Friday, 6 February 2009

The Conversion of St Paul


What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging into doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God's house below -
My parish church -and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St Paul.

I had never read John Betjeman's poem on the Conversion of St Paul until someone pointed it out to me last week (on the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, funnily enough!). As it doesn't seem to be available online, I have typed out the portion above. It was originally written as a reaction to a radio broadcast in 1955 by the humanist Margaret Knight called Morals without Religion which may be found here on the British Humanist Society website. Her argument was that moral education and religious education could, and should be separated. It appears, from reading her broadcast, that she believes there are two types of Christian: those who pretend without belief for the sake of social conformity but worry about what to teach the children, and those in whom beliefs are "deeply implanted and to whom they mean a great deal". She notes that nothing she is about to say will make any difference to the second group!

But the poem, I think, suggests that faith is not something that can be presented in Knight's polarised terms. There are as many different experiences of faith and conversion as there are Christians. Betjeman cannot identify with St Paul's "blinding light" and subsequent unshakeable faith. His doubts, worries, distractions and "fitful glow" may well be more familiar to many, they certainly are to me. There are even those who have a moment of conversion and turn away from it. But whatever one's experience, it is made clear that we must "stumble on" throughout our lives, even if sometimes it means forcing ourselves to church and just going through the motions, to try and establish a faith stronger than a fitful glow. And not everyone will succeed. But, we can't all be like St Paul, nor should we be, the important thing is to try and keep trying.

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