conversion is not the Jews, because they first received the oracle of the law, but the licentious Gentiles, living in idolatry throughout the Roman Empire.
(Like Elijah, Paul sees himself as a conduit for conveying right belief to the misguided.)
Like Blake and Swedenborg, Paul was obsessed with spelling out his vision to others. In his letters he sounds pedantic and driven to exasperation as he repeatedly gives variations of the same lecture to the gentiles in every city where he goes. For all his preaching of love, there is an unacknowledged hostility and aggression lodged in the man.
St. Teresa of Avila, 16th century, the Spanish nun and mystic, is the best-known woman visionary who mentally inhabited an alternate universe. She felt pain and ecstasy in her visions, which often seem like mystical orgasms, even claiming to have united with God and meeting Jesus in the flesh. When friends suggested to her that her visions might be diabolical, not divine, she resorted to self-torture, the so called “mortification of the flesh,” until her confessor reassured her.
I love St. Teresa’s visions, perfect examples of the creative energy and productivity of people whose mental states we would not call normal. Take this one, in which she has an encounter with a seraph, who arrives equipped with a phallic-like spear of gold:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…
Visionaries and mystics are like that, willing to open themselves to pain, to difference, to a separation from the communal life they have grown up in. Whether you subscribe to their visions or not, you cannot deny the ingenuity, the creative spark, and the sheer power of their conviction.
Paul unfortunately was not a poet like Teresa; his visions transformed him into a teacher, who becomes annoyed with his students when they don’t listen. His tone, in the main, is rational and professorial not poetic. (The Book of John, which proceeds Paul’s letters in the New Testament, is considerably more lyrical and descriptive.) But if you read Paul’s texts closely, you see a brilliant mind at work, as he spins arguments for an internal spiritual life that eclipses all the empty ritual gestures, whether performed in the temple or at the foot of pagan gods, that to him mean nothing. For Paul intention informs action, and charity (often translated as love) is the most potent motivating force. In my favorite verses, Paul makes his case in imagistic prose, as in this oft-quoted passage:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. I Corinthians 13:1-2
The Emperor Constantine, several centuries later, appeared to consciously copy Paul’s conversion experience, supposedly succumbing to a light flash from the heavens when he saw the cross emblazoned with the words, “In hoc signo vinces,” (“By this sign you shall conquer”). Paintings show him falling off his horse and shading his eyes.
Reportedly, this vision occurred in the middle of battle on the border of the Eastern Empire. Christianity had become the most popular religion in the Roman Empire, and Constantine realized that he could enhance his power and authority by adopting Christian belief.
Our world today has its share of fake visionaries, who will promise to make our world great again…or take our money to save us from hell-fire…or advertise a new diet plan that will make us young and svelte. Perhaps St. Paul had at least one thing right. You have to experience a profound reorientation of yourself if you want to achieve real change in the world around you.