On the Conversion of S. Paul

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle (observed), 2020.

Today we are celebrating the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, it being the patronal feast of title for our church [in Pekin]. It is truly a celebration of the whole Church, because so much of the life of the Church has come in being because of this moment when, at midday, Paul along the road to Damascus on yet another mission of persecution saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around him and those who journeyed with him. And when everyone had fallen to the ground, Paul heard a voice speaking to him which said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? Why are you kicking against the goads?” To which Paul responded, “Who are you, Lord?” and then heard, “I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you.”

And Jesus clearly states His purpose with Paul again by saying that through Paul’s ministry the Jewish and Gentile people “may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.” It is this moment from which so much of the life of the one Church of Christ has grown, and continues to grow. This heavenly vision altered the course of human history immeasurably, and we Christians will for all times savor the mystery of this moment, live in the mystery of this moment, and be guided by what the mystery of this moment continues to reveal to us, that we can witness to the mystery in our lives in the world.

Our Collect affirms the sturdy belief of the one Church of Christ that the preaching of Paul cause the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world. This is why it is so fitting to keep this holy day during the season of Epiphanytide. For it is during this season in particular that in reflecting upon the mystery of the Word made flesh (the broader theme of the Nativity of Christ, not only of Blessed Mary but also how Christ is born in our hearts) we give thanks that our heavenly Father hast caused a new light to shine in our hearts, to give the knowledge of the Father’s glory in the face of His Son Jesus Christ Our Lord. Celebrating the Conversion of Paul fits perfectly in this because, just as in Paul’s heart Christ was born through the presence of the Holy Spirit and the words of God deeply heard, we too have the beginning of Christ being born in our hearts at our Baptism at which the Holy Spirit moved over the waters of the baptismal font along with the words of God.

Yet our baptism must never be thought of as a one-time saving event, which remains efficacious no matter how sinfully we live our lives afterwards. Our salvation is not a transaction that happens at our baptism; rather, baptism is the beginning of the process of salvation (the name for which is sanctification), an ongoing journey in which we grow into deeper relationship with Jesus and, through Him, deeper relationship with the Father all by means of the Holy Ghost. We see all of this dramatized in Paul’s life. The Pharisee Paul knew the Scriptures very well, yet he could not properly interpret them. He had a relationship with God, but only barely. It was not until the holy Deacon and Martyr Saint Stephen was on trial did Christ begin to soften Paul’s hardened heart. In Stephen Paul saw the face of an angel, and in hearing Stephen’s testimony, Paul not only heard the proper interpretation of the Scriptures—in which page after page Jesus is found if one knows how to look—but also heard Stephen’s account of the heavenly vision Stephen was given. Paul’s heart softened still more, despite signing off on the stoning of Stephen. The seed planted in Paul’s heart by the blood of the martyr Stephen finally popped forth with its fragrant bloom as Paul was along the road to Damascus. And now Paul knew Christ, because Christ knew him, and shortly afterwards Paul received the Sacrament of Baptism, and began to preach the faith he once tried to destroy.

It is the movement of the Spirit in Paul’s heart that for us and for the whole Church is such an example. From incorrectly knowing the Scriptures to preaching in unfathomably profound ways about it once Paul truly knew Christ—which was catalyzed by Stephen’s witness, when Stephen undoubtedly was given to words to say by the Spirit of the Father, words Stephen proclaimed being on the edge of death, words so pregnant with transformation that Stephen’s murderer became the primary Apostle of the Church in her first decades.

Brothers and sisters, let us constantly have Paul’s wonderful conversion in remembrance, that the icon of it may quiet our minds and through that stillness, increase our awareness of the power of God to transform our hearts the more we open ourselves to Him in humility, and abandon ourselves at His feet, that we day by day might also hear the still, small voice of God.                   

On Rejoicing with Ss Stephen and Paul

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday of Advent, 2020.

This Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudate Sunday.” Gaudate is Latin and it translates simply as “rejoice!” in the sense of a command or exhortation, or, more accurately, spiritual direction. This Sunday, the third of Advent, takes on that name because “gaudate” is the first word in the Introit for the Third Sunday of Advent. “Rejoice” shows up twice even in the first half of the first sentence in the Introit. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.” In this Advent season when the ever-present possibility of Jesus coming to us at any moment in our lives—amid any breath, amid any thought, amid any turn of circumstances—when the nature of Jesus is emphasized that He is the Coming One—the particular dimension of the “coming” nature of Jesus is emphasized to us by the strong invitation to rejoice. As the Introit says: Rejoice, for the Lord is at hand. Our Lord is ever at hand; He is always standing among us, to borrow the phrase from S. John the Baptizer: always in our heart. How could we but rejoice in this knowledge?

As is almost always the case, the Introit comes from Scripture; in this case, comes from S. Paul and the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Church in Philippi. The spiritual direction to rejoice Paul also provides in his first Epistle to the Church in Thessalonica, which we hear today in the Liturgy. To them and to us, Paul says it clearly again: “Rejoice always.” And he adds, “pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Christians often wonder, and I might add wonder rightly, what it means to follow the will of God. To ask that question is actually to ask the two types of questions, both of which are really the only kinds of questions necessary to ask to grow in the Holy Spirit and love of Jesus. To ask what it means to follow the will of God first asks “What does it mean when we say in the Our Father prayer ‘Thy will be done’?” Jesus teaches those words to us; the first question asks, “What do these words mean?” But also there is the second question, which is, “given that meaning, what shall we do?” These two questions (“What does it mean?” and “What shall we do?”) are the two questions asked by the people to S. Peter and the other apostles on Pentecost. The Church ever grows out of asking those two questions, and obeying how God answers them in our hearts.

Paul provides the basic starting point for the meaning of following God’s will: to rejoice always, to pray constantly (or, in older translation, to “pray unceasingly”), and to give thanks in all circumstances. Always rejoice; unceasingly pray, everywhere and in all places give thanks—being in the school of the Lord (which is what it means to be a Christian disciple) begins here. It is God’s will that His disciples always rejoice, unceasingly pray, and everywhere and in all places give thanks. To be a Christian is to express our love for God in these activities or dispositions of rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks.

This is what Paul saw in S. Stephen. This is what worked on Paul’s heart—a heart that started out hardened like the heart of Pharoah against Moses and Aaron, but was cut open by the witness of Stephen, both in his life of preaching and serving the poor as a holy Deacon, as well as in his testimony before the council, an episode that concentrated all the power God was working through him into a confession of faith that so unsettled Paul—explosively unsettled he who was consenting to the brutal stoning and death of Stephen—that when it finally hit him, Paul was knocked to the ground and the process of Christian transformation which was seeded by Stephen’s witness (the real meaning of “martyrdom”) was made evident on the road to Damacus, and then in his baptism when he received his sight, and then in the three years alone in the desert understanding what it truly means for Jesus to be the Coming One, and what Paul should do as a result.

Brothers and sisters, being a humble people means rejoicing always, praying unceasingly, and giving thanks everywhere and in all places. This is our testimony; and as we give it, we do so through the intercession of Paul, through the intercession of Stephen, through the intercession of Teresa of Calcutta and all the holy Apostles, Martyrs, and Saints. Giving our testimony is how we follow God’s will, for to do such in our lives demands humility before the Father Almighty, and Christ always shows Himself as the Coming One to those who are humble.

On Waiting with S. Stephen

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday of Advent, 2020.

The character of Advent is certainly captured by Saint Paul when he wrote to the church in Corinth in Greece: “As you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who will sustain you to the end.” In Advent we particularly find the sense of expectation. “Advent” the word is built upon the sense of arrival: arrival of the revelation of God on earth. This sense of the arrival of God’s revelation leads to another character of Advent, which builds upon the teaching of Paul to wait: and that character is captured in simply thinking about Blessed Mary, Mother of the Church, specifically thinking about Mary in the last month of her pregnancy. The sense of expectation for any mother eight months pregnant is often unbearable; how much more so for Mary, expecting the Son of God, the Saviour of the human race to be born of her virginity.

The Advent sense of expectation is found, too, in the witness of S. Joseph, who we can easily imagine waited on Mary, as husbands wait upon their wives this close to birth. Indeed, this is the sense of “waiting” meant by Paul: not passive thumb twiddling, but active love and care which for us is in our daily prayer and continues in our loving of God in the world and in the people we meet, for the Holy Spirit is in all things, all things having been made by Christ. Advent’s sense of expectation is also about making room in our hearts for God: making room in our hearts for the revelation of the mystery hidden for all eternity: the manifestation of God in human form.

Our loving Jesus directs us to “Watch therefore—for,” He says, “you do not know when the master of the house will come in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” And so Jesus adds, “And what I say to you I say to all: watch.” This sense of “watch” in the Church means to be alive, to be awake. Awake to the Gospel in our every day lives; awake to all things being held in God’s loving hands; awake to the Crucified and Risen One revealed in the opening of Scripture and the breaking of Bread; awake to God from Whom all blessings flow. Daily prayer is the work of God because through it God wakes us up to Him.

We are to watch—we are to be awake—because as Jesus teaches us about His coming: “Of that day, or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And He adds, “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.” I do not think Saint Stephen, holy deacon and martyr, knew when Jesus would come to him. But it is unmistakable that He did come to Stephen. Saint Luke records the witness of Saint Paul, who despite being enraged and gnashing his teeth against Stephen, saw Stephen to be full of the Holy Spirit, and so as he gazed in heaven, Stephen saw the glory of God, and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Jesus had come to Stephen in the same way as the Church saw Him go: witnessing to Christ in humility. Stephen had witnessed to Christ in his testimony before the adversarial council; Stephen also had witnessed to Christ in his ministry as a deacon, doing great wonders and signs among the people—both of which were done at all times with pure and unmitigated humility: serving the needy so that none are without the Gospel. Jesus had come to Stephen, so much so that Stephen cried out, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God!” Stephen was poor in spirit, therefore he become awake to the kingdom of God. Stephen was pure in heart, therefore he saw God in His heavenly glory.

And because Stephen, through his life of humility, a life of prayer in accordance with Scripture, was awake, Saint Paul woke up. It took time, but the blood of S. Stephen was the seed of Paul’s conversion, and Paul undoubtedly remembered Stephen during his three years in the desert after his conversion, haunted by it, and pondering in his heart Stephen’s angelic witness, and especially Stephen’s beatific vision, the vision of heaven, the true vision of God. Through Stephen’s cry, Paul heard Christ. Living into Stephen’s cry, Paul entered into the Christian life of expectation. Living into Stephen’s cry, we too are always in Advent.

On S. Stephen, pt 3

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Last Sunday after Trinity (Proper 29), 2020.

Saint Stephen, Deacon and holy-Martyr, gave his testimony in front of the high priest and the council. When he began to preach, we are told all looked upon him steadfastly, and saw his face as the face of an angel. But after he finished his testimony—and this is fifty verses long, which is remarkable also because in showing how Jesus is the Just One, the true Messiah, Stephen only uses Old Testament Scripture to do it—whether Stephen still remain as the face of an angel in their minds is not reported. But what is reported is that when they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. “Cut to the heart” is an image particular to Saint Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Simeon, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel account, uses the image in speaking to Blessed Mary—“a sword will pierce through your own soul also”—and Luke uses the image at the end of Saint Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost to describe to describe the reaction of Jerusalem—“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart.” In both cases, this image is about revelation: the heart (or soul) is cut or pierced so that God’s can be revealed publicly.

And this is how Luke uses the image in the story of Stephen, as well. Stephen, who has imitated Peter in preaching how our Lord is the Crucified and Risen One as known by the opening of the Scriptures, speaks so powerfully and with such authority that this adversarial council is cut to the heart. They of course go on not to be Christians (well, not immediately, more on that in a moment), but to stone Stephen. So what was revealed by the council’s heart being cut? We learn in the next verse from Saint Luke: “Stephen, being full of the Holy Spirit” (just like Mary, just like Elizabeth and John Baptist, just like Simeon, all as described in Luke’s Gospel account) gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” What the heart cut open revealed was a vision of heaven, and it was perceived by Stephen. We know this because he then cried out, “Look! I see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” He said this out loud, and someone heard him. After he said it, they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And as they stoned him, Stephen imitated Jesus perfectly in saying, “Lord, receive my spirit” and Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” To be perfect means to live every day with such humility before God that His grace perfects us, that is, transforms us to be pure in heart, so as to see God. Stephen, at the moment of his stoning, saw the glory of God. At the Ascension of Jesus, angels taught the Upper Room Church that Jesus will come in like manner as He was seen as going into heaven. And Jesus went into heaven as the icon of humility before the Father. Stephen, in this moment perfected before God, beheld Jesus, who because of Stephen’s humility, came to Stephen, for Jesus is always the Coming One, who comes to those who pray with humility to Him.

I said a moment ago that we know all this because someone heard Stephen. Who heard Stephen? Who heard and saw all this going on in Stephen that we know at all about this momentous episode? It is clear that the person who heard all this, who saw all this, is Paul. While all were cut to the heart by Stephen’s words and deeds, cut to the heart by Stephen taking up his cross completely, it was Paul who was cut most to the heart. And despite consenting to Stephen’s death, as we are told, the power of Christ shining in and through Stephen planted a seed in the heart of Paul, which led to his conversion and all of his writing that has guided the Church for ever more. And recall the words of Jesus at Paul’s conversion: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Part of what knocked Paul to the ground, blinded him, and after his baptism sent him for three years into the desert, was realizing that as Paul had done to one of the least of the brothers (that is, one of the most humble in his weakness), so had Paul done to Jesus. In killing Stephen who had taken up his cross and followed Jesus, Paul was responsible for persecuting Jesus Himself.

It took Paul, as I said, three years to come to grips with this reality: three years of prayer in the desert, of reinterpreting his whole life in a radically different way by the light of Christ’s passion. Three years or more until Paul finally told this to the person responsible for us knowing about all this: Paul told this to Luke, and Luke, himself taken up into the Christian life, relays the story with the proper spiritual sensitivity so that Stephen’s death—which to many onlookers would have looked simply as a man dying—instead reveals Christ to us. That Stephen’s death would reveal to us that Christ has destroyed the last enemy, which is death; that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tomb.

Stephen’s example to us of what it means to be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world rests upon Paul’s perception and interpretation of the event and Stephen’s whole life, which in turns rests upon Luke’s perception and interpretation, which in turn rests upon our perception and interpretation—that we, along with Paul and along with Luke, can be cut to the heart. And that we, as we gaze ourselves upon Stephen, might behold the face of an angel—and that we, through the ears of Luke hearing himself through the ears of Paul, may also hear Stephen’s report of the vision of the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. And that we, through the spiritual eyes of Luke seeing himself through the eyes of Paul, may with Stephen, behold the glory of God.

Living Baptismally, pt 12: Being a Living Sacrifice

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 18), 2020.

The previous two Sundays’ Gospel lections, being the dramatic telling of Saint Matthew’s of Peter’s confession of Christ’s full nature through heavenly grace given to him by the Father, which was followed immediately by Peter trying to put himself between Christ and the Cross, and thereby being called “Satan” just after being called the “rock” upon whom Jesus would build His Church—all within but a few verses—these lections being so central to the faith left little room to reflect upon the guidance given to us by Saint Paul the Apostle last Sunday, as we heard, in the Epistle to the Romans, the beginning of chapter twelve. Last Sunday, in the beginning of Romans twelve, we heard guidance from Saint Paul which began with the famous words, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” All told we heard last Sunday the first eight verses from Romans twelve, and today we hear the next batch of verses, from verse 9 through verses 21, which likewise continue valuable guidance to Christians, who, in the words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, should be continually responding to the fact of our Baptism.

And it is likewise important specifically for us Anglicans to reflect upon Saint Paul’s guidance on being a living sacrifice, because this whole theology gets taken up in our Eucharistic Canon from its beginning in 1549 and the first Book of Common Prayer—words that Anglicans indeed treasure: “And here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Thee.” It is hard, I think, not to be caught up in those words during the Eucharistic Canon, and even be confronted by them. “Am I prepared to truly offer myself, my soul and body, as a living sacrifice?” we might ask ourselves. “Am I truly signing on to this? Because it sounds like a real commitment” we might further wonder. And make no mistake, brothers and sisters, what Paul is directing, and what we as a Body are doing during the Eucharistic Canon, is a real commitment, and it has everything to do with being baptized. There can be no doubt about this. Receiving the nourishment of God’s grace for mature Christian living demands we offer and present our bodies unto God, just as the bread and wine are offered and presented on the Altar. We are offering our selves likewise on the Altar. Doing so is our response of cooperation with the grace given beforehand by God in baptism—for God always, always, acts first. Yet if we desire and yearn to grow in the faith—in Saint Paul’s language, if we want to move from mother’s milk to beefsteak, from liquid food to solid food, we have to respond to the grace gifted to us in Baptism, which grows into Michael Ramsey’s “continual response to the fact of our baptism.” And the primary way we do so is to take up Paul’s direction, indeed Paul’s spiritual direction, and desire to present our body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which, as Paul says, is our spiritual worship.

This is not one of the things we do as Christians. It is the thing we do, and everything else flows from it. Loving our neighbor, whether we think of it as serving the lonely or as anything else, only becomes Christian loving when what comes prior to it is offering and presenting our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice. To do so is simply to love God, as we hear in our Liturgy, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. That kind of loving is what living sacrifice means. And it is from that first offering, and only from and after it, that we can take up the second commandment, to love thy neighbor as thyself, as a truly Christian offering of our body to another through our love for them. There are plenty of people in this world who love and take care of others without first making this prior offering of self to God as a living sacrifice; and there is nothing wrong with that, nor should they cease doing so. But it must be clearly seen that despite outward appearances, their service is not properly named Christian service. It can be good, and helpful and consequential, but it is not Christian, and this is because Christian service to the world (the second commandment) derives its Christian identity by the prior offering of our heart, soul, and mind to God as a living sacrifice.

When we do that, and make it around which our lives are ordered, then not only is loving our neighbor Christian activity, but so is everything else we do—our day to day duties, raising our family, doing our mundane work, reading, walking, smelling the flowers: all of it is truly Christian activity when what comes before is our willing self-sacrifice to God, Who loved us long before we loved Him. Because when we love God, when we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to Him, in response He begins to transform our whole way of thinking and being. In Saint Paul’s words, we are no longer conformed to this world but allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewal of our mind. This is the transformation into the likeness of Christ that is the fundamental purpose of Christian religion. Being transformed, as Saint Paul’s directs, allows our love to be truly genuine, to love one another with brotherly affection. Because, as Christians, we regard all people as made in the image of Christ. When we practice hospitality as Christian, when we welcome another person no matter who they are or from where they originate, we are welcoming Christ Himself. When we rejoice with those who rejoice, we rejoice with Christ; when we weep with those who weep, we weep with Christ. And when we are confronted with evil, Saint Paul directs us to overcome evil with good—for this is precisely what Jesus Christ does on the Cross: the evil of the world forever blinded by the Cross’s transfiguring Light.

Baptismal Living, part 2: Saint Paul and Psalm 69

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday after Trinity (Proper 7), 2020.

The season of the Sundays after Trinity constitutes the time the Church spends year after year reflecting on what it means to be a baptized Christian, and what as a result we should do. Each year, there are over twenty such Sundays between Trinity Sunday and the beginning of the Advent season. One might wonder, isn’t that plenty for the subject of Baptism? And the answer in no uncertain terms is, if Baptism is properly presented, no, it is not. In the words of probably the most consequential Archbishop of Canterbury of the modern era, maybe even ever, Michael Ramsey, “The life of a Christian is a continual response to the fact of his Baptism.” It is a cause of, in the words of our Collect, “perpetual fear” of God, that is to say, perpetual awe—for in being made a member of Christ’s Body in baptism, we are permanently joined with He Who is in Heaven. Through Him, we are already alive forever in God, even if during this portion of life, quite imperfectly. Unpacking but the meaning of that fact, as well as what we ought do as a result of that fact, could occupy an entire life of reflection—not twenty some Sundays before Advent, but twenty times twenty thousand, and yet the riches of Baptism would be inexhaustible.

In our Epistle, Saint Paul speaks of the “free gift” and here he is referring to Baptism, which, he teaches, brings justification—that is, Baptism properly fits us to begin to process of sanctification, of being purified of our sinful ways, then illuminated by God’s presence in the world and in our lives, ultimately to be unified with God, at one with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

And there is perhaps no better person in the Church to teach about the free gift that God desires to bestow upon human beings than Paul. His biography even demonstrates his teaching in basic outline. He went from being the greatest persecutor of the Church to its greatest public advocate—not only in his preaching and writing, but in the many churches he planted. Before his conversion, he regard himself “blameless” before the Law, that is to say, sinless as a faithful Jew. Yet after his conversion, he regarded himself, in his first epistle to Timothy, “the foremost of sinners.” From among the best to the worst.

It is a remarkable shift in his self-identity. And yet I think Psalm 69 provides a treasury of images that make clear how Paul, by God’s grace, made such a remarkable shift.

The Psalmist begins, “Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck.” Here let us bear in mind the shame and guilt that must have tormented Paul till the end of his days, for the terrorism and evil he inflicted upon the Church before his conversion. “I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet,” the Psalmist says, because in persecuting the young Church, Paul was persecuting Christ Himself, as Our Lord even said to Paul as he was knocked to the ground by the thunderous, blinding light: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

“I am grown weary with my crying,” the Psalmist says, “my throat is inflamed; my eyes have failed from looking for my God.” Paul was made blind by God at his conversion, and did not receive his sight until his Baptism—this was a direct teaching to Paul by God that despite his training in the Scriptures by the hands of Rabbi Gameliel, he was blind to the truth: blind and unable to find God until God found him. “O God, you know my foolishness, and my faults are not hidden from you,” the Psalmist says. And here is where Paul would be haunted, as many of us are, despite knowing we are forgiven our sins, our past actions haunt us—and I believe God intends them to, as a warning not to fall from the faith and again practice sinful ways.

Can there be any doubt that Paul, despite coming to know that he was forgiven, nonetheless was haunted by the people whose lives he terrorized, and even killed? He watched as Saint Stephen was stoned and martyred, and he was zealous for the same fate to befall other Christians, whom he regarded as blasphemers. What caused this change? It was He Who is the Blinding and Thundering Light of the Cross. The Light of the Cross opens the dark, closed off places of our soul, our conscience, our lives. What God had told Paul in the dark, Paul loudly uttered in the light, through preaching and teaching. What Paul heard whispered as he prayed Psalm 69, he proclaimed upon the housetops. And this is a teaching about baptism par excellence: For baptized people, the Cross shines a new light upon who we are, and, often shockingly, who we have always been.

The Psalmist concludes our portion of Psalm 69 with these verses:

“But as for me, this is my prayer to you, at the time you have set, O Lord: In your great mercy, O God, answer me with your unfailing help. Save me from the mire; do not let me sink; let me be rescued from those who hate me and out of the deep waters. Let not the torrent of waters wash over me, neither let the deep swallow me up; do not let the Pit shut its mouth upon me. Answer me, O Lord, for your love is kind; in your great compassion, turn to me.”

This is Saint Paul’s prayer after his conversion, while he was yet blind before baptism, then after baptism when he regained his sight, during the time he spent with Peter and James; and it remained his prayer in the three years of solitary life Paul spent in the desert of Arabia—because the Cross changed his entire way of thinking, being, and living. Realizing how naked he was before God brought forth his perpetual awe of God, each and every day of his life.

Brothers and sisters, the Song of Paul in Psalm 69 be our prayer. Let our prayer with this Psalm be an occasion, in the words of Alcuin, to “find an intimate way of confessing your sins, and a sincere mode of pray for the divine mercy of the Lord.” And through it, let us know again how immeasurable God’s love is, and how boundless His grace and forgiveness truly are.

On Saint Paul and the Opening of Scripture

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, the Apostle, 2020.

There can be no question that Saint Paul the Apostle is among the group of Saints whose life and intercession for us is most fundamental to Christian life. Alive in Christ’s resurrection along with the all the company of heaven, Saint Paul’s witness and martyrdom—which, it should be known, are two words that say the same thing: the word “martyr” means in Greek “witness”—is a perpetual icon of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, of following Our Jesus’ teaching to be sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves, wise as serpents and innocent as doves. His writings are inexhaustible, the significance of his life for us is inexhaustible, and of course being a Saint in heaven, in the Church Triumphant, his daily intercession and prayer for us and on our behalf is inexhaustible. To be a Saint means that one’s whole existence is so taken up into Christ that all their words and deeds—everything about them—is Christ and leads to Christ. As I have said, it is not theologians or clergy who are the most reliable interpreters of scripture, but rather the Saints: because their lives live-out the Gospel, and the Spirit of the Father speaks through them.

In our Collect we ask God that we, having Paul’s wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness unto God for his conversion by following the holy doctrine he taught. And if we set out to consider all the holy doctrine he taught, we would have a very long list indeed. The doctrine of being a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto God comes from Paul and is derived from his doctrine of the Cross. He is known as well for doctrine about justification, predestination, the Sacraments especially Baptism and Eucharist, and even what might be called “doctrine of the parish,” of what it means theologically to be a parish, and what being part of a parish demands of us. And Paul is the articulator of yet more holy doctrine I have not mentioned. He is the teacher of glory beyond words, after all.

It was in reflecting upon the speech captured by Saint Luke that Paul made to King Agrippa that I was struck by yet another doctrine taught by Paul, although not taught through his words themselves but taught by his life: taught not explicitly, but implicitly. It is his doctrine of holy scripture (commonly called the Old Testament). Paul said to the king, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” What convinced him was the interpretation of scripture that he had come to have and live-out through the education he received from the rabbi Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of his fathers, being, Paul also tells us, himself extremely zealous for the tradition of his fathers. According to the interpretation of scripture that he had, in looking upon the man Jesus of Nazareth, Paul saw not savior but blasphemer. According to his scriptural interpretation of what is commonly called the Old Testament, in Jesus Paul saw not Son of God but Son of Satan. And because of this, Paul not only shut up many of the saints (that is, shut up many of the baptized Christians) in prison, but when they were put to death Paul case his vote against them. He had a raging fury against Christians, and he persecuted them even in foreign cities. He was infamous.

It was having set out to do so in the foreign city of Damascus that the direction of Paul’s life changed. Like the Magi who after their encounter with Jesus Christ through Mary His Mother set out for home by a different direction than by which they came—the direction of Paul’s life was permanently altered when he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. Christ shown through a bright light from heaven, brighter than the sun because Christ is the icon of the invisible God, and He spoke to Paul the words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Speaking to Paul was Christ Crucified and Resurrected, persecuted by Saul and so therefore Christ spoke to Paul from His Cross, still nailed to the Cross upon which Christ was persecuted.

And it was from this moment that Paul’s whole interpretation of scripture changed, although the transformation took three years to begin to fully mature. Before this, Jesus was just a man, Paul was not fallen through original sin, and a great many of the words of the Prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest—made no sense whatsoever. But now, through his conversation, with the eyes of his heart enlightened, the scriptures broke open like never before. The scriptures now opened, and soon the bread broken, everything central to the interpretation of scriptures is changed. Jesus is a man, sure; but with the eyes of scriptural faith even more so He is the image of the invisible God. Paul himself is not only fallen from sin, but all his flesh is corrupt and disordered except insofar as Christ lives in him. According to the old interpretation, Paul could not live with himself without the death of Christ’s followers; now, with eyes of scriptural faith, he cannot live at all without being incorporated into Christ’s body along with the rest of His followers. And even more: in a wonder to him and all the apostles of the early Church, the strange and confusing words of the prophets become clear windows to heaven, for the prophets describe Christ and His presence among the prophets and among us, starting with the words of Isaiah 7:14: “the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el.” These words were an utter mystery to Jewish rabbis, but with the scriptures opened and the bread broken, the perfectly speak of Christ—and show that Christ Himself was present to Isaiah, and always present to us as we pray upon this verse with our eyes of faith.

And so, brothers and sisters, let us continue to follow the holy doctrine taught by this great Saint. It is through the Cross that the scriptures are opened. It is through the Cross that the bread is broken. Let us glory in what Paul gloried in, and all the Church: it is in the scriptures that we find Christ. It is in the scriptures that Christ is described. With the scriptures finally opened, the bread can be broken: and for Paul, and for us, Christ is truly and really present among us. Saint Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, pray for us.

On Being the Tax Collector

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2019.

Let us be clear—to fast twice a week and to give tithes of all that we get are not at all bad things. In this season when we reflect on stewardship and reflect on our giving of ourselves to the Church in terms of our time, our talent, and our treasure, fasting is a good and holy practice, for it supports the deepening of prayer: prayer and fasting together is one of the primary ways we give our time to Church, and tithing (that is to say, giving 10% of our earnings to the Church) is the primary way of offering our treasure to the Church. The Pharisee is held up as the example of what not to do in prayer. That is clear: yet let us not regard necessarily the activities he lists as in and of themselves negative examples as well. For that would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

So, then, what is the bathwater? Saint Luke makes it clear that the bath water is the tendency we have to trust in ourselves and despise others. That is, to think we are uniquely held in God’s favor—to think “I, I am special”—and at the same time to be judgmental towards others as a result of our personal specialness. The bathwater is this whole attitude. This attitude moves God lower that He is. Rather than exalting God, this attitude exalts the self. Every one, Our Lord says, who exalts himself will be humbled. Every one who exalts himself will have a hard and difficult road. And not only individuals, but perhaps moreso parish communities. Saint Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians demonstrate this unrelentingly. Because the church at Corinith is not living in humble recognition of the Cross, is not living in humble embodiment of the gift of baptism, is not living in humble holy fear of the Sacraments—because they are not being stewards of God’s holy mysteries, the Sacraments including the Sacrament of the Cross—things are not going well for their parish, their parish is not healthy, their parish is not growing. Saint Paul’s whole teaching in the two epistles to the Corinthians can be understood as him trying to teach them to be more like the tax collector, and stop acting like the showy Pharisee.

What does it mean to be more like the tax collector? It begins in the recognition heard in Jeremiah, the words: “Thou, O Lord, art in the midst of us, and we are called by thy name.” Righteousness means right-relationship, and these words from Jeremiah express right relationship. God is in the midst of us. God, the maker of all things, maker of heaven and earth, maker of all things visible and invisible, is in the midst of us. And the baptismal and eucharistic mystery is that He is in our bodies, and our bodies are in Him. Our baptized bodies are God’s temples. He is closer to us than our own breath. God is always watching us, God knows our thoughts, God knows our desires, God already knows our faults and sins. He sees us when we are sleeping; He knows when we are awake; He knows when we’ve been bad or good. He is in the midst of us.

And we are called by His Name. We are called to Him; He calls us into existence, and desires to call us continually into His love. He, through the work especially of the heavenly host of angels including our guardian angel, guides us, protects us, forms our conscience. Indeed He allows us to screw up; He allows us to fall so that in falling, we are reminded that we must turn to God to properly stand up and walk again in newness of life.

And why? Because He is God, and He is a jealous God Who craves our trust in Him. Happy are they who put their trust in the Lord, we recited. And it is the biblical faith to entirely trust God with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind. Because in the words of the epistle to the Hebrews, He upholds the universe by his word of power. And by His word only do we enjoy His mercy. By His word only are we healed.

Homily: “On the Conversion of Saint Paul”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, 2019.

It is not always recognized that after Saint Paul saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round him and those who journeyed with him; after he had fallen to the ground and heard a voice saying to him in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And after Paul learned that this was the voice of Jesus speaking—Jesus whom Paul was persecuting—and then heard Jesus bestow upon Paul his true vocation—to be one who opens the people’s eyes, that they may turned from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus—it is not always recognized that Paul spent three years in the Arabian desert trying to get a handle upon what just happened.

It must have been hard to say! Like Blessed Mary’s annunciation from Gabriel, this was an annunciation to Paul—the power of the Most High also overshadowing Paul. Mary pondered in her heart the meaning of her Son, and the meaning of her vocation. Likewise Paul spent three years in the desert—three years, we can reasonably say, in a wilderness of prayer, a wilderness of mystery, a wilderness of what must have been profound existential crisis. To say that Paul’s whole world was flipped upside down does not begin to describe his situation. As he said, he who once persecuted the Church is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. And then uncertainty of what to do next. How could he possibly know?

One of the open secrets upon praying with the Bible, and especially with the New Testament, is that when we come upon moments strangely void of description, we are not pass over them, but pray into them—pray with our faculties of imagination, within the fellowship of the living Church and its theological tradition, seeking to penetrate the mystery, to find life revealed amid the silence. Such is the case with the life of Jesus, completely undescribed from day 40 of His life through age 12, and then from age 12 to approximately age 30 at His baptism in the River Jordan. Such also is the case with the life of Mary, of whom the biblical writers of the New Testament report quite little. Another is the hours of prayer spent by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Bits are described, but what was His prayer like between the few words we are told? Another is the nine days in the Upper Room by Mary, the other women, the Apostles and disciples totally 120 people. We are told they with one accord devoted themselves to prayer. What did this prayer look like?

With Paul’s initial conversion moment, we have another such moment. Paul himself prayed into the silence and mystery of it for three years, and indeed the rest of his life. Perhaps the primary mystery is this voice he heard. Who is this voice? Paul himself immediately wondered. He identifies the voice as that of Lord, of someone he must respect. It is a voice that first identifies Himself through the question, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This Lord is a persecuted Lord, one actively being persecuted. And the voice answers Paul’s question, “Who are you, Lord?” by saying, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

Now the human mind attaches images to invisible things. What image would Paul attach to this voice of Jesus being persecuted? It is not clear that Paul ever saw Jesus in person, whether in Our Lord’s public ministry or as He hung, nailed upon the Cross. He would have heard of Jesus’ crucifixion, at the very least from the testimony of Saint Stephen before his stoning. He certainly heard enough from other sources to decide to actively persecute the early Church.

Yet the image that most likely came to Paul’s mind, whether in the moment or over the course of the subsequent three years, was Jesus on His Cross. The image of Jesus crucified, when He was most persecuted. And this fits as well when one considers the whole of Paul’s writing. There are two primary emphases in his writing as a body: take Baptism and the other Sacraments seriously (so much so that he teaches that healthy parish life is built upon stewardship of God’s sacraments; what the voice of Jesus means by “sanctified by faith in me”), and in all things face the cross. Face the cross—as a parish church in worship; face the cross—as a community in mission; face the cross—as a person seeking to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (that is, with adoration and humility).

The Cross for Paul is an inexhaustible image, the central icon of Christian life. For Paul, all leads to the Cross (as it did in his own life from birth to the road to Damascus), all come forth from the Cross (as he famously taught, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” and again, “We preach Christ Crucified”). Life for Paul is always a cross-shaped life.

And so how do we know that we are truly being taught by Paul? It is when we find ourselves through the Liturgy and through our prayer life, drawn into the mystery of the Cross—its horror, and its glory. That’s its horror humbles us, and its glory throws us into adoration, into praise, and into thankfulness.

Homily: “On the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the  Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, the Apostle, 2018. That through the preaching of Saint Paul the Apostle, God has caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world—there can be no doubt. Roughly one quarter of the books of the New Testament were written by Paul, and it is likely that all of the letters were completed before the first Gospel was written, the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Then, he travelled around the known world preaching and teaching, exhorting and inviting—that all should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance. In a very clear way, Saint Paul imitated Saint John the Baptist. Read more “Homily: “On the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle””