A few years ago, an unusual copy of The Importance of Being Earnest came up for sale at an auction. This particular copy of the play had been inscribed by its author, Oscar Wilde. Wilde was infamously imprisoned from late May of 1895 till late May of 1897 for having committed “gross indecency.” Reflecting on his imprisonment, he wrote:
“While I was in... prison I longed to die. It was my one desire... I determined to commit suicide on the very day on which I left prison. After a time that evil mood passed away, and I made up my mind to live, but to wear gloom as a king wears purple: never to smile again: to turn whatever house I entered into a house of mourning: to make my friends walk slowly in sadness with me: to teach them that melancholy is the true secret of life: to maim them with an alien sorrow: to mar them with my own pain.”*
(Well, he is a playwright, after all: drama is his thing.)
It’s remarkable, considering the depths of despair that his imprisonment caused him, that the copy of the play that was up for sale was inscribed to the man who was effectively his jailer, the Governor of the Reading Gaol, Major James Nelson. Nelson stepped into his post after Wilde had already been remanded to the prison and had encountered its dire isolation. But the new Governor relaxed the rules of Wilde’s incarceration when he took over the prison, and he not only allowed Wilde access to books, he also provided him with pen, ink, and paper so that he could write. Wilde would later refer to Nelson as “the most Christlike man I ever met.”**
The inscription he penned, opposite the title page of the play reads, “To Major Nelson from the author. A trivial recognition of great and noble kindness.” These are not the kinds of words one expects a prisoner to write to his jailer.
Twice in the Acts of the Apostles we encounter jailers - both times in trying circumstances. The first is when St. Peter, “bound with two chains” has been thrown in jail. But an angel comes in the night while Peter is sleeping in between two guards, and the angel looses Peter from his chains and guides him safely out of the prison. Saint Luke tells us that Herod later had the two guards “put to death” because of their failure to keep their prisoner.
So the implications are clear when Paul and Silas are apprehended by the authorities who “threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.”
This time it was not an angel, but an earthquake that shook the very foundations of the prison, and “all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.”
Perhaps knowing what had befallen the last jailers who had failed at keeping Jesus’ disciple under lock and key, the jailer, when he came to, was beside himself. St. Luke tells us that “he drew his sword and was about to kill himself.” But unexpectedly, Paul and Silas had not yet made their escape, and they must have seen what was happening. Paul called out to the jailer, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
And in a moment of remarkable conversion, the jailer immediately brought the apostles outside and asked them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
“Believe on the Lord Jesus,” comes the answer, “and you will be saved.” On the spot, the apostles baptized the jailer and his entire household, who washed the prisoners’ wounds, and set out a meal for them.
In the morning, before any of these events could be accounted for, while they were all sipping coffee together, the magistrates ordered the release of Paul and Silas, making any excuses or further punishment for the jailer beside the point.
“While I was in prison, I longed to die.” The experience of Oscar Wilde, was, in a sense, the mirror image of what happened to Paul and Silas. For Wilde, it was his jailer whose kindness showed him the image of Christ, who is himself the image of love, and the way of salvation. All those centuries ago, it was the other way around, when the prisoners themselves - whose crime was their faith in Jesus - called out to prevent the awful suicide the jailer was about to commit. “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!”
Do not harm yourself, for we are all here! ... and the sword rattles to the floor as the jailer heaves a sigh of relief that things are not as bad as he thought they were, and there must be some hope in the world after all.
And here, what should I say? Should I name the twelve people who were killed on Friday in Virginia Beach in the latest episode of American gunfire?
Should I reflect, at the outset of Pride month, on the cognitive dissonance that many who call themselves Christians would count as “gross indecency” the lives of men and women who have kept this parish alive and faithful for many decades?
Should I pause to recall that we still have troops in Afghanistan, eighteen years into this endless war?
Should I bring to mind the ongoing crises of addiction all around us: whether it’s opioids, or heroin, or meth, or booze?
Should I comment on the weather? Repeat again the poverty rate in our city? Ruminate on the mass incarceration that we now take for granted in this country? Should I even ask about the water in Flint?
If you want reasons for despair, I think I could prepare an illustrated catalog.
From his cell, in his despair, Oscar Wilde wrote of how hard it was for him to hope in anything, let alone to hope in Christ.
“I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who CANNOT believe:” he wrote, “the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine.”
It sometimes feels to me as if we live in a world that is ready for just such a religion. In fact, I sometimes suspect that many of my friends and neighbors would vastly prefer such an empty religion - that requires nothing, and claims nothing, and promises nothing - to the kind of religion we practice in this church.
Toward the middle of the long letter Wilde wrote from Reading Gaol, he says this, “Christ, like all fascinating personalities, had the power of not merely saying beautiful things himself, but of making other people say beautiful things to him.” Wilde wasn’t thinking of the jailer who was about to take his own life, and whose encounter (on the face of it, at least) wasn’t with Jesus, but with his apostles, Silas and Paul. But I think the assertion holds, since I think there is a distinct beauty in the exchange that interrupts the jailer’s awful intent to take his own life.
“Do not harm yourself, for we are all here,” comes the cry from Paul. And doesn’t it count as an example of Christ making others say beautiful things to him, when the jailer drops the instrument of his own suicide, and responds, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” This is a moment of blissful relief, when the man, who could see only despair, only doom, only darkness in his future, only disappointment, judgment, and death, and whose self-assessment was so clear and so dismal, whose catalog of misery was so richly illustrated that he was about to take his own life, but is interrupted, and finds himself able to ask, “what must I do to be saved?”
He cannot have thought that the answer would be easy or short. And both Paul and Silas could have been forgiven for needing to stop for a moment and think through this complicated pastoral situation. Surely, they would have suggested a course of therapy to begin with. And yet, unexpectedly, they, too, have something beautiful, concise, and easy to say. “Believe on the Lord Jesus,” they tell their jailer, “and you will be saved!”
Earlier in his letter, Oscar Wilde wrote that “where there is sorrow there is holy ground.” If he was right, then I suppose in some ways we are walking over ever-holier ground in this nation, and across the world. I could illustrate my catalog of sorrow; you could illustrate yours. And whenever we ran out of ideas, the New York Times would fill them in for us. And yet, surprisingly, Christ still has the power of not merely saying beautiful things himself, but of making other people say beautiful things to him. And this is why we have been called together this morning. Because each and every one of us has been walking our own holy ground, marked, inevitably, by sorrow.
But Christ has something beautiful to say to each and every one of us. To some, his words may be as clear and direct as this, “Do not harm yourself! For we are all here!” Oh, how I hope that those who need to hear such a cry will hear it from someone’s lips. And if they have no one else to cry out to them, I hope they will hear it from mine. Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!
And when I hear the words, I realize that I do not know whether or not they are beautiful words that Jesus is saying to us, or whether they amount to the beautiful words he is making us say to him, if we are saying them to one whose sword is already drawn. And it hardly matters. I hope and pray that as we tread the holy ground of sorrow together in this life, we will find ourselves similarly unsure about whether Christ is speaking to us, or we are speaking to him. I hope and pray that we will be so guided by his spirit that it will not matter.
I hope that we will never stop asking one another, “what must I do to be saved?” And that, maybe unexpectedly, we will have something beautiful, concise, and easy to say in reply to one another: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved!”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
2 June 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
**Oscar Wilde, De profundis, 1897, first published in English in 1905
** Richard Ellman in Oscar Wilde, Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 1988, p 476