Lydia was a devout woman, a believer in God in Philippi, a pagan city. She went down to the river that day to join the other women in prayer.
Then these men arrived – Paul and Silas and Timothy. They spoke passionately of a man named Jesus who they called the Son of God, the messiah promised in the holy writings of some people who lived in a remote country.
This Jesus was a wonderful preacher, but he rubbed the authorities the wrong way. They accused him of the vilest form of blasphemy and arranged for the Romans to have Jesus put to death.
But wonder of wonders, Jesus rose from the dead. He truly was the messiah and his kingdom was now alive in our midst. It was a kingdom in which all forms of discrimination had been stripped away. There was peace among the people. Not a peace imposed by military rule, but a peace that rose up from God's spirit planted in humanity.
Lydia believed and was baptized.
She was not only taken with this Gospel, she was also taken by Paul, the man in his early forties who proclaimed it most boldly. And Paul was taken with her. Lydia, a wealthy widow, invited the three men to stay in her home as they preached in Philippi.
From there, with the help of Lydia and her family and servants, they proclaimed the good news and drew many people to the Lord.
It was a glorious few weeks of new discovery, of new life. The friendship between Paul and Lydia grew and deepened. They were soulmates, inflamed by the same vision. They spent long hours talking about the kingdom of God and the beauty of life in Christ, both now and after the final resurrection.
Eventually, they began to speak about marriage and how together they would go forth preaching God's kingdom.
But soon Paul came to realize that was all wrong. Marriage carries with it responsibilities. It leads to a divided heart. A married man may still be able to proclaim the Gospel, but he must also devote himself to his wife. His mission was to spread the Gospel to the nations, not to get married. Lydia would always be his soulmate; she could never be his wife.
Then something happened to underline Paul's conclusion. A pesky slave girl had been following Paul and his companions around town shouting, "Here are the servants of the Most High God; they have come to tell you how to be saved." The girl was a soothsayer who made a lot of money for her owners by telling people's fortunes.
Paul lost his temper one day and turned to the girl and ordered the demon in her to leave. Well, that not only halted her obnoxious behaviour, it destroyed her ability to tell people's fortunes and make money. Her owners were infuriated and had Paul and Silas dragged into court. The judges ordered them to be flogged and thrown into jail.
The next day, the judges set out to release Paul and his friends. But word had gotten out that Paul was a Roman citizen. When the judges realized that they had had a Roman citizen flogged and imprisoned without a trial, they were afraid for their own skins. They ordered the trio to leave town.
After a tearful farewell at Lydia's home, they went on their way.
Paul never forgot Lydia, nor she him. Occasionally, they exchanged letters and sometimes Lydia arranged for the growing local Christian community to send money to Paul. The Philippians were the only community from whom Paul would accept such support. He knew that they knew his motives were pure and that he wasn't an itinerant preacher trying to make a quick buck.
Years later, Paul was in prison again and he was reminded of his earlier incarceration in Philippi. The memory lifted his spirits and he thought that if he could get out of this jam, he might return to Philippi. He wrote a joy-filled letter to the Philippians, still his favourite church.
The pain he was experiencing in prison was not unlike the pain he experienced in having to restrain his fondness for Lydia. But that pain helped him to share in the pain of Jesus who emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave. In accepting death on a cross, Jesus was glorified by God.
Nothing, he said, can ever replace the supreme joy that comes from knowing Jesus, the messiah and king. Nothing.
Paul does not say so, but everyone who reads the letter knows it – it was from renouncing the potential for marriage to Lydia that Paul was led to the deeper joy that comes from faith in Jesus.
The story about an unconsummated bond between Paul and Lydia is a fabrication. There is no solid basis for saying this took place. But Paul was a passionate man who formed many deep friendships with his co-workers. It is not far-fetched to believe that some time during his journeys he formed a strong emotional attachment to one of the women he led to Jesus.
Imagining that Lydia was that woman helped me to see more clearly the poignance and the joy and the passion of his letter to the Philippians that we are reading during daily Mass from Oct. 31 to Nov. 8.
What really matters is not the relationship between Paul and Lydia, but rather that we see the letter to the Philippians as a powerful statement about how the Gospel can take root in our lives, especially in the midst of suffering. What is important is that we see that suffering is naught compared with the joy to be found in a life patterned on that of Jesus Christ.