Ananias of Damascus, a saintly, unsung hero

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Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul
Pietro De Cortana, Public domain

Both the spirituality of Saint Ignatius Loyola and the ancient practice of lectio divina encourage Christians to savor the biblical narratives and ponder their mysteries with intentionality, patience, depth and imagination. On the day the church celebrates the Conversion of Saint Paul (Jan. 25) — this year the 60th anniversary of the calling of Vatican II — in contemplating the daily readings in such a way, it struck me for the first time that Ananias is at least as much a profile in courage in that narrative as is Saul, “who is also called Paul” (Acts 13:9). But this latter poor servant of the church has received infinitely less praise than his more famous counterpart.

Let’s begin with the narrative in Acts of the Apostles 9, where Saul is on his way to Damascus to continue wreaking havoc upon the Christian community he loathes, and is knocked to the ground by a blinding light (the biblical narrative doesn’t tell us whether he was on foot or on a horse, though we often see him flung from the latter in artworks, like those by Caravaggio and Veronese). Saul encounters Christ, is struck blind, and needs to be led to the city by hand. All this is quite familiar to the majority of us.

But most of us pay little attention to the parallel scene. Separately, Jesus also appears to Ananias in a vision. He is already in Damascus and already a “disciple.” The Lord calls him and he responds immediately, “Yes, Lord.” Jesus directs him to go to the Street called Straight (in Latin, the Via Recta), which still exists amidst the bombs raining down on modern-day Syria, and to restore sight to Saul.

Ananias’ response is understandably hesitant: “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” (“…um, of which I am one, Your Divine Majesty,” we could creatively add!). But Christ emphatically says “Go!” — making clear that it is through this unworthy instrument that he plans to offer the message of redemption to the nations outside of Israel.

And so Ananias confidently approaches his sworn enemy, to whom incredible power has been given to decimate those with whom he disagrees, and the first words out of his mouth are ones not too often repeated today in our discourse with those who hate or vilify us: “Brother Saul.” He goes on to say “the Lord — Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here — has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” It is he who likely baptizes the greatest missionary in the history of the church, and causes the scales to fall from his eyes. It’s not necessarily Paul’s faith, but Ananias’ that brings about the transformation.

And while Ananias is mostly lost to the sands of history after this encounter, his co-believers with all the litanies praising them and basilicas named for them initially do not help or welcome Paul, “for they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was really a disciple.” It’s only Ananias, and eventually Barnabas, who are moved with compassion at the Pharisaical former tentmaker, and offer an olive branch of trust, at great personal peril.

Beyond this snippet, we know very little about Ananias. His name, which was not a terribly uncommon one in the ancient world, literally means “Favored by God.” He’s often confused with two others sharing it: Ananias, the husband of Sapphira, who is struck dead for refusing to share their money with the fledgling Christian community (Acts 5), and Ananias, usually spelled Annas, son of Seth and the father-in-law of Caiaphas who are instrumental in orchestrating the crowds to push to have Jesus killed (John 18). In one of the most memorable scenes of contrapasso in Dante’s Inferno, these last two are pictured as crucified on the ground while hypocrites in elaborate priestly vestments of gilded lead process upon them for eternity.

But Ananias of Damascus does not have any such legends or spectacles, positive or negative, surrounding his memory. He is simply subsumed into wider conversation about the 72 disciples, while some claim he was stoned to death for leading the Christian community in Damascus after Paul left for greener evangelical pastures. Ananias’ house was transformed into a humble Maronite Christian Church, though it is unclear what effect the civil war in Syria has had on even that small remembrance. He doesn’t even get a Feast Day! It’s listed as sharing that of Paul’s conversion, while his relics are supposedly somewhere in Saint Paul’s Outside-the-Walls in Rome, though I have never seen reference to them there.

Upon my next visit, I’ll be sure to scour the place for this saintly unsung hero, and say a prayer for all those who labor in anonymity with courage and trust in the Lord. Sant’Anania di Damasco, prega per noi!

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.