|"The Priestess of Delphi" by John Collier (1891)|
16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour. 19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31 They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. ~Acts 16:16-34
Have you ever had a gift—a talent given by the gods, or maybe by God—that came to feel like a curse? Hard to imagine, I know. You have been given the legs and disposition of a runner, the deep breath and powerful lungs of a swimmer or a singer, the brawny back of a power-lifter. All wonderful. Except… when it comes to define you. When it becomes your reason for existence… and you have no control over it. Except when it starts to feel as if your gift has turned you into a thing, an object used by others.
When I was a child, my gift was exciting. It was fun. It was important and helpful, even when it immersed me in sadness. It helped me to understand the world I lived in. It helped me to understand why my mother had become weak and bone thin, and why one day she could not rise from her bed to prepare our breakfast, and why a few days later, she was dead. It helped me to sense when one of my brothers was hurt, or when my father was angry, or, later, when he was paralyzed with grief. My gift when I was a child seemed to be a gift of deep compassion, deep intuition. I could look at someone or touch them, and I knew almost completely how they felt, if they were well or ill.
Later it changed. Instead of gentle intuition, I would be struck with a strange and terrifying sensation. One day as I carried a plate of bread to the table for our midday meal, I told my father the ocean was in my head… there were waves, and tingling, and I couldn’t see properly. I stumbled and fell, hard, on the ground. I heard the plate shatter. Then I could see, but what I saw terrified me. I was in a dark cave, and all around me were men trying to dig things out of the shining walls. And then a terrible, ominous rumble, and the walls started to buckle and fall and I was buried alive. I screamed and screamed, but no one could save me. I awakened hours later—it was dark, but a lamp was lit in my room. My father and my aunt and my grandmother huddled together murmuring as I opened my eyes. I slept again, and in the morning they looked at me even more strangely. Word had come about the collapse in the local mine. Eight men were lost.
It happened again, and again, and each time, my terror grew. My family’s terror grew as well. I started noticing urgent conversations that stopped as soon as I entered the room. Eventually, I came into the house to discover my father serving fresh water and figs to two men I had never seen before. I could see by their clothing they were wealthy… rich cloth and fine embroidery that stood out in our modest home. Finally they rose, and all three turned to look at me.
Immediately I was seized by the waves in my head, so violent they disrupted all thought and vision. And then I saw it as clearly as if someone had painted a fresco. I too was dressed in rich clothing, but I no longer lived in my father’s house. These men, the very men who had been eating figs and drinking water from our well, led me to a village square where they called upon the residents to come, see Calliope, the slave-girl, the diviner, the seer. For only a few silver coins.
It was as if an earthquake had destroyed the ground on which I walked. My parents were not slaves. My father was a day-laborer who occasionally worked the mines. None of their family had been slaves. I had heard of families who had to sell their children, but I had never imagined I would be one of them. Later I learned that my new owners had given him a denarius for me. A year’s wages in return for being relieved of the burden of caring for and raising a girl. Well, even I could understand why he had relented.
And so I entered a whole new world. They called my strange and frightening gift the Pythian spirit, spirit of the Python. It was the same spirit they said was given to the oracle at Delphi. And now it had enslaved me completely. Oddly, as a slave, I was dressed more beautifully than ever before. I wore robes and veils of rich cloth, finely embroidered. Once I came of age, my hair and face were adorned with jewels and powders and kohl to darken my eyes. I had rings of locally mined gold on every finger. Of course, none of these things belonged to me. I was not the cherished daughter of a rich man. I was an investment. My owners dressed me to impress and attract the crowds whom they hoped to relieve of their silver coins by calling upon my gift.
And they had great success. The day they had taken me away, I had vowed in a silent rage never to allow my gift to enrich these men who had stolen my life. I swore I would not cooperate. But my gift was not my own—I learned that quickly. When I was marched into the center of a circle the waves would come, and as each person stepped forward to hold out the few meager coins they had, I would enter into a world where I could see some vital piece of information they were seeking. I told women whether or not their daughters would marry well, and told men the best date to plant their crops. I told a city official who was stealing from the coffers and a merchant who was stealing from his stall. I told a widow that her dead husband had been poisoned, and turned to the crowd, and pointed to the murderer. I watched as the crowd turned on him and he was led away, screaming. And with each correct act of divination my value grew, and the crowds became more and more willing to spend more and more of their money for my services. Money I never saw, except in the form of ever more beautiful robes, and jewels, and veils. I was a beautifully dressed prisoner.
At night I would lie on a pallet in a cold little room in my masters’ home. I would wish myself dead. I would wish my gift destroyed. I was utterly powerless to do anything to rescue myself from my chains. But night after night, as I fell asleep, one image would rise before me: an image of a real prison, and a real earthquake, and chains falling away, and barred doors swinging open. I think that vision is what kept me alive. That pinprick of light in the darkness gave me strength to face the humiliation of my days.
And then one day I saw them… the three Jews, I thought. I learned later that they were called Paul and Silas and Timothy, and I learned, too, that their religious identities were a little more complicated than my original assessment. They stood out in Philippi, with their beards, and in Paul’s case, his distinctive Pharisee’s robes.
And then the waves came into my head and I reeled from the dizziness. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and the vision that came to me was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I saw a beautiful, brilliant light, but it did not hurt my eyes. And I saw a man falling to the ground before another man who bore the marks of crucifixion, but who somehow lived. The crucified-but-alive man had the most complicated facial expression I’d ever seen, I who had always believed myself deeply intuitive and insightful. His was a face at once stern and loving, sorrowful and ecstatic, humble and triumphant. I found myself crying loudly: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” (Acts 16:17).
I confess I didn’t even know what the words meant. I knew that Jews believed there was only one God, and like most Philippians, I thought that was odd. It seemed absurd and primitive. But my vision—the crucified-and-alive man—made me wonder. Was he also a slave of the Most High God?
Day after day, as my masters would take me to the square, we would see Paul and his companions. And day after day my head would swim, and I would see again the face of the crucified-but-alive man. And I would call out those words I had no control over. When I came back to myself, Paul would be scowling and arguing with my masters, who would laugh as the coins jingled in the pouches they carried. Paul did not frighten them. And at night I saw again the prison and the earthquake and the doors opening… and the crucified-and-alive man was there, too.
Finally, after many days, Paul saw me coming. Well, you know what he did. He whirled around, and he turned upon me, and pointed one long and bony finger at me, and growled, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” (Acts 16:18). There were no ocean waves this time, only pain so extraordinary I fainted. Many hours later, when I awoke, I was in my cold little room, very still under a blanket.
As I lay there I tried very hard to hold onto a dream I’d had. The crucified-and-alive man. Now there was no prison. There was no fallen man, or flash of bright light. There was only that man, and now, he was looking at me.
There are many ways I’d been looked at in my life. I remembered my mother looking at me with tenderness when she’d held me as a small child. I remembered my father looking at me anxiously as my gift had started to reveal itself. I’d been looked at with dread, as a burden to be borne. I’d been looked at with eagerness, as a commodity to be sold. I’d seen fear in the eyes of someone dreading the news I would bring, and gratitude in the eyes of someone who heard what they’d been hoping for. But here, now, for the first time, I felt myself seen whole—every inch of me: body, personality, flaws, assets. The crucified-and-alive man saw it all, and still he looked at me with what I can only describe as love, pure and simple. The crucified-and-alive man saw me, not some thing to be used or sold, and the look in his eyes haunted me and brought me something I had forgotten entirely. It gave me hope.
That night, my owners came and demanded that I present them proof that my gift was still with me. I waited. They waited. For the first time, nothing happened. They began to cajole me, and then to harass me, but nothing happened. They tried arguing with me, and screaming at me, but still… nothing. Then they pushed me, and threatened to have me beaten. I tried to tell them that the gift came and went of its own accord, but they were unaccustomed to what seemed to them a display of stubbornness or shyness. In the end, they had me beaten. As the whip cut through my fine robes and tore my skin, it occurred to me for the first time that my gift might be gone, and gone for good. It occurred to me that the chains that had bound me might, just might, in the gaze of the crucified-and-alive man, be broken.
I had a gift once—a strange kind of gift, one that made me vulnerable to those who wanted to use me for their own purposes. I will tell you a secret. I learned who the crucified-and-alive man was. I learned about Jesus, and the more I knew about him, the more I became convinced that he had removed my gift in its violent, uncontrolled form, and returned it to me in its earlier form, the gift of my childhood. My gift now is the gift of compassion, and, among those of us who are followers of Jesus’ Way, it is greatly valued. Not because I can collect silver coins with it. But because it allows me—it allows us—to see the world, to see other people, through Jesus’ eyes—eyes of love and healing.
I am no longer walked into town squares so that my spirit can be sold. I walk where I choose. I walk the path Jesus has shown me. The church in Philippi, the little community that came into being because of those three men—Paul, Silas, and Timothy—they took up a collection and bought my freedom and took me in. I no longer wear rich robes that are beautifully embroidered. But I am most richly blessed. I am free. Thanks be to God. Amen.