Written by: Courtney Diviney, a Catholic Gator
‘Saul the Persecutor’ to ‘Paul the Apostle’, that’s the name of the first article I found when I googled St. Paul’s conversion story. What a connection I feel there, by no means was I killing Christians and sending them to jail, but I definitely saw this all as a joke before my encounter with Christ. I’m sure we have all heard Paul’s conversion story before, and if you have not open Acts because the synopsis I’m about to give could never compare to how it is displayed in the Bible.
Saul was one of the many who after the crucifixion of Christ dedicated his life to making Christians suffer for their beliefs. After gaining the approval to imprison the followers he found, Saul set out to do just that. On the road to Damascus though something strange happened, he was struck down by the Lord in a flash of light and was blinded. The Lord spoke to him, calling out and asking why he persecuted Him. Leaving Saul with the note to travel, and sending him visions of a believer who would give him back sight. Saul, being left with no choice was blindly led into the city on a three day journey, and as promised once he arrived Ananias greeted him and laying hands on him proclaimed that Jesus desired he be filled with the Holy Spirit and it broke Saul’s blindness. Saul was baptized and began to proclaim the gospel. Once baptised, Saul receieved a great blessing that was pretty unheard of back then, Jesus called him by a new name Paul. Paul having the meaning little one, while that seems like a decrease from Saul (meaning Great one), being little is how Paul changed the future of christianity forever. Much can be learned from this, God certainly does call the ones who farthest away to serve his Kingdom. Much like Saul, I had to learn this the hard way, so I wanted to share my story.
I was born in the Baptist belt of North Carolina but I never was into my faith. I had many friends who lived, breathed, and will probably die it but back then that wasn’t me. I went to church from time to time but to me it was more of a joke than anything else. I literally picked on people who thought it was the way. I saw no importance in spending a Sunday in church when I could work, sleep in, or have fun. As a senior in high school I took a leap and I accepted an offer to move to Florida and start at UF in the fall. Once I got settled in, I quickly realized I had no friends (awk) so I dove into the “fun” parts of college, long nights, and little sleep. Fun fact: that wasn’t the life I wanted.
When life got hard and roommates got feisty, my suite mate Lauren recommended I go to Christian Campus House (CCH), because there I could meet people. My first time there was rather interesting and despite the obvious love of God I still tried to fit in. I didn’t yet have that fire in my heart to love Jesus so most of the people I met at my first time at CCH just seemed weird, and weird is my middle name so I just acted like they did so they wouldn’t know I wasn’t in love with God the same way they were. This came with randomly putting my hands in the air while singing, because I thought you had to, and lying about my prayer revelations because I wasn’t having any. I lived that first month going to CCH on Sunday and roasting them with my friends who liked to sit in our kitchens talking till 3 a.m. the other 6 days of the week. Then home sickness kicked in and real sickness too; laying in my bed with no one to really take care of me left me feeling very alone. The people who I thought were my friends carried on their 3 a.m. conversations without me, but I missed one Sunday at CCH and a sweet girl named Darcy reached out to me. Not only did she go GROCERY SHOPPING for me, but she checked in every day, so I thought “lets give this a real try.”
After committing to a church and to volunteering I fell in love with the Lord, but isn’t it funny sometimes how long your story has to be before it even begins? November of 2015 I thought I was as far as long in my faith as I never needed to be, but still I couldn’t fully accept this Jesus gig. Instead of now picking on all Christians I focused in on one group, if you don’t know the map of Gainesville in your head, you have to pass St. Augustine’s to get to CCH. I would be going to hang out on a Tuesday at CCH and would see the Catholics going to church, many, many times I remember turning my aggression towards the ones who ‘had to go to Church everyday to feel saved, when I already was. I was good at that you know, picking on other people when I felt deep in my soul that they had something I didn’t.
Much like St. Paul I was just doing what I was good at, what was easy, and what gained attention. I was doing what I thought the crowd wanted, even if the crowd at this point was just me. I felt lost again, these people looked so content and I felt like I needed to do more. So I started a mission to find where I fit in, because I felt nothing pulling me close to Christ and saw no reason to keep trying to make an effort where I was when obviously it is not a place for me to be. Here I was again, losing sight of what’s important, I may not have been blind like St. Paul, but I blinded myself, by taking my sight off Jesus and selfishly focusing on how I wanted to feel.
Three short months later when I joined my Christian sorority (which is what I thought my missing piece was) I met the girl I wanted to be my BIG, and to my surprise I saw her tabling for the Catholic church as I was passing for CCH…. “well guess that won’t work out, cant have a Catholic telling me how to grow in my faith”….. Here we are again, playing ourselves before we know it. The lost little Courtney was sent an angel on a Friday night. Walking through Midtown just trying to get home I was stopped by a sophomore, Catherine Caldwell, and when the sentence “Do you wanna go to adoration with us, it’s just inside the Church?” reached my ears, I might have actually cringed, but because of fear of rejection I said “maybe”. Maybe means Yes in Catherine’s mind, so into Night fever I went. If you’re unaware of what Night Fever is, it’s an event St. Augustines Catholic Church puts on about three to four times a semester where they open the church doors to everyone passing by. When I say open the church doors I mean we have people on the street welcoming people in to light a candle and pray and when you get inside they have our Lord present in Eucharistic Adoration. January 29, 2016 will forever be the marker when my life changed, I entered the doors, I looked up, and I saw Jesus in the Eucharist for the first time. I had no idea what “it” was, I had no idea what to do, but I felt it across my whole body…. I was home.
I couldn’t let people know though, I had been trashing the Catholic Church as long as I could remember, so how was I supposed to now be for it? I didn’t want to be like St. Paul, people couldn’t know that I wanted to be Catholic, so instead of telling my pals, I snuck to Mass like it was my mistress. I went to my Non-denominational church at 9:00 a.m. and Mass at 7:30 p.m. But after a period of time that wasn’t enough, I was going to daily Mass, I joined a Bible Study, I stopped my 3 a.m. talks… I wanted to be better, I wanted what I was missing, I wanted to be Catholic.
It really is funny how fast someone’s true colors are revealed when you present something they disagree with. Some of my friends at CCH didn’t understand why I changed my mind, people at church who I babysat for began to try to convince me how wrong it was, it felt like everyone wanted to change my mind. The attacks from the devil were awful, I went nights without sleep, I lost so many friends, and for a short period of time it even deeply disturbed my relationship with Jesus. But despite all of that I still knew what I needed to do, so I signed up for RCIA and I told everyone I could (RCIA, for those who are unaware is Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, this is how any adult would enter the Catholic Church by receiving baptism, confirmation, and first communion on Easter Vigil). Then summer came and I went home, and being “Catholic” alone was difficult, I missed so many Masses and I struggled to remember why I was doing this, I don’t think I was blind again, I just think I closed my eyes and was too afraid to open them. When August brought me back to Florida, I was greeted with friendly faces at Mass and the memory of the feeling I once had.
I remember a good gal pal of mine reached out and wanted to catch up from the summer we had spent apart, and I was pumped. I walked into that Dunkin’ feeling good, and I left in tears because that meet up wasn’t what I expected. I spent an hour being told every reason the Catholic Church was corrupt, and how the only way to save my soul was to leave. My support system no longer existed and so quickly again I had no one. Much like St. Paul here, I had been deserted by the people who used to walk with me, who used to support me, and when I turned to my new group I was almost faced with the same fate. As much as I wanted to be friends with these amazing Catholic women I had met, I even felt rejected by them. I wasn’t really in their group so most of my time at St. A’s was spent surrounded by people but feeling completely alone. I don’t mention this to put down anyone, my friend group now is amazing and the majority of them saw this part of my life, where I was during this phase of life and needed some desert. I don’t think I ever felt like a true member of my community here until Catherine became my sponsor, that was my in, she was my Barnabas. Barnabas was the only apostle who welcomed Paul when he turned to the christian community. So many others feared that it was a trick and Paul was still trying to arrest or kill them, but Barnabas he took a chance. Barnabas poured into Paul and carried out many journeys to spread the Gospel with him, he was Paul’s first taste of discipleship. She challenged me to be better, she encouraged me to let go of my anger, and she prayed for me more than anyone I had ever met. I had a community now, the devil attacked me but I didn’t feel alone because I had people who wanted me to win the battle and I knew that God had already won the war I was facing, so regardless of my downfalls I was still going to make it through.
Much like St. Paul, my story continued with winding roads, graces from God, and pain from time to time. I went from being good at being judgmental, angry, and being good at really faking my faith to classes every Sunday, challenges to grow, and a feeling of freedom that I needed to share.
“Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). God calls us, the ones who are far, the ones who are broken, the ones who don’t even want to be around, and He changes us into the instruments He needs for His kingdom. I think that’s what He did with me. He sent me a group of women to help form me and He prepared me to tell all the people what good had happened to me. I thought that alone I could figure it out, I didn’t need to ask God for help because if I worked hard enough it would all fall into place. But once I finally gave that up, so much good came. Anyone who went to SLS ’18 (this is Student Leadership Summit, it is a bi-annual conference put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students) will remember this line “Saul means great one, Paul means little one” I think that sums up these stories rather well, to be great you must be small and rely on God for all you need, not yourself.
Saint Paul, pray for us!