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Paul: An Ally of the Church in 21st Century?

The Conversion of St. Paul by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted in 1601 for the private chapel of Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi, (treasurer general under Pope Clement VIII) in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.

By Canon Ian Morter

Caravaggio, as he is usually know, was born in 1571 in Milan but was based in Rome from 1592 where he made his reputation as an inspired artist and also as a hot headed, touchy and violent character. He fled to Naples in 1606 after an incident that found him guilty of murder and then he was exiled in Malta and Sicily. His untimely and mysterious death in 1610 at the age of 38 having just received a Papal pardon for the murder. His paintings have been hailed by many as combining a realistic observation of the humanity, both physically and emotionally. His characteristic dramatic style was in the use of light, which had a formative influence on later Baroque painters. From an early time in Rome, Caravaggio used detailed precise observation with a dramatic use of light, highlighting his subjects in bright shafts of light surrounded by darkening shadows (chiaroscuro as it is described). You will see in my choice of the Conversion of St Paul, Caravaggio vividly caught crucial moments and scenes in his paintings and because he worked very rapidly, he painted his models directly onto the canvases thus making any preliminary drawings unnecessary.

But enough of my interest in art. On Tuesday 25th this coming week we remember the Conversion of St Paul. We need to read St Luke’s account of this event in The Acts of the Apostles chapter 9 as the key to Caravaggio’s atmospheric painting of the life changing encounter that Saul of Tarsus had on his journey from Jerusalem to Damascus in about the year 34 – 37 AD. He was on his way to arrest the members of the Christian Church but his vision of the Risen Jesus was such that he fell from his horse and was blinded. In the ensuing days his sight was restored and he was converted from being a persecutor of Christians, changed his name to Paul and became a teacher of the Christian faith that won him the title ‘The Apostle to the Gentiles’.

I have always had rather an ambivalent relationship with St Paul from my first encounter with his writings as young choirboy and I am not sure that has changed over the many years since! Hence my comment ‘an ally of the Church in 21st Century?’ As a young member of the Church I would listen to the first reading at the Eucharist and could not understand what was being read. In the 1960’s the Epistle was often from St Paul’s letters read in those days in the Authorised Version (King James Bible). When I read the same Epistles in the Cathedral at the Sunday 8.00am BCP Holy Communion I still find it difficult to understand what St Paul is trying to say. Perhaps the long sentences of subordinate clause, after subordinate clause, does not suit my Comprehensive School education. I have to re-read the passage in a modern translation to get a grasp of the meaning.

I cannot deny that Paul’s writing on the person of Jesus Christ is invaluable for our understanding of Jesus as the Son of God and as our Saviour. His Epistles contain some amazing writing that are unforgettable in their exposition of Christian theology. Many composers have taken the writings of St Paul and have beautifully accompanied them to sublime music.

But I find some of the teaching of Paul to members of the Early Church hard to accept in the world of today. I realise St Paul was writing at a certain time and in a particular context but his teachings on the ‘Household Code’ (the place of each person in the house) including the subordinate place of women in the family and his acceptance of slavery, very hard to accept and certainly would not want to encourage the Church of today to adopt and hold as the ‘Word of the Lord’. I would add to that discomfort, St Paul’s condemnation of certain loving relationships difficult to agree with in the twenty first century.

So although I will celebrate St Paul’s conversion from a persecutor of Christians to becoming a key person in the spread of the Christian Gospel in the first century. I appreciate his teaching on the person of Jesus as The Christ and Redeemer, as crucial in the formation of Christian Theology but he is still very much a person I find a bit ‘Marmite.’