After teaching classes in prison for a while—classes about faith, about the bible, about theology—I asked the people who enrolled in my class what they wanted to learn about. Writing, they said. They wanted to figure out how to write better, because that’s what they did with their time, in those night hours, their sleepless nights, thinking about loved ones, about friends—they would write for themselves in a journal, and they would write letters, trying to write their way out of their loneliness, to reach for a human connection, to search for their person in their memories, in the writing. They wrote to remember their love, their affection, their home.
They would give me drafts of love letters to a girlfriend or birthday wishes to a child or poems to win back a lover. And I would help them with their verbs, with their grammar, with their metaphors, with sentence structure. But most of the time I didn’t change a word, I couldn’t change a thing, because the pages they shared with me were filled with heartache—a broken bit a grammar breaking open a world of longing, syntax in shambles bearing witness to souls stretching beyond their confinement, writing as breaking free from prison, words on fire, burning the page with love.
That’s how Paul writes, here in this letter that we call Philippians—a letter he wrote to his friends in the city of Philippi. He wrote it while in prison somewhere in the Roman Empire. These words were penned in a cell, Paul writing while separated from his friends and community. “Hold me in your heart,” he says in the passage we just heard, in verse seven; “Hold me in your heart [while I’m] in my imprisonment.” And he ends the letter by asking his friends not to forget him while he sits in a cage. “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains” (4:18).
In general I think Paul is at his best at the beginning and end of his letters. Because that’s where he gushes about his friends—about his love for them. He goes on and on about his affection, his ache to be with his community again. This is especially the case in the letters he writes from prison, like this one, the letter to his people in Philippi. It’s like reading one those letters from the people in my prison class—a love letter.[i]
“For God is my witness, how I long for all of you” (1:8). God knows his longing, Paul says, because God is there with him in his cell, watching him pray, listening to his prayers—Paul can’t stop praying for them, which means he can’t stop thinking about them. “I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you” (1:3-4).
“I remember you,” he says (1:3). He’s alone, his body shackled, his life in chains—so all he has, in terms of his friends, is the reach of his memory, his prayers as a ritual of remembering, of drawing him beyond himself, reaching towards Philippi.
“I remember you.” I don’t like the English word here—to remember. I don’t like the whole concept of memory in English. The word has everything to do with the mind, with memor and mens, in Latin. In English the focus of remembering has everything to do with how an event passes through the mind, how we recall a person into our heads. I think the Spanish translation is better for us here—the Spanish offers a better sense of the word, of what happens to us when we remember, of what happens to our bodies, how feelings inspire memories. In Spanish the word is “recordar,” yo recuerdo—a word that has everything to do with the heart. Recordar has to do with the cordis, in Latin; the corazon, in Spanish—the heart, remembering as the work of the heart, memories as the thoughts of the heart: the images of faces, of events, of feelings, of people, that flash through the center of each of us, jabbing our stomachs, poking through our ribs, prodding our chests. That’s what a memory does as it moves through our whole bodies.[ii]
And that’s what Paul feels, in his cell, caged away from his friends in Philippi as he prays, as he remembers, as his heart yearns for his community, his whole body feeling their absence from him. Verse seven says it all: “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart.”
I usually don’t like to complain about Bible translation details because I don’t want to make people feel like they can’t understand the Bibles that they have. I don’t want to give you the impression that you can’t understand your translation of the Bible, your own Bible. But there are a few subtleties going on in this passage—in the details of Paul’s grammar and word choice—that seem important. So consider this a rare occasion, and I apologize if this gets boring. At least no one should accuse us of not paying attention to the words of the Bible, even the minutia.
First thing to talk about in that verse I just read, verse seven: the verb that gets translated as “to think” in English: “It is right for me to think this way about you.” To think about you. The Greek word that Paul scribbles into his letter there in his prison cell is “phroneo.” It would be better to translate it as “to feel.” Some translations do that, actually—the Revised Standard Version, for example. “It is right for me to feel this way about you.” To feel and to think are the same in Greek—the same word, referring to a body part: phren, in Greek, which means the midriff, the diaphragm, parts of the heart. Paul is talking about the stuff that goes on somewhere in here, all the thinking and feeling and sensing that happens at our core, in the center of who we are. “It is right for all of these feelings and thoughts to bumble up inside of me, when I pray for you.”
Remember that this is a letter Paul writes from a prison cell, a lonely place, as he yearns for his friends, as he tries to reach for them with his words. You can get a sense for the fervor of his writing here because the grammar gets messed up, there’s a confusion of which verb goes with which noun. It’s fevered writing, just like those letters I got to read from the prisoners in my class—their love letters, the desperation packed into sentence fragments, words yearning for someone beyond the prison walls, phrases reaching for people beyond barbed wires, prayers longing for a hand, a hug, a return to a beloved friend.
Some of your Bibles might give you a glimpse of all of this—all the love and devotion and desperation flowing through these verses. There’s a note in some translations for verse seven, where Paul writes, “You hold me in your heart.” It could also be translated as, “I hold you in my heart.” It’s hard to know who is the subject, who is doing the holding and who is being held. “You hold me,” or “I hold you.”
There’s something true about that confusion, about the emotion in these phrases—about how Paul is reaching out to be held. Here he is, writing his prayers, trying to remember his friends, remembering their fellowship, their communion, their love for him and his love for them, that they belong together. “I hold you in my heart,” or “You hold me in your heart”—both are true in the remembering, as Paul is being reunited, his heart bound to theirs, and theirs bound to him. He is being remembered, re-attached, hearts brought together.
At least that’s the desperate hope we read pulsing through these verse—his hope that they have not forgotten him, because he can’t stop thinking about them. My favorite modern spiritual writer, Sebastian Moore, once said that “loneliness is being haunted by the other.”[iii] That’s Paul, in his cell—he can’t stop thinking about his beloved friends in Philippi.
And that’s what prayer means. That’s what prayer is about—it’s a devotion to the one you love, prayer as an act of devotion for one another, a remembering of the heart. Paul calls it the “affection of Christ” (1:8)—his prayer, his letter is filled with this affection.
And that’s the good news—that’s at the center of Paul’s letter, a trust in God’s love—that God is this love, this love that doesn’t forget, that can’t forget us, because our lives are held in God’s life, our heart holding the other.
This is what Paul knows: that his love flows from God’s, and his love returns back to God, because he and his friends are part of God’s body.
“For God is my witness,” Paul writes. God’s love bears witness to his love. And that’s the gospel, for us, written from Paul’s jail cell—a mystical gospel, we might call it, where God reaches people with love no matter where they are, God reaching us, defying all barriers, united us in love beyond all separations.
[i] Also see 2 Corinthians 2:3-4.
[ii] Rafael F. Narvaez, “Embodiment, Collective Memory, and Time,” Body & Society, vol. 12, no. 3: 51-73. “Take the word remember. It comes from the Latin re (to pass back through) and memor (mindful, mind): remember means passing a segment of time back through the mind. Logical as this seems, it is not however, the only alternative. In Spanish, Recordar (re-cordis) means passing a segment of time back through the heart” (51).
[iii] Sebastian Moore, The Inner Loneliness (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 69. “independence means wanting nothing to do with the other, while loneliness is haunted by the other. And of course the God who ‘haunts’ me easily becomes the punishing, control-God of the patriarchal age”