We visited our new neighbors recently. Among other things that adorned their living room, a large card table filled with tiny puzzle pieces occupying a dainty corner as children beamed with ecstatic eagerness. Apparently assembling complicated jigsaw puzzles was winter tradition.
As candid conversations waltzed their way through salty savories, a sudden sigh erupted. Three puzzle pieces had gone missing. Until those were found, the puzzle remained merely a puzzle, not the picture promised on the face of the box. Emphatically we joined in the search, traversing floors underneath tables and checking crowded corners—finally concluding that the puzzle company had produced a defective product.
That evening, I remembered how accurately the Gospel describes our human condition. We are meant to be “complete,” like a magnificent picture displaying God’s glory to the world; but something has happened, leaving us with missing pieces and lots of holes.
Missing Pieces, Unmistakable Grace
In the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, we are awakened to one of the most remarkable revelations Paul had: the razor-sharp recognition of his own missing pieces. For a long time, Paul was trained to live as if nothing was missing in his life—nothing, until he encountered the irresistible Risen Christ.
“The Conversion on the Way to Damascus”, an extraordinary painting by Caravaggio, poignantly captures that moment. Paul, then Saul, is breathing murderous threats and is on his way to Damascus to carry out violent campaigns against Christians (see Acts 9). But he is interrupted, almost bedazzled by heavenly light, overtaking his steps, knocking him to the ground.
Caravaggio emphasizes Saul’s helplessness. He has dropped his sword and is groping upwards, blind, vulnerable, defenseless. The horse’s body blocks our vision, protecting us from surrounding distractions, inviting us to the centre of the moment as it unfolds. The light falls on Saul and we see him fully: a man beyond picking, a man “beyond conversion.”
Who will deliver me? Paul would cry out recalling that apocalyptic moment. It was not a still small voice. It was a roar from the Hound of Heaven. In a single moment, all the missing pieces of his life were exposed. In a single moment, they were unmistakably held by Grace.
The Language of Love
It is interesting to know that Paul had no reason to hate Christians before he became one. No Christian had ever slandered him or seized his possessions. Paul’s loathing of Christianity was a war within, a stronghold of doctrine, a religious fortress he had to overcome through the school of love.
Zeal is good, but zeal in the absence of love is fruitless. Think about how many wars have been waged for the glory of God, how many bloody crusades have been committed under the guise of religious reformation. How many people have left our churches because we have not labored in love? How often we forget that conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit (see CCC 1989). The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, and peace, which are the very wealth we bring to our communities.
In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis warned us of being less worried about the enemies “out there” than the enemies within—vices and vicarious habits that have turned into idols, thirst for knowledge and power that threaten our faith. He defines conversion as “openness to a constant self-renewal born of fidelity to Jesus Christ.”
How we need His Spirit daily. How we need conversion again and again.
Death and Life
A couple of years ago, we lost a dear member of our team because we were quick to discipline with truth. While I do not condone what happened, I learned how easy it is to be gracious over our own missing pieces; but fail in charity towards others or those who meet our evangelical fervor with reluctance and resistance. The acid test of faith is love. And love is patient. Love forgives. Love endures. Unless I surrender all the pieces of my heart to this love, unless I die daily, pride will dominate my zeal and derail my witness.
I am called to reach the lost, but only through the language of love.
Saint Paul died in a love that nothing could break or exhaust. He forgave men their heinous deeds, speaking truth, loving them to the very end. He died in a victory, sealed and heralded by Christ’s Resurrection, this victory which offers us the glorious opportunity to rise to new life daily.
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Thorns, Thistles, + Triumph
God moved powerfully in Paul’s life and, as C.S. Lewis said, surprised him with joy… and with suffering. Despite his qualifications, Saint Paul was self righteous and self-reliant. He had given his brilliant mind and persuasive talents to the blasphemy and persecution of Christians.
But Paul met Christ in His post-Resurrection glory and was radically transformed. He would then recount all his credentials as complete garbage in exchange for knowing Christ. Saint Paul had a complete change of heart. He became utterly dependent on grace. He learnt to be content with weakness.
In one of his autobiographical passages, after relaying great visions and revelations, including an experience of rapture to a third heaven, Paul speaks of a certain “thorn” in the flesh. He prayed three times for God to remove it but was answered with:
My Grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness. // 1 Corinthians 12:8
Some theologians suggest that this thorn was some physical ailment or moral struggle. Others imply spiritual wounds or stigmata. Still others like Saint Chrysostom refers to it as a “personal” enemy, perhaps someone he trusted, who sought to slander and discredit him (see Timothy 4:14). The amazing claim Paul makes is that God gave him his thorn. And God gives us ours.
Henri Nouwen says:
Christ, the source of our peace, is found in our weakest places, when we feel most broken, most helpless and most vulnerable.
Think about this: God loves us. Not some imaginary version of us. God loves us especially in our weakness.
God allows the weeds, thorns and thistles to persistently pop up and prick us, for His purposes, for our growth as disciples. Thorns are gateways for compassion and community. And these thorns remind us of His brow, sweat and blood mingled, falling to the earth for our salvation.
On days when “thorns” bleed deep, and scars remind me of defeated moments, I remember the triumph of the Cross and turn to Jesus, who crucifies my shortcomings and replaces them with Himself. I learned to love the “thorns” God places; to embrace the redemptive pain they bring. I realize these are lessons I can learn only in the deep trenches of life.
Complete in His Image
Is there a piece missing in you today?
Remember, nothing can separate you from His love, He who chose you before the world began. How kind is our redeeming God whose heavenly light exposes our missing pieces, whose mercy recovers and renews them, whose love intends nothing but to “re-complete” us so that one day we shall no longer be a puzzle but a splendid, perfected, glorious masterpiece reflecting His image.
No missing pieces. Only grace. This is why we press on. This is how we overcome!
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