If [the Holy Spirit] takes possession of Fishermen, He makes them catch the whole world in the nets of Christ, taking them up in the meshes of the Word [Gk. Logos]. Look at Peter and Andrew and the Sons of Thunder, thundering the things of the Spirit. If of Publicans, He makes gain of them for discipleship, and makes them merchants of souls; witness Matthew, yesterday a Publican, today an Evangelist. If of zealous persecutors, He changes the current of their zeal, and makes them Pauls instead of Sauls, and as full of piety as He found them of wickedness.
~ St. Gregory the Theologian, Homily 41: “On Pentecost,” 14
Ascension and Pentecost came and went, and I haven’t even reflected on either yet! Monday we will start the Apostles Fast that lasts until the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. It’s all too much to cover in one post, so I’ll try not to get carried away, but what I do have might serve as a little bridge between the two seasons.
In the hymn of Pentecost, which is also the hymn of my home parish, we sing that after the Ascension of Christ, he sent the Holy Spirit, who descended upon the Apostles, “made the fishermen wise and illumined the world.” Several of the twelve Apostles were fishermen, to whom Christ promised, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).
This hymn and St. Gregory the Theologian highlight that it is through the Holy Spirit that Christ’s promise was fulfilled. And indeed, through just a little more than a dozen disciples at first, followers of Jesus Christ have multiplied since that first Christian Pentecost to what is today the largest religious affiliation in the world.
In elaborating on the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, St. Gregory even highlights St. Paul, who was not present at Pentecost but to whom Christ appeared on the road to Damascus. Christianity was controversial in its beginning, and there were some who wanted to do away with the early Christians by any means. Saul (as St. Paul was called at that time) was one of these people. He oversaw with approval the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. And he set out to Damascus to stamp out the Christian community there.
St. Luke tells the story:
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way [i.e. Christians], whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
And he said, “Who are You, Lord?”
Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” (Acts 9:1-6)
One would think that of all those suffering Christ would be appearing to his own followers who were being persecuted. But look at what he says to Saul: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” Christ appears to St. Paul out of pity for him. He who wished to imprison others was bound by hatred in his soul: “If of zealous persecutors, He changes the current of their zeal, and makes them Pauls instead of Sauls, and as full of piety as He found them of wickedness.”
But where is the Holy Spirit in this story? He comes a bit later. St. Paul was blinded by the light he saw, and when he reaches Damascus the Lord sends a man named Ananias to find him. Ananias is a bit apprehensive, but he finds Saul anyway:
And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:17)
St. Paul then was baptized. The story continues to say,
Immediately he [Saul] preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He [Christ] is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?” (Acts 9:20-21)
The change was amazing. Ananias barely believed that Christ would want him to go to Saul. After he was baptized, this same person who had come to that city to imprison Christians instead shows up promoting their cause!
Stories about fire from heaven and visions of Jesus in a blinding light are a big pill to swallow in our modern age. On the other hand, St. Paul was no less skeptical; indeed, he actively sought to stop, even through violence, those who would believe such a thing.
Until it happened to him.
He, at least, did not need an argument. He would not have had ears to hear one anyway. Yet, he was a person suffering, a self-caused suffering, yes, but suffering nonetheless. He did not even realize that he needed hope. He could not imagine that he could need salvation.
I am currently reading a book called The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The subject of the book is the unknown, unforeseen, improbable, yet highly consequential. Taleb calls them Black Swans because for a long time most people presumed that because they had never seen a black swan, all swans must be white.
Until people went to Australia and saw a black swan.
Now, this was not highly consequential, but Taleb’s point is that we often follow the same logic to presume that the highly consequential, but improbable, will not happen to us, just because it never has. An example would be the real estate bubble bursting in 2007, causing a financial recession. Taleb saw it coming, but most people didn’t.
Religious conversion, for some, like St. Paul, is a Black Swan. They may be religious or non-religious, but whatever the case, they are set in their ways, sure in their convictions, and completely blind to what the future holds for them. Looking back, they may see (or imagine) factors that led to it, but in reality at the time they thought it was so unlikely as to be impossible.
Take, for example, former Mouseketeer Matt Morris. For a time, he used to blog about druidism under the name Teo Bishop. Until one day, as he told the New York Times, he had
an encounter with a woman, probably homeless, sitting next to her shopping cart. He gave her some food. “God bless you,” she said to him. That exchange stayed with him, and he soon felt himself called back to God—to a Christian conception of God.
The same article reports,
“I’m overwhelmed with thoughts of Jesus,” Mr. Bishop wrote on Oct. 13, on his blog, Bishop in the Grove. “Jesus and God and Christianity and the Lord’s Prayer and compassion and forgiveness and hope…. I don’t know what to do with all of this.”
Even after the fact, he didn’t know how to explain this Black Swan. Suddenly, out of nowhere: “Jesus and God and Christianity and the Lord’s Prayer and compassion and forgiveness and hope.” And that gives me hope as well.
What I like about the selection from St. Gregory the Theologian in the epigraph to this post is the emphasis on transformation. The disciples were tax collectors and fishermen, working with their fathers, because they had not been good enough to become rabbis. These were the dropouts of the ancient world. But when Christ gave them a chance, they took it without hesitation, hoping for the unlikely, unimagined, and, to others, impossible.
St. Paul, on the other hand, was a Pharisee. He made it. He learned from the best teachers, and he excelled. He had no idea that he needed transformation just as much as those Galilean dropouts, but he did. It happened, and he was never the same again.
The work of the Spirit in my own life has had this transformative effect, in both ways, actually. There are things I always wanted to change but did not see how. At other times, there were things that I needed to change but did not see. I grew up Evangelical and never would have imagined becoming Greek Orthodox, for example. I didn’t even know such a thing existed!
Through all my life, nothing has been outside of the Holy Spirit’s competence, nor has any self-inflicted suffering been so severe that it did not warrant the pity of Christ.
Interestingly, though some of my fellow Orthodox don’t seem to like the phrase, I think St. Gregory’s quote perfectly demonstrates that saying of the Western saint Thomas Aquinas: “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” Not only nature, we might say, but personhood as well: the Holy Spirit made the fishermen fishers of men, the tax collector a collector of souls, the Sons of Thunder (James and John) thunderous preachers, a zealot for hatred a zealot for love.
And each day, I can say, he makes me more of what I am. It reminds me of a saying from a different Gregory, St. Gregory of Sinai:
Become what you already are.
Find Him who is already yours.
Listen to Him who never ceases speaking to you.
Own Him who already owns you.
Happy Pentecost! (Or whatever we’re supposed to say.) More to come.