Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.
~ Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
In the Church calendar, today is the day we commemorate the Conversion of St Paul. But we might as well call it Valentines Day–because every conversion (or reversion, for that matter) is a falling in love of sorts. As recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s conversion from Saul the Christian-hunter to Paul the Christ-hunted involves a literal fall, a bolt from the blue that dazzles the world away and leaves nothing but the Beloved. There’s something giddy and goofy and slapstick about it, which is why my favorite depiction of the Conversion is Caravaggio’s of 1601. Look at it! There’s Saul on his back, flapping like a turned turtle. There’s that attendant, with the world-weariness of so many of Caravaggio’s bystanders, thinking, Oh yeah, another one bites the dust. And there’s the biggest thing in the painting, that huge horse’s ass that we all become when we fall headlong into the love we’ve been running from. Even the art critic Bernard Berenson, almost single-handedly responsible for building Caravaggio’s modern reputation, agreed that what’s going on here looks less like a miraculous visitation than an unfortunate accident in a stable.
But that’s love for you. It knocks you flat, strikes you blind, turns your life around. It’s no big stretch to accompany Caravaggio’s Conversion with Colbie Caillat’s infectious pop anthem, “Brighter Than the Sun.”
There are a million conversion stories in life and literature. If you want to know whether the conversion, the change, the turnaround is real, though, look for the love. It’s not enough just to escape who you were and how you sinned. If a conversion isn’t a fall toward love, a falling into love with Someone (even if it starts by falling in love with someone who leads you to that Someone), it’s probably just another bend in the road, another example of the old switcheroo. The most famous Catholic conversion story (though technically his was a reversion) in recent years, for example, was John Corapi’s. It was heavily backloaded, emphasizing the glamorous sins left behind. It touched a lot of people. But where was the love? Newt Gingrich’s notable conversion to Catholicism might be said to involve love, since he was drawn gradually into the faith of his once-mistress, now third wife, Callista. The jury’s still out, though, on where that conversion story may lead.
The big conversion stories, the road to Damascus bombshells, make the headlines, but what Paul recognized–and what we celebrate on this feast–is that every day is conversion day. We keep retelling the story, we keep falling or being dragged or running blindly deeper and deeper in love. Sometimes, like Saul, we do it kicking against the goad (as a side note, don’t search this phrase on Google Images; that’s a whole other kind of “love”), fighting like the dumb oxen we are against the pricking and prodding of the One who loves us better than we know how to love ourselves. Sometimes we’re frantic for it, begging the Beloved to lay siege to our dulled senses, like John Donne in his Holy Sonnet XIV.
Whatever it looks like, there’s love and light and life unshakable at the core. As St John Chrysostom wrote of Paul, in the sermon read at today’s Office of Readings:
The most important thing of all to him, however, was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ. Enjoying this love, he considered himself happier than anyone else; were he without it, it would be no satisfaction to be the friend of principalities and powers. He preferred to be thus loved and be the least of all, or even to be among the damned, than to be without that love and be among the great and honored.
That’s the final way you know a real conversion story–the utter emptying out of pride. In love, we are none of us ever worthy enough, good enough, big enough to bear the weight of the grace lavished on us. The earthen vessels we are, the walls we build to keep out risk and belief and miracle, shatter, and we are flooded with light. Leonard Cohen sings about it in “Anthem.”
Over and over again, minute by minute, conversion by reversion, it’s an accident in a stable, a shot in the dark, an improbable leap into love. Happy Valentines Day!