Let Down in a Basket

ST. PAUL THE APOSTLE IS THE MOST TOWERING FIGURE of the first century Church. Much of the Acts of the Apostles is devoted to telling his story and his own writings account for more than 30% of the entire New Testament. He was directly involved in Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean world. It was those communities which collected his writings and preserved his memory for generations to come.

Paul wrote little about himself but what he did write gives an insight into not only his own development but the spiritual life of countless saints in the Church throughout its history. In 2 Corinthians chapters 11 and 12 we see the way Paul looked at important events of his life. He introduces this section by giving us his understanding of what he personally contributed to these events: “If I must boast,” he writes, “I will boast of the things which concern my infirmity” (11:30).

The Escape from Damascus

In Acts 9:1-18 we read of Paul’s extraordinary experience of encountering the risen Christ. The Lord reproached Paul for persecuting Him in His followers. When he finally arrived in Damascus he was baptized and began preaching the Jesus was the Son of God (v.20). This so disrupted the Jewish community, which was expecting Paul to confound the followers of Christ, that they turned on him. Presumably they so convinced the pagan governor that Paul was a threat to the peace of his city that he had guards posted at the city gate to seize him. He could escape in a basket only because he was inordinately short.

Another man might have boasted about being chosen to experience Christ in such an immediate way or of being chosen to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles. Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus was extraordinary, life-changing and critical in the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Yet Paul does not even mention it here – he “boasts” of his puny stature that helped him escape from the city.

People in the contemporary world go to increasingly great lengths to change aspects of their appearance of which they are ashamed. Whole industries such as cosmetic surgery and fitness centers have grown up because people feel themselves inferior because of their appearance. Had Paul been too proud to admit that he was a pipsqueak he may not have made it out of Damascus!

The Thorn in the Flesh

The encounter on the Damascus road was not Paul’s last great spiritual experience. He writes, anonymously, of being caught up into Paradise, the place of God’s glory.

Paul does not boast of his mystical experiences, however; he boasts of something quite opposite, a “thorn in the flesh” from which he sought to be delivered. Christians have speculated ever since as what this thorn might have been. It seems to have been a chronic physical infirmity, but of what kind we are not told. Paul asked to be delivered from it – God said “No” and then gave the reason: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (12:9).

Paul doesn’t talk about the great spiritual experiences he had been granted. It is too easy to become so focused on such occurrences become ends in themselves. Instead of leading us to God, they take us away from Him. In another passage he tells what he really takes pride in: “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

Asceticism: Death to the World

St. Paul’s image of being crucified to the world would find repeated expression in the writings of Christian ascetics in both East and West. Those who seek to love God are continually urged to put to death anything which would deflect that love to something else. Anything to which we may be attached and in which we might take pride – our possessions, accomplishments, even our memories, our reputations and convictions – can deflect our focus from the One we seek to love. By gradually putting these things aside, the ascetic strives to sharpen his or her ability to concentrate on God. As we become less and less drawn to the things of this world we become more and more single-minded in our attachment to God. We die to the world and, in the words of the popular Greek monastic adage, “If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.”

St Paul and Continual Prayer

Ascetics strive to lessen their attachment to materials things through fasting and almsgiving and to their psychological self-reliance through humble obedience. They seek to fill the void created by these interior deaths through prayer. Here again we find that the inspiration for this dynamic is St. Paul. In a few simple phrases he outlines a program for refocusing our lives on the Lord: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

When we begin to see that everything around us is nothing other that a gift from God, we being to develop an attitude of joyful gratitude. We come to value material things less for themselves than as the work of God in our lives. To the extent that we practice a form of unceasing prayer such as the Jesus Prayer we turn our mind more regularly to God. At first we concentrate on Him during the set times which we set apart for the prayer, Little by little the prayers becomes second nature to us we find ourselves focusing on Him in the midst of our other activities as well.

Leaving Attachments Behind

“Abraham set forth without wondering curiously ‘What does this land look like, that Thou wilt show me? What is awaiting me there?’ He simply set out and departed as the Lord had spoken unto him (Genesis 12:4). Do likewise. Abraham took all his possessions with him, and in that respect you ought to do as he did. Take everything you have, your whole being with you on your wandering; leave nothing behind that could bind your affection to the land where many gods are worshipped, the land you have left.

Tito Colliander, Way of the Ascetics 18