Our parish staff and council enjoyed a day of recollection/retreat time this past Saturday. Our presenter was asked to give us a presentation on Saint Paul, in part to observe the year declared by Pope Benedict. We spent a good amount of time in the morning session with the whole text of Paul’s letter to Philemon.
We were asked to go off in quiet, taking the text of the letter, and looking for what struck us. Even though Philemon is a short biblical “book,” the whole passage is a bit long for my practice of Lectio Divina. Fortunately, I was drawn to the use of the word “heart.” And our post-quiet small group spoke a bit of it as we shared responses on the given questions.
Paul mentions “heart” in verses 7, 12, and 20:
For I have experienced much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the holy ones have been refreshed by you, brother.
I am sending (Onesimus), that is, my own heart, back to you.
Yes, brother, may I profit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
There’s a symmetry as Paul attempts to persuade his friend to accept his runaway slave as a free man and as a Christian brother. Paul is not above a dose of sweet-talking, it seems. We trust the apostle is honest in his assessment of Philemon as a leader of a house church. He seems to be a man who ministers to and refreshes others. And he does so profoundly, it seems.
More than that, this image of a heart refreshed: I was thinking less of the affective side of the friendship, and more to the notion carried that refreshment of the heart carries deep into a person. Philemon has the ability, in Paul’s judgment, to go deep into a person and refresh from the inside out.
In verse 12, Paul speaks of Onesimus as being his “own heart.” How can Philemon resist the depth and intimacy of Paul’s appeal? That we have this letter suggests that the early Christians of Philemon’s community saw it and revered it. If Philemon, in anger, withheld or destroyed the letter, we would have lost this episode with its very significant message.
For further study, I commend volume ten of the Sacra Pagina series which covers Paul’s “Φ” letters (Philippians and Philemon). Nice insights there that I’ve used to refine the text and presentation of my opera Saint Paul.