What makes for an influential life? Why do you listen to certain people and not others? What sort of human qualities do you admire? These questions have occupied philosophers and religious people for all of civilization. How we define social power, outside of the brute strength of the sword, depends a great deal on when and where we live. There are a few universals: wealth, birth, physical appearance, sex, and character are the five main determinations of influence. For most societies, who your parents were and how much money or property you inherited delimited your social circle and how you could operate in that circle.
Lydia of Philippi had a rather unique standing in her time and place, as a woman and as a merchant. She was mentioned as being a ‘seller of purple cloth’ in the Book of Acts, who had settled in Philippi. Thyatira, in what is now Turkey, was the center for purple cloth production. Tyrian purple was once known in the Grecco-Roman world as is Belgian chocolate or Swiss watches today. Creating purple dye was a rare and labor intensive process, using thousands of snails, that once crushed and cooked with other chemicals, created an intense color not produced through any other process. It wasn’t until the 1850’s when the first synthetic dye, aniline, was accidentally invented, that the color purple was no longer a status symbol of wealth.
Lydia must have been born or married into the trade, as with many skills, the secrets of making the perfect shade of dye was closely guarded. Being a merchant in luxury trade also granted esteem in the community. Lydia had to know the social intricacies of the wealthy and also the technicalities of what was physically possible in creating the dyed textiles. The merchant was often in the precarious position of saying, “No, we cannot provide what you want, when you want it” or “It was a bad year for snails, so the price will be much higher for wool.”
The Church remembers Lydia and her household as the first converts in Europe. Remarkable also was her being a woman of prestige, who took the risk of believing in the messiah preached and sheltering Paul after his arrest. St. Luke mentions several times in Acts when a convert had status through wealth or birth. One might view this notation as a means of adding legitimacy to the newly formed faith. “Look, so-and-so joined, therefore, we are correct.” Yet, this is not what the early Church thought. Their understanding was, “Look, this woman has taken a great risk. She heard of Christ and his Kingdom, counted the cost, and went ahead!” We all have ‘loss’ in the world for being a Christian. What St. Luke noted and what other hagiographic details take into account, with wealth, beauty, and status, is those in position of them choose to no longer use it as self-indulgent power.
Having made that choice, Lydia, and saints like her, have a second fork in the road. Do I give away my wealth? Do I stay where I live or go elsewhere to spread Gospel? Do I shun married life thus keeping virginity and beauty for Christ? Or do I stay here, keep my trade and my marriage, and build the Church? Lydia chose the latter. She was already known for her devotion to God and to prayer. She knew the influence she possessed and chose to use it for the sake of the Gospel of Christ with the people she knew already. In the epistle written a few years later to the Philippians, St. Paul recognizes the people he met as, “…my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown”. Lydia was a key role model for the believers who joined the Church, being the first to welcome St. Paul and showing hospitality.
Most of us, in varying degrees, are like St. Lydia. We stay in our professions and our towns to use what influence God has given us to love our neighbors. As Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations, “Anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one.” It may not be the great influence of robing governors in purple, but we each have a means to communicate through our goodness and humility to everyone we meet.
Tyrian Purple –
History of Thyatira –
More on Lydia –