This morning, I was reviewing the ancient story of Mary the Prostitute and how she was reconciled to God through the ministry of a gracious, wise old Abba. Here was one piece of counsel he offered to her:
“Be not mistrustful, daughter, of the mercy of God; let thy sin be as mountains, His mercy towers above His every creature. We read that an unclean woman came to Him that was clean, and she did not soil Him, but was herself made clean by Him: she washed the Lord’s feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair. If a spark can set on fire the sea, then can thy sins stain His whiteness: it is no new thing to fall in the mire, but it is an evil thing to lie there fallen. Bravely return again to that place from whence thou camest: the Enemy mocked thee falling, but he shall know thee stronger in thy rising.” (Helen Waddell [trans]. The Desert Fathers. New York: Vintage Books, 1998, p. 206-07.)
I am struck by the grace and mercy in this desert father’s counsel. No matter how dirty I’ve become, coming into the presence of the Holy One does not soil him but cleanses me. My mountain of sin is dwarfed by His measureless mercy. If I am tempted to make much of my sense of transgression, I can make more of His grace. I musn’t make an idol of my failure, but instead worship at the altar of God’s immense commitment to and affection for me.
The old man essentially says, “If a spark can set the sea on fire, that will be the day that your sins will pollute His purity.” If I drop a match into the ocean in Laguna Beach, there will not be breaking news bulletins about the fiery cataclysm of the world’s oceans. There will be the simple sound of a tiny flame being extinguished. That is just what happens when I bring my failures and my shortcomings into the presence of God.
I’m grateful, too, for the wisdom of the old man’s counsel about getting back up when we fall. I might paraphrase his words: “There’s nothing surprising about someone falling into the mud, but staying there just makes it worse. Take courage to return—to repent. The evil one may have laughed at your stumbling, but he’ll be sorry when he sees you return stronger in your rising.” It doesn’t take a lot of effort to fall into a pit. It takes even less to lay there in it. The courageous move is to seek to leave it with the help of the God Who reaches down to pull me out.
Father, I’ve been so painfully aware of my sin: I have sought to fill my soul with food rather than with every word that comes from your mouth (gluttony). I have let deceiving images into my imagination that have counterfeited beauty and holy passion (lust). I have allowed a season of plenty to become more my focus than being rich towards You (greed). I have focused on the shortcomings of others and reacted in judgment and condemnation (anger). I have allowed despair to hinder and paralyze me from taking initiative in the good works You have prepared for me to do (dejection). I have allowed procrastination and idleness to rob me of the ways You desire to express grace through me in good work (acedia). I have been tempted to think far more highly of myself than is warranted by my actual life (vainglory). I have in countless ways made myself the reference point of everything rather than You (pride). From this pit I look to You, asking that I might be washed white as snow and be freed from these entanglements that have so robbed me.
And so I close with my paraphrase of the final prayer of this story of Mary the Harlot:
Have mercy on me, You Who alone are sinless, and save me, You who alone are merciful and kind: apart from You, Father most blessed, and Your only Son who was made flesh for us, and the Holy Spirit who gives life to everything, I know and trust no other God. Now have me in mind, O Holy Lover, and guide me out of this prison of sins. You are the One Who holds both my first day and my last in Your hands. Remember that I have nothing to offer from myself and rescue me from my own shortcomings. May Your grace, my only help, refuge and “claim to fame” in this world, protect and hold me safe in the face of every judgment. You alone know—You who see and test the hearts and wills of people—that I have often sought to avoid evil and shameful paths (not always, but often). I have sought to refrain from empty pride and misguided ideas of You. I acknowledge that anything good in me has been the fruit of Your generous initiative and faithful work. So, Good and Holy Lord, I plead with You to bring me more fully under Your influence and guidance, and cause grace to grow to maturity in me. With You alone are bright beauty, worthy worship and great glory, Oh Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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