This is part two of a three-part series on the Saint’s Journey.
In part one we talked about the Hero’s Journey, how it shows up in fictional narratives and in the narratives of our lives, the limits of the Hero’s Journey and myths and how Christians might approach the truths that come from imperfect sources.
In this part we will explore the Hero’s Journey in popular culture and discover the Saint’s Journey in Scripture.
Luke Skywalker’s Hero’s Journey
Probably the most familiar example of the Hero’s Journey today is the story of Luke Skywalker.
Departure — Hope
In the first Star Wars film, Episode IV — A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance finds hope in their fight against the Empire in a young farm boy named Luke Skywalker who leaves his home planet for adventure and, guided by the Force, helps the rebels destroy the Empire’s planet-killing Death Star.
Episode IV marks the beginning of Luke’s adventure, but Luke does not accept his role as the hero immediately. He refuses Obi-Wan’s offer to join the rebellion at first, telling him there’s nothing he can do about the Empire. It is only after his aunt and uncle are murdered by Storm Troopers that Luke decides to leave his old life and begin anew. His assent to the adventure set before him, brought about by a tragedy, not only changes his own life, but will also come to change the lives of everyone in the galaxy.
While there are moments of sadness in Episode IV, especially when Obi-Wan is cut down by Darth Vader, the theme of this film is hope. There is an element of the unknown throughout the movie, but the characters overcome the unknown with their innocence and their friendship.
Initiation — Struggle
The next movie, Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back, chronicles the rebels’ fight to survive the relentless aggression of the vengeful Empire. Episode V’s theme is struggle.
When the movie begins, Luke and Han are stranded in the midst of a brutal blizzard. They endure the bitter cold throughout the night until they are rescued by their comrades in the morning. After the rebels abandon their base on Hoth to the Empire, Luke descends into a fierce internal struggle over his identity as he trains with Master Yoda in the swamps of Dagobah.
Luke’s future is uncertain, but instead of meeting the mystery of what lies ahead with hope as he had done before, he is separated from his friends and overcome with fear and doubt.
At the end of the movie, Luke loses his hand in a lightsaber battle against Darth Vader and discovers, in one of the most memorable moments in Hollywood cinema, that Vader is his father.
Luke’s friends experience trials of their own. Han and Leia are seemingly betrayed by Lando Calrissian on Bespin and Han is taken captive and sold to Jabba the Hutt. However, Leia and Chewie manage to escape the Empire’s grip and rescue Luke with Lando’s help.
The final scene of the movie is a shot of Luke, Leia and the two droids gazing out the window of their star ship. It’s as if they are asking the universe “Now what?” They have a plan to rescue Han, but the ending of this movie is far different than the triumphant medal ceremony that closes out Episode IV.
Episode V depicts the darkness and trials or “initiation” not only of Luke, but also of his friends.
Return — Redemption
We discover that hope is not lost in the final movie of the trilogy, Episode VI — Return of the Jedi. The film begins with Luke, now a powerful Jedi, helping his friends rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt.
In one of the final scenes, Vader, freshly defeated by Luke in an epic lightsaber battle, looks on as the Emperor, electrical bolts crackling from his fingertips, slowly tortures Luke to the very edge of death.
Suddenly, Vader turns away from the Dark Side of the Force and throws the Emperor over a railing into the depths of the partially rebuilt Death Star, saving his son’s life, ending the Empire’s reign over the galaxy and bringing balance to the Force.
In this film Luke “returns” with his “boon,” i.e., honed Jedi powers, cool confidence and a newly constructed lightsaber. He is completely transformed from the innocent farm boy we saw in Episode IV into a confident hero.
Fear no longer controls Luke and he has no doubt about who he is, a Jedi Knight. Luke has fully embraced his role as the hero and uses his ”boon” for the good of the entire galaxy. Balance is returned to the Force and there is peace in the galaxy once again, but all of this could only happen after Luke’s transformation which was shaped by all of his struggles.
Luke Skywalker’s story is an excellent example of the Hero’s Journey in cinema, but does the pattern emerge in the lives of the Saints? It does, but perhaps not as neatly as it is portrayed in fictional books and movies. Real life is more complex.
The Saint’s Journey of the Apostle Paul
We now look to the life of Saint Paul for an example of how the Hero’s Journey shows up in the lives of the saints in what I call the Saint’s Journey.
Saul the Persecutor
Saint Paul’s story is interesting to say the least. He was temporarily blinded by God before he converted to Christianity and embarked on three separate missionary journeys spanning 30 years and 10,000 miles to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles and establish Christian communities throughout Asia Minor. During his travels he was arrested, imprisoned, beaten, stoned, flogged, shipwrecked and finally beheaded for his faith in Jesus Christ. But before he was Paul, the zealous evangelist, he was Saul, a fierce persecutor of the early Church.
Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr and one of the first deacons of the Church, was stoned to death after he delivered a dramatic speech condemning the Jewish authorities for failing to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. (Acts 6 and 7) Stephen’s death was recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, where it says that the witnesses against Stephen “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” and that “Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 7:58, 8:1) This is Saul’s first appearance in Scripture.
Acts does not say whether Saul himself cast any of the stones that killed Stephen, but we know that Saul led a terrifying campaign against Christians, the people of “the Way.” After Stephen’s murder, Saul continued to “ravage” the Church “by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women….” (Acts 8:3) He actively persecuted the Church, breathing “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” until he was struck blind by the light of Christ on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:1, 9:3)
Departure — A Divine Transformation
When he fell to the ground, Saul heard Jesus say “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:1, 9:3) Following the Lord’s instructions, Ananias went to Saul in Damascus three days later and laid his hands on him, restoring his vision. (Acts 9:17)
Saul immediately began preaching that Jesus Christ is the Son of God in the synagogues. The people who heard him preach were amazed that the man who so strongly persecuted the Christians was now one of them. Saul drew so much attention, that the disciples had to sneak him out of the city at night to avoid him being killed by the Jewish authorities. (Acts 9:25)
Luke Skywalker losing his family at the hands of the Empire was the event that led him to answer the call to heroism. The event which led Saul to sainthood was his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. These events serve as the initial “departure” point for the hero in one case and the Saint in the other.
However, unlike Luke who refused the initial call to adventure, Saul did not hesitate when Christ called him. Saul’s “departure” response to Christ’s call was so transformational that he even ceased going by the name Saul. Instead, he became known as Paul. (Acts 13:9)
It is also important to note that whereas Luke started as an innocent farm boy who was sympathetic to the cause of the rebels, Paul experienced a complete conversion experience, a 180 degree turnaround, when he answered God’s call and departed on his mission of evangelization. Paul was transformed from the bane of Christians into a Christian himself.
Initiation — A Life on the Road
Paul’s “initiation” or trials can be seen throughout the Acts of the Apostles.
In Lystra Paul was stoned and left for dead, though he survived and continued his ministry. (Acts 14:19) In Phillipi he was stripped, beaten with rods, flogged and thrown in prison. (Acts 16:22–24) Paul avoided a riot in Ephesus. (Acts 19:21) When he went to the temple in Jerusalem he was beaten and arrested and almost killed. (Acts 21:33–36) He raised his Roman citizenship as a defense to being flogged, but the Jewish authorities conspired to murder him, so he was eventually placed on a ship and sent to Rome by the governor of Caesarea after he appealed his case to the Emperor. (Acts 22:28, 23:12, 25:12) Before arriving in Rome, however, Paul was shipwrecked on the island of Malta. (Acts 27:41, 28:1) Paul was kept under house arrest for some time in Rome and was eventually imprisoned and beheaded under the authority of Emperor Nero.
In addition to the apparent outward trials Paul faced, we know that Paul also suffered from a “thorn” in the flesh. (2 Corinthians 12:7) We are not sure what this “thorn” was. Some have speculated that he suffered from some physical ailment. Others have suggested that the thorn was spiritual in nature. Whatever the case, Paul tells us that he asked God to take the thorn away from him three times, but God’s response was simply “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
We can also see the psychological trials Paul encountered when we read the letters he wrote to the early Church communities. Paul’s raw emotions, including anger and exasperation, come through clearly in some of these letters. He must have felt a great responsibility to teach and keep order in the Christian communities he established and also must have suffered mental anguish when those communities were disobedient, heretical or fought amongst themselves.
Finally, we cannot ignore the obvious yet easy to overlook trials of the road that Paul faced. Over a 30-year period Paul traveled 10,000 miles by land and by sea. Whether he traveled on foot, by horse or by boat, all travel was difficult and dangerous during the first century and 30 years is a long time to be “on the road.”
Below are two maps depicting Paul’s journeys. These maps give us a feel for the distance he traveled, though it is still difficult for us to imagine how hard it really must have been for Paul to cover so much ground over such a long period of time in such primitive conditions while under the constant threat of death and imprisonment and also having to act as mediator and teacher to the communities he established along the way.
Paul’s First and Second Missionary Journeys
Map courtesy of e-Sword X, ESV Maps.
Paul’s Third Missionary Journey and Voyage to Rome
Map courtesy of e-Sword X, ESV Maps.
Return — Faith and the Beatific Vision
You might be wondering, if Paul is eventually beheaded in Rome, then what is his “boon” and why did he not have a triumphant “return.”
Remember that Christians are in this world, not of this world and, as I said earlier, real life is more complex than fiction. Therefore, we need to look deeper into Paul’s story from a Christian perspective to discover these elements of his Saint’s Journey.
Paul’s “boon” is his faith in Jesus Christ, his work as a shepherd of the early Church communities and his theological contributions to the Christian faith, especially his letters which comprise about one-third of the New Testament. His faith in Christ, one of the theological virtues, may be the greatest boon and gift that any man can receive and share with others which is exactly what Paul did. The grace of faith gave him the ability to live a heroic and saintly life.
And as for Paul’s triumphant “return?” All Christians are called to be saints and all of our journeys lead to the Beatific Vision. We reach the “end” when we see God face to face. We come from God, as part of his Creation, and we return to Him when we see Him. Paul’s “return” was not a worldly return to a city or any physical place here on earth. Paul’s “return” was coming into the presence of his Lord and Creator and joyfully gazing upon Him.
In the third and final part of this series we will discuss the “pilgrim Church,” the Catholic teaching of Creation “in a state of journeying” (in statu viae), the Communion of Saints and the Saint’s Journey in our individual vocations.
Until next time…
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Notes and Bibliography:
Harrelson, Walter J., ed. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version With the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.