... all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose. Acts 16:26
Saint Paul has been thrown in jail in today's readings, but God frees him, in any number of important ways. Interestingly, though, Paul's reaction to this freedom is not to run out of jail, but to stay to care for his jailer. His actions may seem odd for many of us, and maybe that can focus our reflection.
Paul had been beaten, chained and thrown in jail. He had every right to resent his unjust treatment, and would not be blamed for feeling persecuted by his jailer, among others. We see, though, that when God makes Paul's chains fall away and opens the jailhouse doors, Paul stayed in his cell. He makes sure his oppressor is taken care of, and given the chance to be freed himself. Paul's understanding of freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation goes far beyond our own.
Paul seems to understand that physical chains are only a small part of what may bind us. Like St. Ignatius of Loyola, he knows that most people are not just caged by others and their issues, but more frequently, and importantly, by themselves: the chains which bind us most strongly are the ones we put on ourselves. So when Paul finds himself free of the iron chains, he knows that the intellectual or emotional chains of his jailer still need to be unlocked. Paul stays to help this man have the same freedom God had given him. This is what true forgiveness and reconciliation can mean, in deeds, and not just words.
If you go into a modern prison, these days, you will probably find few chains, but you will find inmates who still need freedom. Some may leave those institutions, but find they are really not free; they find themselves still in a self-made cell. Their victims may have forgiven them, but these prisoners have not worked out an understanding of the changes they need to make, and so are unable really to use that forgiveness to build reconciliation, to understand or to achieve real freedom. They have failed to admit their need for forgiveness and are self-sentenced to chains of their own making, which many times can return them to the bars and cells of their physical prison.
As we work our way through this stressful end-of-the-academic-year, let us work on freeing ourselves and others from the prisons of our lives. Let us ask God to help us see the chains with which we have bound ourselves ... to allow us to see where we have limited ourselves with those jailhouse bars of what we do or think. Let us ask God to help us to know that we all need to forgive and be forgiven, and to try to make those changes in ourselves to bring about true reconciliation.
Then we will find that freedom is not just something others give to us, but a reality we must work to achieve in our everyday lives. We will feel the chains of our own limits and limitations fall away and experience the freedom that allows us able to follow the paths which will make us really happy, truly free, forgiven and reconciled.
A. M. D. G.
D. Highberger, S.J.
P. Stark, S.J.