Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, New Orleans
Once, when I was 12 y.o., the carpenter helping us build our house in Mississippi whapped me in the back of the head with a 2x4. I've been hit in the face with a strand of barbed-wire. Had a tree fall on me while cutting fire wood. Almost drowned in a lake. My little brother bounced a brick off my head after I had hit him with two bricks. When I was 17, I rear-ended a truck on Hwy 78 going 60mph. Totaled both trucks. While working in a psych hospital, I've tackled and helped to restrain a police officer, an amateur wrestler, a woman who thought she was the Devil, and dozens of out of control adolescents. Been bitten, kicked, punched, spit on, bled on—well, name a execrable body fluid, and I've had it flung at me. Probably the most dramatic thing ever to happen to me was almost dying from a staph infection in my lower spine. Took seven weeks of IV anti-biotics and four months of bed rest to clear it up. Despite all this, never once did I see lightening or hear the voice of Jesus. Never once in all those moments of crisis did the thought occur to me: Go preach the Good News! Mostly I just laid around and watched Jerry Springer or re-runs of Hogan's Heroes. To get Saul's attention, Jesus has to smack him a around a little. Make him dependent on the charity of others in order to set him on the righteous path. Saul becomes Paul when he asks the Lord, “What shall I do, Sir?”
What difference does Saul's question make in his transformation into Paul? Remember who Saul was: "I am a Jew. . .educated strictly in our ancestral law and was zealous for God. . .I persecuted this Way to death, binding both men and women and delivering them to prison. . .” Saul was not an indifferent observer of the early Church. He was an active persecutor, a man on a mission to see the first followers of Christ executed for their heresy. He was on his way to Damascus to bring [them] back to Jerusalem in chains for punishment. . .” when he was enlightened to the errors of his ways. Saul's question to Jesus—“What shall I do, Sir?”—is more than just a polite question; it's a declaration of surrender, an admission to the Lord that he—Saul—is now subject to the Word of God revealed in the Christ. Saul the Zealous Persecutor of the Way becomes Paul the Zealous Apostle of Way when he bows his stiff neck to Jesus and asks him for a task, a job to do in his name.
Wouldn't Saul's question to Jesus make an excellent prayer to start your day? Before your feet touch the floor in the morning, ask Christ, “What shall I do for you today, Sir?” Make no mistake: it's a very dangerous question to ask, a very risky request to make. You might not like the answer; you might end up wishing you had never asked. But if you will go from being who you are in Christ to being everything you can be for Christ, you will take the risk and find joy in the answer. Because we have Saul's story of how he became Paul, we don't have to wait to be struck by lightening or blinded or sent off to live with strangers in order to ask, “What can I do for you, Lord?” We know how his story goes and how it ends. Paul evangelizes the whole Mediterranean region and ends his life a prison in Rome, probably executed by beheading—a mercy accorded Roman citizens. We don't die as martyrs to be good Christians. But we do have to find within ourselves and within our Body the Church Paul's zeal, his strength of resolve, and his fidelity to at once seek out the Lord's will for us and then do that will once it is made known. What can I do for you, Lord? “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”
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