I had an unexpected trip to Toronto this week (typing this to the unfamiliar sounds of traffic and smells of the streets), so my life is a bit in disarray. So rather than try to write something myself, the blog today will be this beautiful reflection by Catherine on the mercy of God. The saint Mary of Egypt she refers to here may not be familiar to everyone: she is a truly great saint, a prostitute who had a miraculous conversion of heart and became a heroic ascetic in the desert of Egypt.
Forgive the out-of-season references to Lent--the simple truth is, the best writings by Catherine on God's mercy date from that season of the year. Anyhow, here is Catherine to tell us about her and some of her spiritual sisters, and the workings of God’s mercy in their lives:
Today we are preparing our hearts for the 5th Sunday of Lent when in the Eastern rite is commemorated the venerable Mary of Egypt, who is a model of repentance. She was a hermit, a poustinik, who lived in the desert at the time when the Fathers of the Desert also lived there. This is what is said about her in an Eastern rite liturgy:
Christ, the power of your cross has worked wonders for Mary of Egypt. She had been a harlot and has become an example, an ideal, of the ascetic life.…Now a saint in heaven, she…intercedes for our souls.
What is the significance of this hermit in the desert? Do we appreciate that this woman led a tremendously ascetic life? She cast off the weakness of nature and fought Satan and all temptations.
Now why should a woman do that sort of thing? Usually men and women do those things because they love. Let us transpose it into Harlem in New York, in our day and age.
We had at our clothing distribution center in Harlem a prostitute, Clara, who came to us every morning after her night's work. There were usually about 200 people in line, but she always wanted to be permitted to go to the head of the line because, as she said, she had had a sleepless night.
Eventually she would get into the clothing room. Every day she selected another dress that was supposed to get her better customers, and every day she cursed us and everybody in sight. She taught me from afar how to swear! Our staff workers gave her coffee, day after day, because she was yelling and cursing so much that her throat was sore.
One day she came and asked, “Why do you give me coffee and treat me well?” That was on a Saturday when we didn't have a line of people waiting. The staff worker told her that she loved her! Before much time elapsed, Clara of Harlem, like Mary of Egypt, became a Catholic, went to the sacrament of confession, received the Body of Christ in communion and changed her life.
Don't think that the deserts of Harlem make it easy for a prostitute to change her life, when just walking down the street she meets the man she slept with three months ago. It means being ridiculed, taunted, haunted, and “stoned” by the words of people! But somehow Clara also brought 17 other prostitutes into the Church. So Mary of Egypt and Clara of Harlem were sisters–under–the–skin, in a beautiful juxtaposition of things.
A college girl came here about two years ago and walked up to me and said, “Catherine, I hear that you are unshockable.” I took a deep breath—I always do when people tell me that, for obviously they mean to tell me something shocking—and said a little prayer to the Holy Spirit and replied, “I am here listening.” She said, “Well, I slept with 48 men during the fall and spring semesters.” I said, “So?” with a poker face—where I got it from I don't know, and asked, “Did you enjoy it?” She replied, “Hell, no! It was horrible!” I asked, “Why did you do it?” “Oh,” she said, “just for status.” Good Lord! I said in my heart, status! “Well,” she said, “everybody in the university slept with somebody.”
This was in the mid '60s when everybody was sleeping with everybody else. Now the sub–culture is changing a little. Some people don't sleep with other people until they get married! Things change. But in those days it was status. I asked her, “Would you like to get married?” She replied, “In my life I will never get married! I have had enough.” I asked, “What are you going to do?” She said, “Atone!”
Mary of Egypt. Clara of Harlem. The silly little girl who doesn't know any better. All are inspired by the Holy Spirit to do the same thing. So this little liturgical prayer that we just read, although it may sound out–dated now, is right on target. It is beautiful.
On the fifth Sunday of Lent the Eastern Church celebrates the forgiveness of God. The women in those three examples had one thing in common: they believed in the mercy of God. They threw themselves at his feet and asked for forgiveness. They forgave others as God had forgiven them. Clara certainly did.
Our sins that are past, why even remember them? God has forgotten them. Why is it that we want to remember them? A forgiven sin does not exist in the mind of God. God is not a stingy forgiver who remembers our sins for the rest of our life. The mercy of God is infinite!
When it comes to Mary Magdalene, I am almost wordless. When I became a Secular Franciscan I took that dame for my patroness, and took her name as mine, because I thought that she was a pretty smart cookie. For she washed Christ's feet, and she stood by his cross. When almost everybody else left, she remained standing there. But mostly I remember that he said about her: “Her sins are forgiven because she loved much.” Isn't that a neat little sentence to absorb? (See Lk 7:36–47.)
How much do I love? How often in my life does the pronoun “I” disappear, replaced by the words: they, we, he, or she? In this we have a very simple yardstick of love. Let's say a thought comes into your mind: “I want to do this.” If it is something God would like you to do, go ahead and do it. But if not, erase it and keep on erasing it! The word “I” will disappear, and someday perhaps we will fall flat and kiss the feet of somebody else.
We, of course, probably have more reason to weep at the feet of our neighbors! That's why the Church talks about Mary of Egypt who was a harlot but has now become an example of ascetic life.
Let's think about forgiveness and about throwing ourselves on the mercy of God. Notice in the Byzantine liturgy how often we say: “Lord, have mercy!” One of the accents of the Eastern rite is an immovable faith in the mercy of God. We know he loves us, no matter what we do. We know that he loves us, not because we are good, but because he is good. Isn't that exciting!
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Season of Mercy