No Christian conversion is exactly alike; each one is unique. This is certainly true of Saul’s conversion depicted by Luke in Acts 9. There are, however, some common elements.
Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest disciples of Jesus when he encountered a blinding light. Luke says, “Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could not see” (9:8). We often go through life — go to work, exercise, go out with friends, marry and raise children, watch television, read books, play golf or go fishing, make love, argue and make up, help a neighbor, plant a garden — blind to the source of all these good things, blind to our common connection to each other and all creation, and blind to the divine life that resides in each of us.
Saul did not realize that he was persecuting his brothers and sisters. The voice of Christ says to him out of the light, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Paul never mentions any details of his mystical encounter in his letters, so we don’t know if he had shared with Luke about his experience, of if this is simply Luke’s way of explaining Paul’s spiritual grasp of the indwelling Christ/Spirit. Paul certainly experienced this enlightening encounter as a revelation (see Gal. 1:12). And while Paul most often speaks of the indwelling Christ in the context of instruction to Christians, according to Luke’s account of Paul’s preaching in Athens in Acts 17, Paul was convinced that we are all (Christians and non-Christians) children or “offspring” of God and in God “we live and move and have our being” (17:28).
In his wonderful book titled, The Rebirthing of God, Celtic scholar John Philip Newell tells about the time he was delivering a talk in Ottawa, Ontario, on some of the themes in the prologue to John’s Gospel. One of his main points was that the Light that became incarnate in Jesus is “the Light that enlightens every person coming into the world” (John 1:9). In attendance that evening was a Canadian Mohawk elder who had been invited to make observations about the parallels between his First Nation’s spirituality and the spirituality of the Celtic world which Newell was talking about.
At the end of Dr. Newell’s talk he stood with tears in his eyes and said, “As I have been listening to these themes, I have been wondering where I would be tonight. I have been wondering where my people would be tonight. And I have been wondering where we would be as a Western world tonight if the mission that had come to us from Europe centuries ago had come expecting to see light in us.” Indeed!
Newell observes that we, of course, cannot change the terrible acts that were rendered in the name of Jesus, but we can, however, be part of something new. According to Newell, “We can allow the true essence of our Christian heritage to be born anew.” In other words, we can undergo a good conversion. In view of the narrow, doctrinally and culturally exclusive, line-drawing Christianity that so often prevails today, we desperately need one.
What is true of Christianity in general is also true for each of us in particular. Conversion is an ongoing process that we must undergo personally and communally through the help of others. Luke says that Ananias was instrumental in helping Saul regain his sight. When he laid hands on Saul, “something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored” (9:17-18). Luke also says that “for several days he was with the disciples in Damascus” (9:19). We do not get to new places on our own. We need help. The biblical and theological word for this is grace. We need grace, and we especially need a community of disciples who are good at dispensing grace.
In 9:2 Luke describes Christians as those who “belong to the way.” The Christian life is a journey that involves many conversions from old patterns of thinking and living to new patterns, from selfish clinging to selfless giving, from unhealthy, exclusive images of God to healthy, inclusive images, from hate to love.
How do these conversions happen? There is no one way, but one thing is needed for sure: An openness and readiness to see new things, have new visions, and practice new ways of living. Conversions can happen in isolation, but they are much more likely to occur in community. We don’t need a lot for the journey, but we do need each other. We are on pilgrimage together.