Today is the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, two of the most important Saints in the Church’s history. Although the two men had very different temperaments, experiences, and upbringings, they both were able to contribute their respective gifts and charisms to the Church. Last year, I posted a reflection on St. Peter; he is the model of hope, as he allowed the Holy Spirit to transform him from a hot-headed fisherman into an eloquent leader. This year, I would like to share with you a few of my reflection on St. Paul.
I will be frank and admit that I could do a much better job at reading the Epistles of St. Paul…or, for that matter, paying attention to the second readings during mass. Hopefully, by this time next year, I can provide you all with a more robust reflection on the writings of St. Paul. However, when I think about St. Paul, the following passage always stands out in my mind:
After Paul's escorts had taken him to Athens, they came away with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible. While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he grew exasperated at the sight of the city full of idols. So he debated in the synagogue with the Jews and with the worshipers, and daily in the public square with whoever happened to be there. Even some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion. Some asked, "What is this scavenger trying to say?" Others said, "He sounds like a promoter of foreign deities," because he was preaching about 'Jesus' and 'Resurrection.' They took him and led him to the Areopagus and said, "May we learn what this new teaching is that you speak of? For you bring some strange notions to our ears; we should like to know what these things mean." Now all the Athenians as well as the foreigners residing there used their time for nothing else but telling or hearing something new.
Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: "You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' 7 What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For 'In him we live and move and have our being,' as even some of your poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.' Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination. God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent because he has established a day on which he will 'judge the world with justice' through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead."
When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, "We should like to hear you on this some other time."
And so Paul left them.
But some did join him, and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the Court of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
As a person who has taken many public speaking classes, Paul’s sermon at Athens was truly ingenious. He perfectly adhered to one of the main tenets of oratory: consider your audience. Paul masterfully used concepts of Greek philosophy as a springboard to show how Christianity was the ultimate expression of the Truth that the philosophers had so ardently been seeking. The solid logic, eloquent words, and emotional impact should have been a recipe for a positive response. However, something just didn’t “click,” and most of the audience treated Paul as a mere curiosity and an object of mockery.
Several lessons can be drawn from Paul’s experience at Athens:
Sometimes we can do our very best at something, but fail to get positive outcomes. Whether it is trying to “ace” an exam or land a job offer, or attempting to share the truth of Christ with a loved one, sometimes our prayers and efforts don’t immediately give us desired results. Our Lord empathizes with us during these times, because he also experienced temporal disappointments; after trying his best to shoulder His cross, He fell three times! Even after preaching in his hometown, Christ’s peers were so angered at his words that they almost ran him over a cliff (Luke 4: 16-30)! We should follow the example of Christ and St. Paul, who refused to become discouraged by these rather frustrating failures. When we have failed despite our best efforts, we need to realize that there are some things that only God’s grace can control and simply place the situation in His hands.
For instance, there have been many times in my life when I’ve acquired a “hero” complex; I’ve convinced myself that my prayers and efforts will be able to convince a friend to return to God. In the case of one of my friends, I made subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to get him interested in the Church. Even though I was sincerely “trying my best,” he became rather angered and bluntly told me to shut up. Finally, I decided to place my friend’s situation in God’s hands and simply prayed for him. I eventually fell out of contact with this person for about a year, but in the meantime, God placed other people in his life that helped him on his spiritual journey. Ultimately, this friend was baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil. Perhaps my efforts several years prior to his conversion had some small influence on his spiritual decisions.
Similarly, although Paul’s Sermon at Athens was an immediate failure, perhaps his efforts that day simply planted a seed in the minds and hearts of his audience. Perhaps some of the Athenians that chose to follow Paul after his sermon returned to their city and influenced some of those initial skeptics and scoffers. Or, perhaps it was God’s grace alone who gradually helped them to grasp the Truth. A retrospective on Christian theology shows that many aspects of Greek philosophy support Christian teaching (e.g., the idea of resurrection, the pursuit of Truth), which underscores the long-term impact of Paul’s sermon. Paul never lived to see the fruit of his many efforts, but God likes to build His Kingdom according to His own blueprints and timetable.
While I gave the above example of my friend who ultimately converted, I am sad to say that I’ve had friends whose outcomes have not been as positive. A couple friends decided to cut off most communication with me, so talking to them is not really an option. However, I remember the words of Pope Benedict XVI: "time spent in prayer is never wasted, however urgent the duties that press upon us from every side." I can’t physically reach out to these friends, but I certainly can pray for them. Also, I must focus on steps that I can make as an individual to better follow God’s will. Similarly, I have no doubt that St. Paul both prayed for the Athenians and tried his best to witness to the people that he encountered in his subsequent travels.
In closing, for those of us who often become discouraged by our failures and personal weaknesses, St. Paul offers these words of hope:
About this person I will boast, but about myself I will not boast, except about my weaknesses. Although if I should wish to boast, I would not be foolish, for I would be telling the truth. But I refrain, so that no one may think more of me than what he sees in me or hears from me because of the abundance of the revelations. Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this,that it might leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)