Paul had a vision. Over the years I have had my difficulties with this crusty, hard line lawyer-come-apostle. Reading quickly through his books, it has always seemed that he was more concerned with how we behave morally than spiritually. As time has gone on, I have softened in my stance and began to open up to the mystic contemplative who lives just under surface of his life.
Paul appears to be a person with thin boundaries comfortable in the liminal space of change and challenge. By thin boundaried I mean some one who is able to transit the normally perceived world and connect with the transcendent reality which is always present but rarely experienced by the ordinary person. This is the domain of contemplative prayer or contemplation.
It is not meditation, even Christian meditation; it is not stillness or solitude, it is not private prayer. It is openness to both the immanence and transcendence of God at the very same time. Of knowing that I live in, amongst and with God every moment of life and that he is breaking in on me in ways that startle, energise and direct me; when I am open to him.
Contemplative prayer is simply the awareness of being connected to God at every breathing moment, and that his realm is not out there somewhere or something I can only encounter fully in heaven after death. Heaven is here today, and I encounter him now.
A little boy with multiple illnesses, which restricted his life greatly, approached a Christian speaker after a seminar and asked: “What is heaven like?” He was told that it was wonderful, something to behold. Incredulously he asked: “Better than here? That’s not possible.” As the speaker looked at the broken little body in front of him, the boy explained: “It can’t be better than here. Here we have everything we need and a life of opportunity. This is heaven.” The little boy went away shaking his head.
Thomas Merton says:
“The only way to get rid of misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it. One who does not actually know, in his own life, the nature of this breakthrough and this awakening to a new level of reality cannot help being misled by most of the things that are said about it. For contemplation cannot be taught. It cannot even be clearly explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized. The more objectively and scientifically one tries to analyze it, the more he empties it of its real content, for this experience is beyond the reach of verbalization and of rationalization”.
Paul surely had experienced it. He either had personal experience of it or had benefited from the outcomes of contemplative prayer experienced by others.
Acts 9:3-4 – His conversion
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Acts 9:10 – The one who was to teach him
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
9One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; 10for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.”
17“After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18and saw Jesus saying to me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’
23For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’
It is probable that there were many other such experiences that Luke the writer of the book of Acts leaves out, but there is enough evidence that Paul, the workaholic apostle, spent much time in contemplation where he encountered directly the person of the transcendent God.
These experiences occurred in the midst of his ordinary everyday life.The examples above identify that when he was at his weakest that’s when he encountered God. When we are humble and broken, unsure of our own power and sense of right, that is when God can reach us.
Part of the task of contemplative prayer is this sense of emptying ourselves of our ego and self-assurance, and paring our inner selves back to total reliance on God. It is about humility, something I once though Paul had little of, but have come to see in him.
Merton goes on:
“A humble man can do great things with an uncommon perfection because he is no longer concerned about incidentals, like his own interests and his own reputation, and therefore he no longer needs to waste his efforts in defending them.
For a humble man is not afraid of failure. In fact, he is not afraid of anything, even of himself, since perfect humility implies perfect confidence in the power of God before Whom no other power has any meaning and for Whom there is no such thing as an obstacle.”
Brueggeman says of this passage:
“Here is a narrative in which a vision leads to a new practical beginning. Paul was ready for a vision. He was seeking a way of ministry “out of no way.” That new way was given “in a vision,” a perception of reality outside the ordinary and beyond all conventionalism. This “chief apostle” is “on the loose,” unencumbered and ready for what is given by God—not a bad characterization of the church and its ministry when that ministry is not imprisoned in old thought categories or paralyzed by its traditions (or its property).”
Neither is this concept of being “on the loose, unencumbered and ready for what is given by God”, not a bad characterization of contemplative prayer. When all barriers are down and we are free to embrace whatever experience God brings our way we will see visions just as Paul did.
When I travel overseas in particular, I have developed a way of being which is a little different. I avoid as far as possible the typical tourist spots and attractions and cut myself loose from the accepted way of being abroad. It started in Paris in 2005. I simply step out into the street and walk with out any plan or preconceived idea of what I want to see. I simply want to see the city. I am on the loose, unencumbered and ready for what ever the city brings. I let the city surprise me. And it does.
Paul, the contemplative, let’s God surprise him, and he does.
The challenge is to empty our minds of the mechanical and technological knowledge of our world, the preconceived understandings of the world around us (and God as well), and to open ourselves up to the mystery of the Creator God who seeks to do miracles in our every day lives.
New ways will break in upon us when we are least expecting them, when we are empty, humble or simply “on the loose, unencumbered and ready for what is given by God”