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Eyes that Are Humble – A Meditation on the Conversion of St. Paul

January 25, 2018

Today in daily Mass we read the well-known story of St. Paul’s conversion. There is a detail in the story that I have often pondered. Although I am speculating on the specifics, I think it ought not to be overlooked. Even my choice of the words “speculating” and “overlooked” (both of which refer to the eyes) indicate that we ought to “give an eye” to St. Paul’s eyes.

As you probably recall, St. Paul was not just struck down on the road to Damascus—he was blinded as well.

Saul got up from the ground,
but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;
so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.
For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank (Acts 9:8-10).

Having persecuted the Lord, Paul was now confronted with the darkness of sin and unbelief. It is as though the Lord wanted nothing to distract Paul as he pondered his experience, neither the delights of food and drink nor the delights of the eye. It was a kind of dying and being with Christ for three days in the tomb before rising. Like the dead, Paul was unable to eat and was enveloped in complete darkness of blindness. He could do little during that time but think and pray.

And pray he did!

[The Lord said to Ananias,]“Get up and go to the street called Straight
and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.
He is there praying,
and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias
come in and lay his hands on him,
that he may regain his sight.”

… Ananias went and entered the house;
laying his hands on him, he said,
“Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came,
that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight.
He got up and was baptized,
and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.

Through Word and Sacrament, Paul’s eyes were healed—or were they? Surely they were, for in the years that would follow, Paul saw well enough to travel the world speaking of Christ.

I’m convinced that some vestige of blindness, some physical memory remained in Paul’s eyes for his entire life, something to remind him of his need for mercy and to keep him humbly mindful of how that mercy was extended.

As background, we do well to recall the story of Jacob, who wrestled with God one night. Jacob proved strong in that great contest, so strong that God gave him a new name, Israel, which means “he wrestles (or struggles) with God.” God also left Jacob with a permanent memory of that nighttime battle. Scripture says that God knocked out Jacob’s sciatic muscle (Genesis 32:32), such that he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life, leaning on a staff. It was a reminder to Jacob that he was always to lean on the Lord (Heb 11:21).

So, too, perhaps, for St. Paul. Although he persevered through three dark days with God and although his eyesight was restored, it would seem that some weakness remained in his eyes. Later, St. Paul would speak of an ailment, a mysterious thorn in his flesh (2 Cor 12:7). Three times he begged God to remove it but the Lord told him to endure it for the sake of humility.

What was it? What was this mysterious physical affliction? I’m convinced that it had something to do with his eyes. Paul told the Galatians,

As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me (Gal 4:13-15).

While I am speculating, it seems to me that Paul had something to akin to conjunctivitis (pink eye), an affliction that make the eyes fill with a sticky yellowish discharge and become red. It can be extremely contagious and is often repulsive to others. Indeed, it was quite difficult to endure in the era before modern medicine.

Whatever his actual affliction, it seems (if the Galatians text is acknowledged as descriptive) to have involved Paul’s eyes, the same eyes that had been healed but perhaps with a reminder left in them of the need for humility and for remembrance of how God saved him.

What is your thorn? What is your limp? What is your conjunctivitis? All of us have things that keep us humble. They remind us of our need to lean on God and to look to Him, not with haughty eyes, but with eyes that are humble, respectful, and grateful.

This song says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus”

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Comments (7)

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  1. RAY - PORTSMOUTH - UK says:

    Hi Fr Charles!
    A very impressive vid presentation – but – what a great pity you chose a version of this beautiful Spiritual which leaves out the name of JESUS!!! Popping the word ‘sorrow’ into that slot, smacks to me of ‘political correctness’ on the part of the Taiwan University Choir!!
    What about this, every-bit-as-beautiful performance by the ‘Choir Of The Sound’, in the equally beautiful in its simplicity, St Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle? When I found this, it brought back so many happy memories of my travel all over the magnificent – (in ‘most’ part!) – country of the USA over the years! And of a particular concert in which I was involved in that building . . .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbZxNlv8Wf8
    It is a truly magnificent musical arrangement and fine performance. Hope you and others like it.
    I too have always been somewhat flummoxed at what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ could have been. I very much like your possible explanation, but – still on the subject of ‘eyes’ – I have often thought that he may well have been afflicted with a rather more graphic ‘inner eye’ vision of all the terrible things he had done and said against the Saviour before his conversion.
    I try to live with the same thoughts myself, about the dreadful things I have done and said over my life, from which God has so graciously saved me.
    THAT keeps me humble – as it should all of us.
    God bless all – Ray

  2. nl says:

    Like Jesus in the tomb, Paul at his conversion continued three days in darkness and without food. Paul remembered his conversion via his continuing eyes problems
    We remember Christ’s death and Resurrection when we eat his Bread and drink his Cup. Thank you, Msgr, for sharing your insights.

  3. Thomas Walker says:

    The thorn in the flesh being his eyes is also so supported by the incident in Acts where Paul was struck by a temple guard for speaking harshly to the high priest, and Paul apologized, saying “Well, if I’d know he was the high priest…”

  4. Anita says:

    Excellent post, Msgr, as always. You have this gift to “see” the Word of God and interpret it better than anyone else. Thank you and God Bless you!

  5. Mark says:

    1 Corinthians 2:2
    For I decided to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

    This doesn’t sound like someone with an afflication. Having come to know the lord, these words are all that matter and keep me well humbled.

  6. JOHN says:

    Thank You, Msgr. Charles Pope for this Meditation about ST.PAUL’S
    “Thorn in the Flesh”.

    My added “Thorn in the Flesh” is Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis.
    I have progressed to having to use two canes for walking and I fatigue easily.

    In ACTS Chapter 9 VERSE 26 -28 ST. PAUL was not at first accepted when he tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem.

    Later, after Barnabas took charge of him, and reported about his preaching in Damascus; only then did the Apostles accepted him.

    To follow JESUS, using ST. PAUL as an example, is a blessing from GOD.

  7. My theory is it was bees. When driving down the road in a car or motor bike you often cross paths with bugs. I think it was in the movie Stick with Burt Reynolds where George Segal ask Burt, “What is the last thing a bug sees when it hits your windshield?” The punchline was basically “it’s behind.” Riding down dusty roads on a horse at a good pace and crossing paths with a swarm of bees could leave you suddenly temporarily blinded, weak and disoriented with a lack of appetite for a few days and you would immediately reach for your eyes possibly crushing the bees that had collided with your face and eyes stinging your eyes. You would definitely see a flash of light, fall to the ground and probably be suddenly and temporarily blinded. I got stung by a red wasp right between the eyes when I was a kid and I saw a blinding flash of light when that bug planted it’s stinger right between my eyebrows. Saul would have possibly gotten the exoskeletal remnants of the bees body in his eyes and when the anaphalactic swelling and symptoms subsided over the next hours and days the bee exoskeleton pieces would possibly be falling from his eyes looking like scales. The stinger could remain in the flesh for years like a thorn and you may possibly have some lingering residual vision deficit. That is my Hindstein theory. My thorn in the flesh is losing my hearing. I had to get hearing aids about six years ago and although they helped me hear better, they don’t stop the hearing loss and they are not like getting your hearing restored to normal. It is more like putting a PA system in your ears and you get all the drawbacks that go along with it such as feedback, wind noise and it probably contributes to the progression of hearing loss from all the extraneous noise they amplify. It makes it hard at work to understand what someone is saying to me when there are several sound sources present.