In my women’s Bible study at church, we’ve been studying Philippians and so I’ve been thinking about Paul. At the time he was writing the letter to the Philippians, he was in jail, something particularly difficult for a man of action. Earlier in his life, for better or for worse, he was proactive and always on the move, whether he was persecuting Christians prior to his conversion or roaming throughout the Middle East and beyond, preaching, planting churches, making tents.
Most people, if forced to give up this busy, involved life by being tossed into prison, would consider their lives over, their mission a failure, but Paul did not. He simply regrouped and continued his activity in a new form: the palace guard was his new mission field; instead of visiting churches, he wrote to them, in spite of what appears to be his encroaching blindness.
At the time Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians in around 61-62 AD, he was, by Biblical scholars’ best guesses, in his mid fifties or sixties, though he refers to himself as “aged”: beatings, jail stints, shipwrecks, snake bites, and standing trial evidently take their toll. Four years later, he was dead.
My mother is eighty-eight, having far outlived Paul by any account. She is imprisoned by her own body, her mobility severely limited by scoliosis, arthritis, and osteoporosis. In her younger years, she hoed gardens, scythed weeds, sewed wardrobes for her three daughters, cooked and baked for hundreds in her job at the school cafeteria and in her sometimes-summer-job at church camp, hauled wagon loads of grandchildren across a bumpy lawn.
Now she can do none of those things, her body so twisted by scoliosis that she cannot even stand erect. Dependent now on her walker, she taps unsteadily from room to room; trips outside her home usually exhaust her. But inside this prison, she is largely free. Her mind remains sharp and lucid, and even her senses of sight and hearing are remarkably intact.
In a culture that privileges mobility, autonomy, and youth, people like my mother are devalued. Yet I see in her a glimmer of Paul. While in “house arrest,” she also writes notes and sends cards to her children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren, rarely missing a birthday or anniversary. She calls–even occasionally texts!– her friends and family, trying to encourage, to demonstrate care, to maintain a thread of connection with an expanding family that spools further and further from the home she herself has rarely ventured far from.
What I value most about her continued existence, though, is her quiet but persistent spiritual core that through the years has churned out countless prayers on our behalf. Her public prayers are quavering, choked with emotion, explained at least as much by her social awkwardness as by her sincerity. But I imagine her private prayers as fluid and fervent, sometimes wordless because grief has no language, at other times a lyrical line of private poetry, streams of praise.
It is a quiet mercy that often long after the body cripples and deteriorates, the soul retains its spirit, floats aloft, unconfined and forever young. This is the true person, the measure of worth, not the poor vessel that crumbles and erodes. In Paul, soul enlarged with age until it was all that remained, really; what happened to his body was of no concern to him. In Mom, soul is an undying point of light, something stable and real. It animates her prayers and keeps her alive in the only sense that matters. I cling to that, as she does.