Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is an important annual anniversary for me, falling one day shy of the day I was received into the Catholic Church. Paul’s conversion, recorded in today’s first reading, can hardly have been painless. The once-powerful man has to be led by the hand to Damascus, and receive the ministry of a religious movement he wanted to quash. All of this must happen before the scales literally fall from his eyes. But the difficulties do not end there. In time Paul must build up relations with the other apostles, and with the members of the Church in Jerusalem who will still associate him with the death of the protomartyr Stephen. His life becomes one of continual travel around the Mediterranean, where he is flogged five times, beaten with rods three times, pelted with stones, and thrice shipwrecked. He describes his life as one of constant danger, toil, and full of hunger and thirst (2 Corinthians 11:21-28).
Through it all though, Paul remains convinced that ‘…the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Romans 8:18) and that ultimately, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38). His hope is grounded in the promise of divine help guaranteed in today’s gospel reading. This passage from Mark gives specific examples of the protection and help Our Lord promises in Matthew’s Gospel: that He will be with us always, to the close of the age (Matthew 28:20). Some of the guarantees may strike us as slightly strange; some are more common - the gift of tongues in Protestant communities - but others, like handling poisonous snakes without coming to harm, are a little more obscure. This should, of course, remind us of Paul’s own encounter with a poisonous snake in Malta (Acts 28:1-6), but it probably strikes us as a slightly strange example to choose.
No matter how obscure the examples, the promise of divine help and protection still stands, and this is the most important thing that we can hope for in our own conversion, in our own progress in the Christian life. Our lives will not, most likely, take on the character of St Paul’s. We will not, unless our vocation lies in the missions, travel vast distances and risk death on a regular basis. But our lives will come with their own particular risks and dangers, the kind that fall to any disciple. Our faith may cause a strain with our family or friends, and we may even loose a few. And progress in the Christian life is painful because, after all, it often involves ceasing to do things we have previously enjoyed, or feel are part of our personality. Then there is the slow progress of the Christian life itself, a growth in virtue followed, quite often, by some new sin, some new fall, before beginning on the journey again with the help of God’s grace.
For my own part, I hope I’m never close enough to a venomous snake to find out whether I can overcome its poison, but these promises that God will help us should still be a vital assurance to us that no matter how our own lives of conversion pan out, we’re never alone.