Jesus appeared to the Eleven and said to them: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and in baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.
When I was in High School, I was taught that Thomas Sterns (T.S.) Eliot (1888-1964) was probably the most influential poet of the 20th century. What I never learned in my public high school is that he converted to Christianity in 1927, and his conversion sent shock waves through the literary world.
Yes, the greatest poet in the English speaking world became an Anglo-Catholic! And he often described himself as a militantly traditional one at that. When asked what he believed, he answered he believed in the Creed, the Invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints, the Sacrament of Penance, and so on. He was seen practicing the faith he proclaimed, going to communion and confession on a very regular basis.
Writers like Virginia Woolf (an atheist) greeted the news with horror: “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church…there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God” (Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts, pg. 131).
From the pen of Virginia Woolf, it’s not hard to imagine the impact that Eliot’s conversion had on the rest of the army of moderns who idolized his poetry (for its pessimism and its undertones of despair), and yet never understood it. It turned out that Eliot was never in their camp. Rather, he predicted the ‘Waste Land’ and indicted the ‘Hollow Men’ for being who they were: an image and likeness of the Godless man.
Following Eliot’s conversion, many other English writers and poets found the courage and strength to follow in his footsteps and take the path to Catholicism. Virginia Woolf never did. In fact, she took her own life in 1941.
It is amazing the impact one writer’s conversion can have on so many others.
Now Saul’s conversion was even greater!
Conversions to the faith happen all the time, and most consist of a simple and relaxed short journey back to the faith through the Sacraments. Saul’s conversion was nothing like that. His conversion was dramatic, lonely and shocking. To those who knew him well, the sudden change of heart and mind was unimaginable, unintelligible… simply hard to believe! Saul’s conversion to Christianity did not simply mean his changing sides, but rather his changing course, changing identity, turning his life upside down and emptying all his pockets! Saul was left with nothing! This was no slight adjustment. This was no tweaking matter. His life had changed 180°. Saul had been walking south and suddenly, unexpectedly, he turned north. The old man was dead and the new man, Paul, had risen from the ashes.
His conversion sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world.
Saul died on the road to Damascus. Paul died in Rome. He ran the race and finished in the Empire’s Capital.
Paul’s conversion can be best explained by his own words to the Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child”… (1Cor 13:11a). In other words, he only did what he wanted to do. “But when I became a man, I left behind all my childish ways”. That is, after his conversion – after doing a 180° - he did what he had to do.
Paul’s conversion had a tremendous impact on all who knew him. I think he knew it. Before he died, he left them with a remarkable challenge. He said to them, “Imitate me, for I imitate Christ” (1Cor 11:1).
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