The story of St. Paul’s conversion is well known and we read it last week in daily Mass. But there is a detail that I have often pondered which, though speculative, ought not be overlooked. Indeed, even my choice of the words “speculative” and “overlooked” (both of which refer to the eyes) indicate that we ought to give an eye (i.e., a look) 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. The text of Acts 9 says,
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.
Having persecuted the Lord, Paul must now confront the darkness of sin and unbelief. It is as though the Lord wanted nothing to distract him 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 he would rise. And like the dead, Paul was unable to eat and was enveloped in the deep darkness of blindness. He could do little during that time but think and pray.
And pray he did, for the Lord said to a mysterious but chosen figure named 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!
But I’m convinced that some vestige of blindness, some physical memory remained in Paul’s eyes for his whole 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 was strong with God in that great contest, so much so that God would give him a new name, Israel, meaning “he who wrestles or strives with God.” But God also left Jacob with a permanent memory of that nighttime battle. Scripture says that God knocked out his sciatic muscle (Genesis 32:32), such that Jacob would walk with a limp for the rest of his life, leaning on a staff. It was a kind of reminder that Jacob was always to lean on the Lord (Heb 11:21).
And so too, perhaps, for St. Paul. For though he prevailed through the three dark days with God, and his eyesight was restored, it would seem there was a weakness in his eyes that remained. 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 the mysterious physical affliction? I’m convinced 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 some speculation is necessary, it seems that Paul had something to akin to conjunctivitis, also called “pink eye.” It is an affliction that make the eyes fill with pus and become red. It is often contagious, humiliating, and repulsive to others. Indeed it was quite difficult to endure in the era before modern medicine.
But whatever his actual affliction, it seems (if the Galatians text is acknowledged as descriptive) to have involved the eyes. Yes, Paul’s eyes, those 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 and 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”