Falling in love is one of the most unsettling, mind-blowing, risky experiences in life. A young man once described to me his life-changing encounter with his future wife. He was simply bowled over. It was not only her good looks and a certain mysterious quality to her personality, but her entire demeanor attracted him. The way she talked, the way she walked, the way she smiled and laughed—all these and more convinced him she was “the woman of his dreams.”
Alas, he found out he had to work hard to get her to feel the same way about him! It took time and patience. But throughout the long courtship and engagement, his intuitions were confirmed. This was not infatuation. It was love. It was worth the risk, and it changed his whole life.
Perhaps this experience won’t speak to everyone, but most people do fall in love at one time or another. By way of analogy, I suggest that falling in love is a good way to describe the apostle Paul’s experience of faith.
St. Paul the Person
At the time of his conversion, really a prophetic call, Paul was a fairly young man, perhaps in his early 20s. Apparently unmarried, he was intensely devoted to his Jewish faith, so much so that he was upset with a new group of Jews who proclaimed Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. To the Philippians he describes himself as “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (3:5-6; all quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version).
This passage reveals Paul’s passion for this faith and his earlier zeal in persecuting the Church. But then he explains the dramatic change in his life after he met the risen Lord Jesus Christ:
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (3:7-8).
Are these not remarkable words? He describes his early life as “rubbish” (using a crude Greek word), compared to “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
The little word “my” is telling. Paul is speaking of an intensely personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Frankly, in my experience, many Catholics are embarrassed by such language. It is more frequently found among evangelical Protestants. Yet this is not an accidental expression. Elsewhere, Paul also uses such intimate language. To the Galatians he writes: “. . . the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20).
Note this powerful, intimate expression. Paul claims in a most personal way that Jesus, the Son of God, “loved me and gave himself for me.”
I suggest that Paul must be taken at his word. He is speaking of love. For him, the experience of faith is not foremost a matter of doctrine or teaching or knowledge; it is about relationship. It is love! For Paul, faith is primarily a personal encounter. This is a truth Pope Benedict XVI has often emphasized. At its foundation, faith is a loving relationship with Christ. But lest we misunderstand, there is more to love than our desire for it.
Pursued by Love
Everyone is familiar with the dramatic story of Paul’s conversion described in the Acts of the Apostles (9:1-9). Determined Pharisee that he was, Paul had set out for Damascus to persecute Christians and on the way encountered the risen Lord Jesus. In a flash of light, Paul falls to the ground and hears a voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul seeks the identity of this voice, which replies, “I am Jesus whom you persecute. . . .”
What is vital in this interchange is the fact that, paradoxically, Paul is the one being pursued! He has a secret admirer, so to speak. The risen Lord Jesus seeks Paul out of love, inviting him to a relationship and a mission to preach the good news of salvation to the gentiles.
Interestingly, Paul nowhere recounts these same details. Instead, Paul speaks in his letters of a “revelation,” a mysterious, hard-to-describe encounter with the risen Lord. In Galatians, Paul says quite simply: “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being . . .” (1:15-16).
This is Paul’s most explicit statement of his call. It came from God by sheer grace, and the content of this call was none other than Jesus, God’s Son, a person. Paul was, in a sense, a victim of love incarnate, seeking him out.
The Paradox of Love
This is the paradox of faith seen primarily as a loving relationship. Love is not merely something that we seek. True, most human beings find an essential measure of love in family, friends, and a web of other relationships. But the purest love comes from God and is mediated in our lives first and foremost in God’s outstretched hand.
I recall the image of Francis Thompson’s famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven”:
“I fled Him down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him . . .
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.”
Love is like “the hound of heaven” who will not be led off the path in pursuit of the object of his love. (The poem’s capital letters indicate a divine love.) We may well try to escape this outreach, perhaps fearing it. But this love holds not danger, but affection.
This poem describes artistically what Paul proclaims by his personal testimony. There is a paradox in divine love. All the while we think we are the ones pursuing God, seeking God’s ways, God has been constantly seeking us out in love through his own Son.
Five Aspects of the Love of Christ
Five aspects of Paul’s deeply personal experience strike me as pertinent today. The first is that love is a two-way street. You can never force someone to love you. You can reach out, you can initiate all kinds of overtures, but ultimately, you must await a response. Unreciprocated love goes nowhere. To revisit the example of the young man at the beginning of this article, his beloved’s initial response to him was lukewarm. In time, however, as she saw his selfless desire, she responded and reciprocated. Then their love grew together.
While it is true that the risen Lord startled Paul through the revelatory experience on the road to Damascus, Paul was free to reject the Lord. In fact, Paul, like every other Christian, had to be baptized, had to get acquainted with the stories of Jesus of Nazareth, had to grow in his faith. Most important, he did not turn away from Christ’s personal call. He responded favorably. He grew in his love of Christ to such a degree that he, who had once been the Church’s biggest persecutor, became its most ardent evangelizer—the apostle.
A second aspect of love is that it grows over time. True love is never stagnant. It must be nourished, strengthened, teased out over time. If you talk to any couple whose marriage has endured over decades, you will hear a story of their ups and downs, their joy and sadness, their mistakes and their successes. Over time, their love is made stronger in the midst of challenges, sufferings, and heartaches.
Paul’s relationship with Christ also grew throughout his ministry. Paul knew that his love of Christ had to be nourished. His letters show that spending time with Christ is essential. Thus the importance of prayer, the sacraments, liturgy, and the word of God that we see underscored in Paul’s letters.
Yet a third aspect of falling in love is the newness that comes from it. There are countless stories of people whose lives have been dramatically changed from the experience of love. You never see reality the same way again. It’s as if you receive new glasses to wear (rosecolored?) that give you a new way of looking at the world. Paul, too, speaks of the dramatic transformation that experiencing the love of Christ brought him. Paul uses the language of “new creation”: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17; also Gal 6:15).
What amazing testimony! Paul’s expression of being “in Christ” reflects his special language for being transformed by the love of Christ. Anyone who is “in Christ” is a “new creation.” The old disappears; all is new! That is indeed the experience of love. It allows one to see the world with new eyes.
A fourth aspect of love is that it is the ultimate value, the “trump card” in life. People truly in love never give up on each other. Even in dark times, a ray of light shines upon people in love. As with all human beings, Paul experienced plenty of heartaches in his life. He mentions frequently, for example, his sufferings as an apostle and the tensions with and within his communities.
Paul speaks lovingly of the communities he founded, who were like his spiritual children (1 Cor 4:14-15). But he also recognized the difficulties of human relationships. He knew the power of sin to turn things upside down. Sometimes, he saw his communities wracked by divisions (such as the Corinthians) or outside agitators (such as the Galatians), but he always worked at getting them to see that enduring love could overcome all their difficulties.
Think of Paul’s great hymn of love in First Corinthians, frequently used at weddings:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7).
He puts these words into action with the Corinthians by urging them to reconcile (2 Cor 2:5-8). Ultimately, love overcomes all obstacles.
Embrace the Love of Christ
Finally, a fifth aspect of love is its openness to the future. In marriage, for example, although the initial act of love is between husband and wife, openness to the gift of children is an essential part of this special love. Should children follow, they totally transform that love in many ways. Love remains open to new avenues, new developments.
Paul’s love of Christ was no different. He did not view this as a gift he was jealously to guard or hide away. True love demands to be shared. That is why, after his conversion, Paul immediately set about evangelizing. He went every direction possible to proclaim the love of Christ and to bring others into contact with Christ.
Of course, the best part of Paul the apostle’s message is that the love of Christ continues to reach out to us today! The question is: Are we willing to risk falling in love . . . with Christ?
Aspects of the Love of Christ
Love is a two-way street.
Love grows over time.
Love is constantly new.
Love is the “trump card” in life.
Love is open to the future.
Ronald D. Witherup, SS, is superior general of the Sulpician Fathers and lives in Paris, France. He has authored many books and articles on Scripture, includingA Retreat with Paul the Apostle (St. Anthony Messenger Press) and, earlier this year, Gold Tested in Fire: A New Pentecost for the Catholic Priesthood (Paulist Press).