Image: 'The Conversion of St. Paul' by Caravaggio (1600)
It is estimated that Saint Paul spent between five and six years in prison, in various places, during his ministry, including a period under house arrest in Rome. Considering how active and zealous Paul was for the Gospel, having established churches all over the Mediterranean and Asia Minor during the years following his conversion, it would have been easy for him to become bitter, frustrated and disheartened by these unjust imprisonments. Yet it was during these periods that Paul produced some of his greatest epistolary work, letting himself be used by God to write the Spirit-breathed letters which make up the bulk of the New Testament canon today. These letters have inspired, uplifted and encouraged countless Christian pilgrims as they walk the narrow and rugged road to Heaven.
Perhaps the loveliest of these letters is that which Paul wrote to the church at Philippi. The epistle positively radiates joy, peace, love and gratitude, all of which are especially remarkable considering the numerous references Paul makes to his imprisonment, the uncertainty he was experiencing about his own future on earth, his obvious concern for those he loved, and the suffering of the saints. All of these are things we can easily identify with as we enter the second week of our own lockdown. However, I believe that our elder brother in the Lord would have us call to mind some of the great truths which he wrote down during his own period of isolation and confinement.
Paul knew that what he was experiencing would ultimately benefit the Gospel and the whole Church
Fans of C.S. Lewis will almost be able to hear the demon Wormwood skipping around with glee at the thought of seeing Paul, the great evangelist, locked up, only to be harshly reprimanded by his uncle, Screwtape: How imbecilically stupid you are, never seeing past the end of your nose! Don’t you realise that the Enemy will use this, too, as a means of harvesting those wretched little creatures for Himself?
We might be tempted to raise an eyebrow when we hear Paul refer to his chains as a ‘privilege’ (1: 7). But Paul, having unshakeable faith in a God of Love, and understanding the great mystery that is the Mystical Body of Christ, was confident that the Lord could bring something positive out of even the most adverse situations:
‘I am glad to tell you, my brothers, that the things that happened to me have actually been a help to the Good News.
My chains, in Christ, have become famous not only all over the Praetorium but everywhere, and most of the brothers have taken courage in the Lord from these chains of mine and are getting more and more daring in announcing the Message without any fear.’ (1: 12-14)
In modern, secular society, we’re often told that religion (apparently on a level with money and politics) is a topic best avoided in polite conversation. In extreme circumstances, however, society is shaken up and destabilised, and this can make space for broaching difficult topics which were previously taboo. The enemy normally goes to great lengths to distract us from the truth concerning how fleeting and fragile our lives are. One can only assume that times like this, which raise collective awareness of that same shortness and fragility, must make him rather nervous.
Paul had a joy which no-one could take from him
What images come to mind when you think of normal life? For me, these images would consist of simple, everyday pleasures (which, I hasten to add, would actually be luxuries for vast swathes of the world’s population): meeting friends for coffee, nature walks with my family, walking to Mass on a Sunday morning. Most of us didn’t fully appreciate how much we took these things for granted until it was too late and they were gone (one lapsed Catholic here in Newcastle even contacted our parish priest to say that he missed having a Mass to avoid going to!). I’m sure I’m not the only person who, only a day or so into the crisis, found herself wailing on the phone: “I just want life to be normal again!”
But Paul had a different idea of what ‘normal life’ was, writing from his prison: ‘Life, to me, of course, is Christ’ (1: 21). These seven words alone merit deep contemplation. Paul’s life did not consist of any earthly pleasures or routines, although he appreciated and affirmed those things as good. To him, Christ was not someone he sang about on Sundays, or even merely a friend – but his whole life.
We’re often cautioned, in interpersonal relationships, against trying to fit another person into this role. How many of us, when dating as teenagers, had an older person warn us: “don’t make that boy / girl into your whole life, now! You’ve got to keep some other interests, too.” And, of course, they were right, because that’s a place in our heart which no mere human was ever meant to fill. It’s a place which should be reserved entirely for Christ, and Paul understood this secret well. He may have been in prison and suffering, but his life was never going to feel destabilised because it was entirely wrapped up in a Christ who: ‘is the same yesterday and today and forever.’ (Hebrews 13: 8)
Surely this was the joy which Jesus Himself spoke of when He said, ‘…your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you.’ (John 16: 22).
Paul had the antidote to anxiety
Dr. Timothy Keller once preached an excellent sermon on the following two verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving, and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus. (4: 6-7)
In his sermon, Dr. Keller addressed the popular misconception that thanksgiving and gratitude are the keys to getting God to give us what we want when we pray, an idea which carries more than a whiff of New Age superstition. Rather, says Keller, the thanksgiving should be borne out of the knowledge that God will always answer our prayers in the way which brings about the greatest possible good, both in our lives and the lives of those we care about. Therefore, says Keller, even if the answer is “no” or “wait”, we can still be filled with peace because we know that God’s wisdom far transcends ours, and He will always do what is best for everyone, even if we, with our limited perception, cannot see or understand it.
These are naturally anxiety-provoking times, yet Christians have the chance to exude that peace which transcends all earthly knowledge – and what a powerful witness that would be to the world.
Let’s finish this post with a reminder to: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.’ (4: 4)
Saint Paul, pray for us!
by Lucy Stothard