In the first reading for Tuesday’s daily mass there is a remarkable description of an event in the life of Paul and Silas. And, even more remarkable than the event itself is their reaction to it. Let’s pick up the story as told in Acts:
The crowd in Philippi joined in the attack on Paul and Silas, and the magistrates had them stripped and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After inflicting many blows on them, they threw them into prison and instructed the jailer to guard them securely. When he received these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and secured their feet to a stake. (Acts 16:22-25)
It is so easy for us to read passages like this and miss the severity of what happened. The two are beaten with rods. Such beatings might vary in some degree, but the overall severity of the passage (e.g. having them cast into the deepest part of the prison and the jailer later having to bathe their wounds) leads to a reasonable conclusion that the beating was also severe. Such beatings lead to deep bruises and contusions, both external and internal bleeding, and often included broken ribs and possible trauma to the kidneys and other internal organs.
After this severe beating, and likely bloody and in severe pain they are ordered bound by leg shackles and cast in the deepest and darkest part of the prison. In this inner part was deep darkness, rats, snakes, mice, vermin. There was likely also dank water, along with urine and feces.
No matter how we look at it, the external dimensions of both the prison and their pain are grave. It would be enough to have the average person in despair, self pity and perhaps, even a semi-conscious state.
Yet what do we find?
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:26)
Yes! despite an awful beating, severe pain, and terrible conditions, they are singing and praising God. It is loud enough that the other prisoners in other parts of the prison hear them.
And here is a remarkable teaching: happiness is an inside job. Paul and Silas, despite every outside discomfort, and the worst physical pain of bleeding contusions and broken or bruised ribs, have a joy that cannot be taken away. They have a connection to God that cannot be severed.
It is too often the case today that we strive to root our happiness in external matters such as money, esteem, creature comforts and the like. And yet, it remains true that many who have these things in abundance are still unhappy, and, also, that many who lack these things in abundance are happy.
There is something deeper about happiness than mere comfort, riches or externalities. I remember some years ago talking with the personnel director of the diocese about an impending transfer. I told him of my fear that they might send me somewhere where I would not be happy. He told me, “Charles, you have been in four assignments now and have been happy at every one. The fact is, you’re going to be happy wherever you go, because that’s the way you are. Happiness is an inside job.”
I have come to discover he was right, and I’ve never been unhappy wherever they sent me. There’s a joy I have that the world didn’t give to me and the world cannot take away.
Sure, there are moments of sorrow and tension in every life. But deeper down there is a stable serenity that the Lord has given me for which I am exceptionally grateful. And I have come to discover that deep inner place of peace, of joy, and contentment, and I have further discovered it is largely unaffected by external realities.
There is a Greek word: μακάριοι (makarioi) which describes a kind of stable happiness or blessed state. The pagan Greeks used the verb to refer to the happiness of the gods, unaffected by worldly matters. Jesus takes up this verb in the beatitudes: Blessed (μακάριοι – happy) are the poor in spirit, the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. In other words, “Stably blessed and happy are those who have their treasure in heaven, rather than this passing and unstable world.”
Here then is a gift to be sought: the gift of an inner and stable happiness, the gift to be like Paul and Silas, to bless the Lord at all times, what ever the circumstances. This of course is the “normal Christian life.” As Scripture says,
I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth. (Psalm 34:1)
And Paul himself says,
Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18).
And again he said, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Phil 4:4).
Yes the normal Christian life is to be one of joy, a joy largely unaffected by external events, and accessible even in moments of sorrow where a consolation, difficult to describe is always at work.
Two final things to note of this passage about Paul and Silas, is how their joy and confident disposition affect others. There is an old saying “When I get better, others get better too.” In other words, we have important effects on others around us.
The first thing is to note its liberating power. For the text says, there was suddenly such a severe earthquake
that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose (Acts 16:27). It is the role of the Christian to exude a joy and a confidence that liberates others from the prison cells of despair, sin and depression. Do people see you as a person of hope? Does your joy liberate and give confidence?
Secondly note the love that is manifest by Paul and Silas, and how that love moves the jailer to repentance and conversion. The text tells us: When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, Do no harm to yourself; we are all here. Now consider that the jailer may well have been one of the men who beat them with rods. And, at a human level, the average person might rejoice to see the jailer try and kill himself. But Paul, not wanting him to lose his life, calls out and, even at possibly being re-imprisoned, seeks to save him. So moved is the jailer by this love and faith, that he seeks immediate conversion. How has your love and reverence for life won the hearts of others?
Yes, happiness is an inside job. Here is a gift to be sought from God: an inner transformation and peace that is stable and largely unaffected by external things. What a gift this is to us, and to others around us. For, when I get better, others get better too.