Monday, May 26, 2014

The Women Who Loved St Paul

Not exactly Philippi, but there is a woman
in this crowd listening to Paul preach.
Today's first reading introduces one of those remarkable women who gives the lie to that pernicious and pestilential truism, "St Paul was a woman-hater."

An entrepreneur and head of her household, Lydia would have been a most unlikely convert if Paul had, in fact, been unappreciative of women. For one thing, Paul would not have bothered pausing to pray and share the Gospel with the group of women he found praying along the water's edge outside of Philippi. He would have kept tromping along, looking for a more likely group of converts. Instead, what we see in today's story, and even more in the follow-up in Paul's letter to the Philippians, is Paul's presumption that women are key partners in the work of the Gospel.

Lydia reminds me a lot of Prisca. Contrary to the conventions of the time, whenever Paul names this Jewish woman and her husband (which is a lot), Prisca comes first. While some interpreters would like to read a lot into this detail, one thing it does suggest is that Prisca had a sort of pride of place in Paul's mind that came out when he dictated his letters.

Add to these two biblical examples of women who were close to Paul (Prisca and Aquila, her husband, are credited with "risking their necks" for him) the most popular woman saint in the ancient Church after the Blessed Virgin Mary: St. Thecla. While the only narrative we have about this virgin martyr is a highly embellished novel ("The Acts of Paul and Thecla"), there is a preponderance of evidence of the saint's popularity to support at least the fact of her existence and some memory of the marvelous about her. Thecla's shrine was one of the biggest in the ancient world, and until her tomb was destroyed in the current conflict in Syria, it was a revered relic. Last year when the world was horrified by the abduction of a group of nuns from their Syrian convent, it was from the convent of St Thecla that they had been kidnapped. (The sisters were set free in March.) Thecla is considered, in the devotional tradition at least, Paul's principle female convert and in her own way "equal to the Apostles."

But wait, there's more! A popular story has Paul restoring a blind woman's sight minutes after his martyrdom when he (ascending to Heaven) tossed back to her the kerchief she had let him use as a blindfold. And then Paul was buried in property that belonged to a Roman woman.

Have I belabored the point a bit? Perhaps. But now you know that this Daughter of St Paul has something to say to the next person who calls Paul a misogynist, because, yes, I am one of those Women Who Love St Paul.

No comments: