This feast day celebrates the conversion of St Paul (formerly Saul) on the road to Damascus. The story of the conversion of Saul, a man known for his persecution of Christians, is found in the Bible in Acts 9:
"And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.
And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.
And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord. And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth, And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight. Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake.
And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized." (Acts 9: 1-18, King James Bible)
Saul stopped persecuting Christians, converted to Christianity and became Paul the Apostle and great evangelist.
In Queen Mary I's reign, the Feast of St Paul's was celebrated with torchlit processions and bonfires. Perhaps this light symbolised the light from Heaven which Saul saw.
St Paul's Day 1533 was the day of the marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn - click here to read more - and in 1554 it was the day that Thomas Wyatt the Younger "raised his standard in Maidstone and his supporters made simultaneous proclamations in Rochester, Tonbridge, Malling, and Milton" in Wyatt's Rebellion - click here to read more about the rebellion.
Picture: The Conversion of Saul, fresco by Michelangelo, 1542–45.
On this feast, I always think of the words of St. Swithun Wells before he was hanged on December 10, 1581, speaking to Richard Topcliffe: “I pray God make you a Paul of a Saul, of a bloody persecutor one of the Catholic Church’s children.”!