“Awake, you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
These words Paul wrote to a group of early Christians in Ephesus more than 2,000 years ago still echo through the times. They have endured time and space, suffered critique and study, and withstood disdain and adoration to reach us today. It is a simple verse written by a Jewish man in a Roman prison to Gentile friends and acquaintances 840 miles away in what is today Turkey calling them to awaken to a new reality, speaking of a personal transformation so profound that it would cause them to revolutionize how they saw life. His words also spoke of a mysterious figure, the Christ, who remains largely misunderstood to this day and who seemed to possess a light of his own. No doubt, much can be unpacked from these few words. Regardless of whatever personal feelings we may harbor toward them, there is no denying they are full of vigor, vivid imagery, and a sense of urgency and importance.
But are they relevant to us today? Should we listen to them? Who is this Paul person who speaks to us from a distant past and a faraway place? What kind of transformation is this that he promises us? Who truly is this Jesus figure he sees only once in his life and who causes him to change? Is this just a religious experience? How does it relate to us living in a vastly different world than Paul did? What does he know of our challenges and our lives that would lead us to lend him any credence? In short: why would these words matter?
Because Paul’s journey to Damascus is the type of voyage of spiritual transformation we all must undertake to truly find our place in this world and our purpose in the universe.
Many of us have already felt it: that there is more to life, to our existence, than we are capable of understanding. We struggle to find happiness, to know where “to go”—yet we sense there is more to it all. But where do we go? And how do we get there? Paul’s story may hold some answers. My greatest hope is that these pages may help bridge the time and space between our busy 21st-century lives and the Apostle of the Gentiles two millennia ago—and that they may, ultimately, help you make sense of your own journey to “Damascus.”
We would do well to pay attention to Paul and what he has to say as we search for meaning and purpose for our own lives. Saul of Tarsus, eventually to be called Paul, is perhaps one of the greatest examples of personal transformation we have in recorded history. An avid opponent of early Christianity, Paul eventually becomes its greatest exponent—but only after an impromptu encounter with Christ on his way to Damascus. When it happens, he realizes his old habits, his career, and his lifestyle are no longer enough for him. He leaves his successful life behind to do something completely different. In the process, he is abandoned by family and ridiculed by friends, all of whom cannot understand the cause for such change. (Certainly he was mad!) So he starts anew, without truly knowing what lies ahead, and forges on. Eventually, Paul travels on foot through most of the known world at the time—more than once—bringing a message of love and acceptance to all who would hear. By the time he is done with this life, he has sparked new congregations of faith, visited many existing others, personally met and brought hope to thousands of people, mentored a new generation of Christian messengers, befriended and counseled some of Christ’s disciples, faced politicians and a Roman emperor, and written letters that have become a central part of Western religious and ethical thinking. More importantly, however, Paul lived a life of fulfillment and purpose.
Such radical change is not for the faint of heart—but it is within our reach. You may have heard of the successful CEO who steps down from their position of power to try something new; of the lawyer who leaves their practice to become a social worker; of the engineer who quits their well-paying job to become a high-school teacher; or of the executive who leaves a successful career behind to become a stay-at-home parent. These stories are as numerous as they are increasingly frequent. And those who undertake such change all have a little bit of Paul in them—we all do. We may think these people have it all, that they have everything that could make them happy and fulfilled—yet clearly something makes them choose to change.
The truth is we are all looking for meaning and purpose. Whether you are a line cook or a CEO, a retail worker or an astronaut, an artist or an engineer, we all at times feel like we are stumbling in the dark, unsure about why we are here and what we should do with our lives. Paul may have some answer for us because he has been there before. He may be able to point us toward the light, to help us awake to a new paradigm that can revolutionize our lives and help us make a dent in the world.
In short, Paul’s journey to Damascus can be seen as a symbolic portrayal of the deeply personal and spiritual path we all must trek before finding lasting meaning and purpose for our lives. It is a lot larger than just a religious event. As we relive Paul’s experience, we reflect upon our own. As we examine the particulars of his story, we may identify with some of the challenges we face in this life as well as clues as to how to overcome them. That is the wisdom of the Gospel: practical, timeless advice for our daily lives—if we are able to wake up from our spiritual slumber and see ancient places and old names not as curious fiction but as real situations and people who were striving for happiness amid the people they cared about. Just like us.
So, I invite you to get on the road with me toward Damascus. Maybe we will find Paul along the way and, with luck and a little effort, a new philosophy of enlightenment too will shine on us.