7. THE APOSTLE PAUL
One of the saints who has given us his own biographical details - albeit few - is the apostle Paul. We find these details in the 22 nd and 23 rd chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, as well as in his epistles.
He was born in Tarsus of Cilicia, of Jewish parents. His family descended from the tribe of Benjamin and his father a Pharisee. He is proud of this heritage: " circumcised on the eighth-day, of the nation of Israel , the tribe of Benjamin, a Jew out of Jews, by law a Pharisee " (Philippians, 3,5)
Another one of his boastings was his Roman citizenship, which he also acquired from his father (Acts 22, 28). His descent and his family privileges had bestowed two names to him: Saul or Saulus (in Hebrew) and Paul (the Roman name)
In Tarsus , which was famous for its Greek culture, he acquired his Greek education. This is where he also learned the tent-maker's trade. His Jewish education was completed in Jerusalem , which, at the age of 18 or 20 became his permanent residence. His teacher was the renowned rabbi Gamaliel. He himself says " I am a man of Judean origin, brought up with accuracy according to the law of his fathers; a zealot of God, as you all are today " (Acts, 22,3).
With such an education behind him, Paul confronted the Church's sermon. He saw it opposing his own beliefs and threatening the authority of the Mosaic Law and the verbal traditions of the Pharisees. Thus, we see him traveling to Damascus , "so that if he should find anyone on that (Christian) path, whether man or woman, he would bring them bound into Jerusalem . (Acts 9,2).
However, on the road to Damascus , things changed. Let's listen to Luke the Evangelist, author of the Acts of the Apostles: " and during his journey, as he approached Damascus , a bright light from the sky enveloped him; and falling to the ground, he heard a voice asking him 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' He said 'Who are you, Lord?' The Lord replied 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but now rise up and enter the city, and you shall be told what you must do'. The men who were accompanying him stood speechless upon hearing the voice yet seeing no-one. Saul got up from the ground, but even with his eyes open, he could see nothing. So, they took him by the hand, and led him into Damascus . And for three days he was without sight, and he ate nothing and drank nothing ." (Acts, 9, 3-9)
This awesome event of his return is mentioned two more times in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 22, 6-11 and 26, 12-18), as it was a critical turning point in Paul's life.
After being cured of his blindness and having being baptized by Ananias, his tumultuous life begins: persecution by his compatriots, his flight to Arabia , his acquaintance with Christ's disciples in Jerusalem . Finally, he returns to Tarsus and ends up in Antioch . It is from there, that he initiates his famous itineraries to the East and the West; journeys full of hardships, persecutions and imprisonments. They however contain the blessing of heaven. Through them, the word of God is spread and is glorified. Paul's verbal preachings are complemented by his writings. His epistles take up more than one-third of the texts of the New Testament. He has primacy in the interpretation of the Gospel; no-one had ever interpreted the Bible of Christ as fully as he did. His work was sealed with his torturous death during the persecutions in Nero's time in 67-68 A.D. He " expected nothing more now, than the victory wreath, which would be bestowed on him by Christ on that day " (Timothy II 4,8).
Two texts speak eloquently of his superb evangelical course. One text is by the ancient ecclesiastic author, Clement of Rome (dec.101 A.D.): " Paul proved worthy of the prize of patience in the face of envy and dispute, in that he suffered bonds seven times, in fleeing, in being stoned, in becoming a preacher in the east and the west, thus receiving glory for his braveness in faith; in teaching justice to all the world, and in the sunset of his life undergoing martyrdom by leaders, thus being released from this world and moving on to a holy place, having become the greatest example of patience" (Corinthians, 1,5 5-7)
The second text is by Andrew of Crete; it is a verse that is read during vespers of the feast-day of the supreme apostles Peter and Paul (29 th June).
" Who can narrate your civilian bondage and afflictions, most glorious Apostle Paul? And your pains, your trials, your vigils, your sufferings during times of famine and thirst, in times of cold and nakedness, the basket, the beatings, the stonings, the itineraries, the deep sea and the tempests? You became a theater to both Angels and mankind. You endured everything, through strength-giving Christ, your Lord. Thus we beseech you, who commemorate you faithfully, to constantly pray that the Lord may save our souls ."
These feast-day hymns do not only outline Paul's hardships; they also give us other information on his personality. They stress the " prudence and the brilliant wisdom and the true divine oration, which persecutes the fallacy of atheism " (from a vespers hymn) They remind us that he was a "chosen vessel", a select instrument whom God had chosen - " from within his mother's womb- to uphold against all nations His divine name ." They furthermore submit three of his basic phrases that proved his wholehearted devotion to Christ: " I always consider myself chaff, so that I might win Christ " (Philippians 3,8); and " always carrying in your bodies the mortification of Jesus Christ " (Corinthians II 4,10) " For me, it is beneficial that I die and that Christ should live " (Philippians, 1,21).
Finally, in the closing hymn of the feast day, we find Paul's characteristics mentioned: " the blessed Paul was physically with a bald head, with no hair; he had joyful eyes, with brows turned downwards; his beard descending very beautifully, his nose curved and befitting his entire face; he was adorned with black and white hairs, his body was bent over, with a solid yet small build. He was timid in his manner and prudent and filled with divine gifts. His movements were modest and his speech was docile, attracting everyone to his love who had turned to him through the power of his miracles ." (Nicodemus of the Holy Mount Athos, Book of Saints, vol.B, p.232)
Description of the icon . Our icon, a work of Theofanis the Cretan, used to adorn the Holy Monastery of Stavroniketa of the Holy Mount Athos (16 th century). It belonged to the series of the Great Prayer, which extended above the twelve-feast section.
The saint is portrayed to the waist, he is facing towards his right, with the appropriate position of his body. With both his hands, he holds a closed book, which he is clutching to his chest, like a valuable treasure. His facial characteristics are generally as depicted in the text of the book of saints. Everything about it reveals his profundity and his wisdom. Of special note are his broad skull, his massive body and his pensive gaze. The viewer has before him a spiritual giant. The unfamiliar mind can guess his pensiveness, his fiery lectures, his broad heart, his inner life. He was fully dedicated to Christ, surrendered to His will; he was His untiring servant and catechist. He is first after the One; he, who more than any other person proved "what is man, and that nobility is part of our nature, and how this animal is so receptive of virtue" (John the Chrysostom, EPE 36, 418).
Saint John the Chrysostom excellently portrays the Apostle Paul's soul: " He aimed to present everyone perfected in Christ, just as he presented to everyone his own position. And, as though he had given birth to the whole world, he worried, he ran to them, trying to ensure that they would all enter the kingdom by attending to them, by consoling, by fasting, by praying, by beseeching, by intimidating demons, by drawing away the corrupters, through his presence, through his epistles, through his words, through his pupils, by lifting up the fallen by himself, by supporting those standing, by arousing those laying down, by ministering to those crushed, by coercing the indolent, by inspiring fear in the enemy, glaring at the hostile; and just like a military general or an excellent doctor, he showed much concern and diligence - not only in spiritual needs but in physical needs also - by becoming a bearer, an aide, an attendant, everything in a military camp ". (To the apostle Paul, EPE 37, 438-40)