After St. Stephen was stoned to death in Jerusalem a general persecution broke out, and a good number of Christian Jews moved two hundred miles north to the Syrian city of Antioch. It was there that we came to be called Christians. Our first reading today tells us that Jews from the island of Cyprus and from the Egyptian port of Cyrene who had settled in Antioch had embraced the Faith. Following on that, those converts began bringing Gentile friends into the Church.
The Apostles in Jerusalem, on hearing about the new growth in Antioch, looked for a man who could represent them there. They settled on Barnabas, and they had three reasons for that choice. First, he had standing, since he was a Jewish priest. Next, as a man from the isle of Cyprus, he could mix with foreigners. Lastly, although his real name was Joseph, he had been nicknamed Barnabas, which literally means “Son of kindness.”
On setting out for Antioch Barnabas thought of Saul of Tarsus as the perfect companion for him in dealing with a mixture of Jews, Gentiles, and men from many different ports.
The last we heard about Saul, or St. Paul, was the story of his conversion on the road to Damascus. However, recently in rereading Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, I came across his own account of the years between his conversion and that visit from Barnabas. I was surprised to read that after his conversion he spent three years around Damascus before going to meet Peter in Jerusalem. But what stunned me to read was that after visiting with Peter he returned to his father’s house in the Turkish town of Tarsus, and he spent fourteen years there.
In reading Paul’s letters I have come to regard him as perhaps the smartest man who ever lived. The depth of his ideas is matched with the beauty of his words. At first I was thinking of those fourteen years at his father’s house as a waste of a marvelous talent.
Now, though, I see those silent years as having been necessary for Paul. The depths of insights and the beauty of phrasing we find in his letters to the Corinthians and the Colossians were all carefully worked over hundreds of times in his years of silent prayer.It is the same with us. Our most productive hours are the ones we spend in silent communion with God.