St Paul was one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time

Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens (Wikimedia)

Listening to A Point of View on Sunday morning on Radio 4 on 19 November, I heard the familiar ironic postmodern drawl of the author and commentator, Will Self. (I listen to him following the advice of a late Jesuit priest who had endured the infamous Changi Prison during the War: you need to know your enemy.) Suddenly, there was Will Self intoning, “When I was a child I thought like a child, now I am a man I have put aside childish things…”

My immediate thought was, “How dare he quote St Paul! Only Christians are allowed to do so – and furthermore, he doesn’t accept a word of what St Paul actually preaches.” Then I reproached myself for my own unthinking bigotry. St Paul, probably the greatest letter-writer ever and a phrase-maker of genius, is for all time – and for all men. If Will Self wants to plunder the Master’s prose to enhance his own ideas, why shouldn’t he do so? A little bit if the potency of St Paul’s words might rub off in time and bring about an experience of grace.

On 25th January we celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. It has made me turn to Praying with St Paul, a series of essays and reflections on him for each day of the year, edited by Fr Peter John Cameron OP, Editor-in-Chief of Magnificat, which has published the book. In his very affecting foreword, Fr Cameron explains how reading St Paul had helped him to get through his studies for the priesthood, a task which he had found very challenging.

Reflecting on St Paul’s speech (Acts 20: 17-38) in which he says farewell to the people on his way to Rome and to martyrdom, Fr Cameron adds, “When I saw how moved the people were at Paul’s farewell, I realised that this was a man I needed to get to know better. I wanted to be like him who was so much like Christ.” What a wonderful aspiration: forget the charges of “misogyny” and “patriarchy” that modern feminists throw at St Paul – and just read him.

Among the contributors to the book are Fr Richard Veras who reflects on those consoling words (Rom 8: 28): “We know that all things work for good for those who love God”; Fr Joseph Koterski SJ, on the wonderfully enigmatic “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom…” (1 Cor 1:25); and Fr Raymond J de Souza on the most compelling missionary statement ever made: “To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all [men], to save at least some…” (1 Cor 9: 22).

When I was younger I feared these words meant the loss of one’s own identity, or as Fr de Souza puts it: “The man who adopts different characters for different situations is an actor, one who wears a different costume for different roles. If he does too much of this, his own identity fades away and only the costumes are left.” The key is simply to follow Christ who “is not a costume. Christ is the one who reveals to us what it means to be truly human. To the extent that Christ lives in us, we become more fully who we are meant to be.”

Some people carry their childish behaviour into adult life; true maturity is to reject the egotism and self-absorption of childhood for the sake of Christ – in order to finally see him “face to face.”