John Keble: The Conversion of Saint Paul

John Keble’s The Christian Year is a wonderful resource for reflecting on the feasts and memorials of the liturgical year. It seems to me to be a work that can provide great spiritual edification in a structured way that is deeply rooted in Scripture, and so is something I would recommend to Christians of any stripe. It is also a good example of the notoriously hard to pin down ‘Anglican patrimony’ that Anglicanorum Coetibus was created to try and preserve within a Catholic context. This patrimony has more to do with the textures and character of a lived heritage of music, poetry and liturgy than with any theological distinctiveness, and so Keble’s work speaks more eloquently of what is unique about Anglicanism than any doctrinal formulations proffered could do.

With respect to the piece below, today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and Keble’s poem reflects upon the passage in chapter nine of the Acts of the Apostles, particularly verses four and five, where Saul is struck to the earth by a blinding light and hears the voice of Jesus asking him why it is that he persecutes Him. Keble captures the great drama of the event, with Saul’s fiery determination at the beginning of the poem emphatically knocked back by ‘rich glory’, and the deeply personal character of the vision – ‘deep within that dazzling field His persecuted Lord reveal’d’. He then elaborates on Jesus’ affirmation to Saul/Paul of the deep bond between Him and His Body, the Church, drawing out imaginative resonances with the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, before urging us to consider how we may open our hearts to Jesus today, and allow our gifts to be used as Saint Paul’s were then – not changed, but converted, redirected and strengthened by love:

The mid-day sun, with fiercest glare,

Broods o’er the hazy twinkling air:

   Along the level sand

The palm-tree’s shade unwavering lies,

Just as thy towers, Damascus, rise

   To greet yon wearied band.

 

The leader of that martial crew

Seems bent some mighty deed to do,

   So steadily he speeds,

With lips firm closed and fixèd eye,

Like warrior when the fight is night,

   Nor talk nor landscape heeds.

 

What sudden blaze is round him poured,

As though all Heaven’s refulgent hoard

   In one rich glory shone?

One moment—and to earth he falls:

What voice his inmost heart appalls?—

   Voice heard by him alone.

 

For to the rest both words and form

Seem lost in lightning and in storm,

   While Saul, in wakeful trance,

Sees deep within that dazzling field

His persecuted Lord revealed,

   With keen yet pitying glance:

 

And hears time meek upbraiding call

As gently on his spirit fall,

   As if th’ Almighty Son

Were prisoner yet in this dark earth,

Nor had proclaimed His royal birth,

   Nor His great power begun.

 

“Ah! wherefore persecut’st thou Me?”

He heard and saw, and sought to free

   His strained eyes from the sight:

But Heaven’s high magic bound it there,

Still gazing, though untaught to bear

   Th’ insufferable light.

 

“Who art Thou, Lord?” he falters forth:—

So shall Sin ask of heaven and earth

   At the last awful day.

“When did we see Thee suffering nigh,

And passed Thee with unheeding eye?

   Great God of judgment, say!”

 

Ah! little dream our listless eyes

What glorious presence they despise,

   While, in our noon of life,

To power or fame we rudely press.—

Christ is at hand, to scorn or bless,

   Christ suffers in our strife.

 

And though heaven’s gate long since have closed,

And our dear Lord in bliss reposed,

   High above mortal ken,

To every ear in every land

(Thought meek ears only understand)

   He speaks as he did then.

 

“Ah! wherefore persecute ye Me?

’Tis hard, ye so in love should be

   With your own endless woe.

Know, though at God’s right hand I live,

I feel each wound ye reckless give

   To the least saint below.

 

“I in your care My brethren left,

Not willing ye should be bereft

   Of waiting on your Lord.

The meanest offering ye can make—

A drop of water—for love’s sake,

   In Heaven, be sure, is stored.”

 

O by those gentle tones and dear,

When thou hast stayed our wild career,

   Thou only hope of souls,

Ne’er let us cast one look behind,

But in the thought of Jesus find

   What every thought controls.

 

As to Thy last Apostle’s heart

Thy lightning glance did then impart

   Zeal’s never-dying fire,

So teach us on Thy shrine to lay

Our hearts, and let them day by day

   Intenser blaze and higher.

 

And as each mild and winning note

(Like pulses that round harp-strings float

   When the full strain is o’er)

Left lingering on his inward ear

Music, that taught, as death drew near,

   Love’s lesson more and more:

 

So, as we walk our earthly round,

Still may the echo of that sound

   Be in our memory stored

“Christians! behold your happy state:

Christ is in these, who round you wait;

   Make much of your dear Lord!”

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9 thoughts on “John Keble: The Conversion of Saint Paul

  1. I did not know this poem.
    “’Tis hard, ye so in love should be
    With your own endless woe.”
    Wow. I’ve found great power in rediscovering Paul through the lens of prophetic calling (like Acts 9 = Isa 6 or Gal 1 = Jer 1) rather than through the lens of conversion, which leads us only so far. I think it is better historically, but it also pays off in that it causes us to turn our expectations upside down. I think this poem, with that “tis hard” line, turns the story upside down too. Well done.

    • Yes, and the following lines:

      ‘Know, though at God’s right hand I live,

      I feel each wound ye reckless give

      To the least saint below.’

      Certainly puts things in perspective!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the poem, and thank you for your comments. The lines you’ve mentioned are what tallied this poem up with the parable of the sheep and the goats. Interesting comments regarding viewing Paul through the lens of prophetic calling vs conversion too – I’ve not really considered them as separate things before (in Saint Paul anyway). Looking at the two aspects of the Damascus experience that way certainly helps to understand why this sort of conversion experience is unusual – not many of us are called in the same way and for the same purposes Saint Paul was! Definitely food for thought.

      • Nor I! What I mean is, that a significant number of Christians (converts and those brought up as such) do feel as if they should have had some sort of ‘Damascus moment’ for their faith to be fully authentic, which can often lead to disappointment and loss of faith.

        What you’ve suggested re viewing Paul through the lens of prophetic calling (if I read you rightly that is) highlights the fact that conversion experiences such as Saint Paul’s are unique precisely because his calling was unique – most of us are not called to live such a life and perform such a role in the life of the Church.

        For most of us, even if there be some special moment where we feel our conversion to have taken place or been initiated, we are living a process of ongoing conversion of heart, wherein we grow in our relationship with the Lord. To connect Paul’s conversion with prophetic calling is a good way of reminding people that they don’t need to have a similar experience in order to have authentic faith.

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