St. Paul is such a giant of the spiritual life that he is not only called “St. Paul;” he is also known simply as “the Apostle.” His conversion was so momentous that Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Apostle’s experience is the model of every authentic Christian conversion.”
That’s an astounding claim. It implies that every Christian gets knocked off his horse, blinded by light, speaks directly to Jesus, and then changes history by following Him.
And it’s true. We each do all of those things.
You can see how this happens by looking at how it happened for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
First: Get knocked off your horse
St. Paul met Christ when he was far from home, and suffered a severe trauma, getting knocked to the ground, probably right off his horse, and then going suddenly blind.
St. Elizabeth had a “travel conversion” as well. She sailed from New York to Italy in the last-ditch hope that a nicer climate would cure her husband’s tuberculosis. It didn’t; he died shortly upon arrival. Anyone who’s lost a husband, wife, parent, or child will know just how much like being knocked off your horse that experience is.
The same thing happens in our own conversions to Christ, though.
We are settled in our comfortable routines without an active faith in Christ and without a full life of the sacraments, but then something happens. Maybe it’s when we move to a new part of the country, or get a new job, or find a new circle of friends. Maybe it happens when we lose someone or something that was important to us. Maybe it happens more interiorly.
But when we are knocked from our safe and comfortable place and are finally open, we hear the voice of Christ, and we answer. As St. Elizabeth Ann put it, when we are at our weakest, “Faith lifts the staggering soul on one side, Hope supports it on the other, Experience says, ‘It must be,’ and love says ‘Let it be.’”
We find solid rock at last.
Second: Find God in the Church
St. Paul “set out for Damascus” to capture Christians to “bring back to Jerusalem in chains for punishment.” When he landed on the ground and was blinded by the light of Christ, Jesus confronted him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He was implying that the Church and His very body are one.
To prove how true that is, after speaking to Paul, Jesus withdrew, and the Church took over.
First, Ananias visited him and “laying his hands on him, he said, ‘Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me … that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’”
Then, Paul “stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus.”
In other words, Paul’s conversion wasn’t just between him and Jesus. It was between him and the Church.
It was the same with Mother Seton. “I assure you my becoming Catholic was a very simple consequence of going to a Catholic country,” she wrote. There she discovered the ancient form of Christianity in the Catholic Church. God spoke to her in her soul — she and her husband already had a deep faith — but to find the truth, she needed others.
So did Paul. So do we.
It is always through a community of believers that we discover Jesus. Perhaps we find them online first, or in books — but eventually we have to find them in the Church, which exists for this purpose: To be Jesus Christ to the world.
Third: Find God in sufferings that don’t end
Then, St. Paul and St. Elizabeth Ann lived happily ever after, right?
Not at all.
We often make a crucial error about our conversion: We think of it as the end of a process, not the beginning of one. We think that when we chose Christ, we finally got on the Yellow Brick Road that coasts to heaven.
Paul knew this error—and he worked hard to combat it. After a career spent proclaiming Christ crucified, and after a humiliating experience of trying and failing to get God to take away his suffering, he said “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton discovered the same thing in her own life of hardship and suffering.
“We are never strong enough to bear our cross. It is the cross which carries us,” she said. “The weakest become strong by its virtue.”
The cross never goes away. It’s a hard lesson to learn in our own lives, but everyone has to learn it.
The fourth and final step: Final perseverance
St. Paul compared final perseverance to a race. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”
If a race sounds daunting, you may prefer the motto so many have taken from Elizabeth Ann Seton: “Hazard yet forward.”
It’s a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and, come what may, heading to heaven through the joys and sorrows of life.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.