Last week we celebrated the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and as I spent almost the entire time speaking about Saint Peter, I promised a few words about Saint Paul this week. Although both Peter and Paul were subject to persecution by the Roman authorities, and were ultimately put to death by them, they are otherwise remarkably different.
Paul -- originally called Saul, until some time after his conversion to Christianity -- was born in Tarsus, a city just off the Mediterranean coast of eastern Cilicia (modern day southeastern Turkey), a city steeped in the culture the Greeks. He was born a Jew, the son of a Roman citizen, and inherited his father's citizenship -- He and his father were devout Jews, and somewhere around 28 AD Paul went to Jerusalem to study theology and the Mosaic Law under the renowned scholar, and member of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel. We know that he was also raised with a trade, and supported himself as a tent maker.
As we know from the Acts of the Apostles, as a young man, Saul was an active persecutor of the Christians. He was among those who stoned Saint Stephen, the first martyr, to death. He was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians there, when he was knocked to the ground and blinded after meeting our Lord face to face and being ordered to convert to Christianity. His position as an apostle was unique, having received his commission only in this manner, some time after the Ascension. As we see in First Corinthians, some lesser Christians even seem to have disputed his position as an Apostle (probably those who wanted to reserve Baptism to those willing first to become Jewish).1
The Epistle that we read every year on Sexagesima Sunday (2 Corinthians 11:1 - 12:9) gives us an insight into Paul's life and his character. It also gives us an insight into the profund spiritual life from which the Apostle drew the strength to carry on in the midst of continual tribulation. Probably the most obvious thing in this "adventure story" of his is the physical suffering and danger he suffered in order to preach the Faith. It reads like a litany, telling us of his time in prison, being lashed with the whip five times, scourged three times, shipwrecked three times, and stoned once. He recounts the constant dangers associated with his travels; the hunger, the thirst, the cold, the heat, the sleepless nights, and any number of hardships. Perhaps his most graphic tale is the one about escaping from the King of Damascus by being lowered in a basket out of a window in the city wall.
Some of his suffering is psychological -- his constant worries about the Churches he has established, the insults he receives, and the difficulties of dealing with false brethren (fellow Christians who should have endorsed and supported his preaching, but who were, instead, guilty of undermining his efforts.
He has some sort of physical affliction -- we are not exactly sure what it was, for he refers to it only as a "thorn in the flesh," without further description. Some suggest the he was nearly blind, never having recovered from the experience of his conversion; others conjecture that he bore the wounds of the crucifixion (the "stigmata") in his own body.
We see also that Paul did without even some of the basic comforts routinely accepted by the Apostles and other preachers. He travels without much of an entourage; without the women who had generally volunteered to serve the other Apostles with their domestic labor; and supporting himself by his own labor rather than by stipends from his congregations.2 He is more concerned with preaching the Gospel, than with saving his own labors.
Paul's travels are also inspiring when we think of the difficulties of a private citizen traveling about the ancient world. The Acts of the Apostles and his Epistles recount four major journeys about the Mediterranean. Exposed, often enough, to hostile people and hostile weather, he made his way over countless miles with nothing more sophisticated than a medium sail boat, and only sometimes assisted on land by a horse or a donkey.
Somehow, in the midst of all this, Saint Paul found the time to write almost half of the New Testament -- letters to the various Church he had founded -- intended as means of continuing the works he had started, a sort of preaching even while he was physically absent. Of course those works have reached untold millions of people in lands Paul never knew even to exist.
Paul's final journey, of course ends in Rome. When accused by the Jews of Cæsarea of stirring up trouble against public order, and in fear that he would be ambushed and murdered along the way if he went to Jerusalem for trial, Paul exercised the right of a Roman citizen to be taken to Rome to be judged in the court of the Emperor: "Thou hast appealed to Cæsar, to Cæsar thou shalt go."3 He was transported under imperial guard, almost being killed in a shipwreck off the coast of Malta, almost put to death by the soldiers who feared he would escape (and they would have to take his place). At Rome he spent two years under house arrest, but was able to preach the Gospel to any who would visit him.4
Ultimately, he was put to death by the sword, the merciful death accorded to Roman citizens, in contrast with that of Saint Peter who was crucified upside down on the same day. June 29, AD 67.
Last week I suggested to you that Saint Peter was a valuable example to imitate. Peter was a hard working common person just as we are. Paul, quite obviously, was something different. One reading an account of Paul's life comes away with an impression of a man who was anything but common -- we are almost forced to speak of his as being "unique." But I would suggest that "unique" in Paul's case does not mean that we cannot copy some of his more important attributes: his patience, his enthusiasm for the Gospel and the spread of the Faith, his long suffering, the depth of his prayer and his personal relationship with God. If we have difficulty in seeing how we can live up to the high standard set by Saint Paul, we need only go back to that Epistle to the Corinthians (the one for Sexagesima) to how God answered Paul when he complained of not being up to it himself: "My grace is sufficient for thee, My strength is perfected in thy weakness."5