Read 2 Corinthians 12:2-10.

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:3-5)

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body; I do not know; God knows—was caught up in Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4)

I suppose it is only natural to wonder what those things were that Saul saw and heard. What could it be that, when seen, led Saul to give up everything that had driven him to that point in his life, to completely change from the persecutor of Christians to the persecuted, from a life of comfort and respect to a life of imprisonment and beatings and lashes and shipwrecks, to become Paul?

In book VI, chapter 5 of her Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila gives a little more description of her own raptures. She says that in a rapture, the body may appear dead to those around, but the person is not dead, although he can’t tell whether he is in the body or out of the body. Teresa compares the soul and spirit to the sun—although the soul and spirit are one, you can think of them separately as being like the sun and the rays emanating from it. The best analogy she could come up with for this situation is that the soul is still in the body but the spirit has gone for a flight. And a flight indeed it seems to be, according to Teresa—with such a swift sense of motion and such heights and speed that great courage is necessary.

According to Teresa, it seems to this person that he is in an entirely different place. The light is so different that “if he were to spend his whole life trying to imagine that light, … he would be unable to do so.”

“It happens that within an instant so many things together are taught him that if he were to work for many years with his imagination and mind in order to systematize them he wouldn’t be able to do so, not with even one thousandth part of one of them. . . . The eyes of the soul see much better than we do with bodily eyes here on earth, and without words understanding of some things is given; I mean that if a person sees some saints, he knows them as well as if he had often spoken with them.”

From Teresa’s description of this third heaven, it appears that there were saints and angels—walking around? In any case, she reports occasionally seeing one or more. Or a whole host, praising God. And when that occurred, it was as though she knew them well. Their lives are transparent. All was revealed.

Apparently, by far the majority of what takes place here, of what is learned, cannot be described. Perhaps it is not permitted, but in most cases there reportedly are simply no words up to the task.

At the time such a thing is experienced it is presumably impossible to doubt that something life-changing is happening, though it may not be clear what is happening. But afterwards, when the spirit has returned home and the dust has settled and some time has elapsed, how does one know that such an experience was real and not just a dream or flight of fancy? According to Teresa, by the effects left behind. In another place Teresa uses the analogy of a great king who visits a lowly peasant. Afterward, one may wonder whether the visit was real or just a dream. But if the king left a valuable gift—a priceless gem, perhaps—and you have the gem in your hand, it is not possible to think that this visit was just a dream or an illusion of the devil.

Teresa says that from the moment of that rapture on, life on earth is very painful. The things of the earth that used to seem good now seem like dung. All that was valued now seems like straw. “It seems the Lord, like those Israelites who brought back signs from the promised land, has desired to show it something about its future land so that it may suffer the trials of this laborious path, knowing where it must go to get its final rest.”

“Three things, especially, are left in it to a very sublime degree:

  • knowledge of the grandeur of God, because the more we see in the grandeur the greater is our understanding;
  • self-knowledge and humility upon seeing that something so low in comparison with the Creator of so many grandeurs dared to offend him (and neither does the soul dare to look up at him);
  • the third, little esteem of earthly things save for those that can be used for the service of so great a God.”

“These are the jewels the spouse begins to give the betrothed, and their value is such that the soul will not want to lose them. For these meetings remain so engraved in the memory that I believe it’s impossible to forget them until one enjoys them forever.”

Yes, it’s easy to imagine that such a life-altering change in perspective could transform a Saul into a Paul.

Categories: Meditation

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and