The Conversion of Saint Paul … a modern icon
Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).
Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I have been reflecting in these ways:
1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;
2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’
I interrupted that pattern for the past week to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which came to an end yesterday.
Today is my birthday, and yesterday was the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul.
I was born on Rathfarnham Road, Dublin, beside a synagogue and opposite a cinema, on the afternoon of an international rugby match between Ireland and France. My mother intended to call me Paul. But my father’s half-brother, my Uncle Arthur, took me to be baptised, he decided instead to call me after his step-mother’s father, my great-grandfather Patrick Lynders. My mother continued to call me Paul for the rest of her days.
It seems appropriate, then, that my choice of a poem this morning, that my choice of a poem this morning is ‘The Conversion of St. Paul’ by Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984).
John Betjeman was always more popular with the British public than with the literary establishment.
As a boy at Highgate School in London, Betjeman was taught by TS Eliot, but his time at school was less than impressive. At Highgate School, his teachers included the poet TS Eliot. From there he went to the Dragon School, Oxford, and Marlborough College, Wiltshire, where his friends and contemporaries included the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, the spy Anthony Blunt, and the illustrator and cartoonist Graham Shepard.
Betjeman entered Oxford with difficulty, having failed the mathematics part of the matriculation exam, and was admitted to Magdalen College. However, his tutor, CS Lewis, regarded him as an ‘idle prig,’ while Betjeman found Lewis unfriendly, demanding and uninspiring, describing him as being ‘breezy, tweedy, beer-drinking and jolly.’
Betjeman appears to have spent most of his time at Oxford indulging his social life, developing his interest in church architecture, and following his own literary pursuits. He had a poem published in Isis, the university magazine, and in 1927 was the editor of Cherwell, the student newspaper whose contributors included WH Auden, Graham Greene, Cecil Day-Lewis and Evelyn Waugh.
But Betjeman never completed his degree at Oxford. He twice failed the compulsory Scripture examination, Divinity, known to students as ‘Divvers,’ and was later allowed to enter the Pass School. His tutor, CS Lewis, told the tutorial board he thought Betjeman would not achieve an honours degree of any class. Betjeman passed ‘Divvers’ at a third sitting, but finally left Oxford at the end of Michaelmas term 1928 after failing the Pass School.
For the rest of his life he blamed his failure on CS Lewis, and the two writers were never reconciled, even later in life. Nonetheless, Betjeman had an enduring love of Oxford, and received an honorary doctorate in 1974. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1972, a post he held until his death.
Betjeman was a troublesome poet who persisted in believing, and in his poetry he explored his thoughts about his Anglican faith, about Englishness and about Christianity in general.
He remains one of the most significant literary figures of our time to declare his Christian faith. In a letter written on Christmas Day 1947, he said: ‘Also my view of the world is that man is born to fulfil the purposes of his Creator i.e. to Praise his Creator, to stand in awe of Him and to dread Him. In this way I differ from most modern poets, who are agnostics and have an idea that Man is the centre of the Universe or is a helpless bubble blown about by uncontrolled forces.’
He was a practising Anglican and his religious beliefs and piety inform many of his poems. In response to a radio broadcast by the humanist Margaret Knight, he expressed his views on Christianity in The Listener in 1955 with the poem I have chosen this morning.
The Conversion of St. Paul, by John Betjeman:
Now is the time when we recall
The sharp Conversion of Saint Paul
Converted! Turned the wrong way round –
A man who seemed till then quite sound,
Keen on religion – very keen –
No one, it seems, had ever been
So keen on persecuting those
Who said that Christ was God and chose
To die for this absurd belief
As Christ had died beside the thief.
Then in a sudden blinding light
Paul knew that Christ was God alright –
And very promptly lost his sight.
Poor Paul! They led him by the hand
He who had been so high and grand
A helpless blunderer, fasting, waiting,
Three days inside himself debating
In physical blindness: “As it’s true
That Christ is God and died for you,
Remember all the things he did
To keep His gospel message hid.
Remember how you helped them even
To throw the stones that murdered Stephen.
And do you think that you are strong
Enough to own that you were wrong?”
They must have been an awful time,
Those three long days repenting crime
Till Ananias came and Paul
Received his sight, and more than all
His former strength, and was baptised.
Saint Paul is often criticised
By modern people who’re annoyed
At his conversion, saying Freud
Explains it all. But they omit
The really vital point of it,
Which isn’t how it was achieved
But what it was that Paul believed.
He knew as certainly as we
Know you are you and I am me
That Christ was all He claimed to be.
What is conversion? Turning round
From chaos to a love profound.
And chaos too is an abyss
In which the only life is this.
Such a belief is quite alright
If you are like Mrs Knight
And think morality will do
For all the ills we’re subject to.
But raise your eyes and see with Paul
An explanation of it all.
Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
All suffering that seems in vain,
The vastness of the universe,
Creatures like centipedes and worse –
All part of an enormous plan
Which mortal eyes can never scan
And out of it came God to man.
Jesus is God and came to show
The world we live in here below
Is just an antechamber where
We for His Father’s house prepare.
What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging into doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below —
My parish church — and even there
I find distractions everywhere.
What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St Paul.
USPG Prayer Diary:
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity came to an end yesterday (25 January), and the theme in the USPG Prayer Diary last week was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The theme this week is the ‘Myanmar Education Programme.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a reflection from a report from the Church of the Province of Myanmar.
The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:
Let us pray for educators and trainers. May they impart a joy in learning and a vision of a world where change is possible.
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