Acts 16:16 – 19
Once we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally, Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her.” At that moment the spirit left her.
When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hopes of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities.
We see three pairs of subjects in this fresco: Paul and Silas walking up steps of the place of prayer; the slave girl with a human-headed serpent coiling around her; and her owners on another set of stairs of the building.
Silas glances over his shoulder at this woman who has been following them for some days. His expression is somewhat distant and annoyed. Paul turns and commands the spirit to leave her. They seem as calm as statues.
In contrast, the slave girl whirls with frantic energy. Is this her fortune-telling affect? Is it her astonishment when the spirit leaves her? The spirit, though not physically described in the text, is depicted as a serpent, much like those in paintings of the temptation of Adam and Eve. In many Medieval images of the serpent tempting Eve, the snake has a human head. This also projects the spirit being able to literally whisper in the ear of the slave girl.
This reminds me of a recent visit to a metaphysical bookstore, at which one of the employers directed me to the channeling shelves to seek a book on the Golden Legend of the Virgin Mary. I was merely an academic in search of a text. While I skimmed the book titles, another shopper spoke enthusiastically about her channeling experiences. I think this slave girl was the other patron who had different interest and experience with channeling than I. Ah, what fun life can be when we step out of our comfort zone. (BTW, she handed me a book on channeling for Mary Magdalene, but was confounded when I pointed out that this was not Jesus’s mother. What? More than one Mary in the Bible? Must have had poor reception on her channeling radar…)
Back to the fresco, the owners of the woman add a different energy to the painting. Their activity level is between Paul and Silas’ staid position and the slave girl’s frenzy. The woman gestures down at the slave girl, while them man gasps and makes a fist. This foretells of the next mob activity mentioned in verse 19.
A final thought on the role of prophecy in Biblical times though the eras before the 18th century Enlightenment, and compared to today. The link between our material world and the spirit world was much more accepted prior to our understanding of scientific observation, or what used to be called “natural philosophy”. In my opinion, what we called mental illness (psychosis to manic episodes to personality disorders) today, they saw as people with strong connections to the immaterial world. Fortune-tellers to monastic hermits were their understanding. We would court-commit John the Baptist (unable to care for himself, wearing the hair shirts), Jesus and the Apostles (danger to others) to mental hospitals for medication management, then set them up with the local community mental health system.
In my 25+ years of proving therapy to patients during hospital and out-patient behavioral health programs (i.e. our current terminology for mental health), I have talked with plenty of Jesuses and Satans (I actually introduced one to the other one day, to their confounding both) and all levels of saints and shamans. While some have frankly distorted premises and therefore conclusions about life, many of those patients have spoken profoundly about their experiences and questions about their experiences. I have listened at length (as well as letting a shaman do a healing on me before he trusted to tell me anything). What most impressed me is how spot-on many of them are, once we getting beyond labeling them this-or-that diagnosis. If we tolerate their energy level, do not get into right-or-wrong thinking, and attend to their emotional expression, they often have a truth to share.
This is what I envision this slave girl to be like. Yes, we might dismiss her as psycho, or a great performer to get paid for fortune-telling. We might dismiss her as annoying. Yet, there is a difference between the 18th century fresco depiction and what we usually see today. The artist portrays her as beautiful, sharply dresses, and vibrant. What we usually see today is a person who has been living rough on the street or low-income housing with poor nutrition, a disheveled and dirty body, and rambling out-bursts. Certainly, psychiatric medications and community programs are a benefit in society. But, have we deprived these people and ourselves of a connection to things unseen by our conceptualization of the spirit world and mental illness?
I shall try to continue listening, without judgment.