Life of St Mary the Harlot (continued), Book 1dLife No 21
(Also St Thais the Harlot further down page)
After they had eaten, the girl became quite provocative and suggested they go to the bedroom.
"Yes, let's go," he said.
As he went in he saw the bed in the corner and sat down on it without hesitation. However shall I describe you, you most perfect athlete of Christ? I really do not know how to put the right name to you. Do I call you continent, or incontinent? Wise, or idiotic? Discreet or indiscreet? For fifty years of your life you have slept on a hard bed, and here you are now boldly getting into a bed of this sort! But of course you have done all these things for the praise and glory of Christ. You have undertaken a long and tedious journey, you have eaten meat and drunk wine, entered a house of ill repute, and all for the sake of saving one lost soul. Yet we tend to draw back in diffidence when we should at least be saying some sort of constructive word to our neighbour.
"Come, sir, let me take your shoes off for you," she said, as he sat on the bed.
"Shut the door first," he said, "and then you can take them off."
She wanted to take them off first, but he would not let her, so she went and shut the door and came back to him.
"Come closer, Mary," he said.
He took her by the hand, and she thought he was about to embrace her, but instead he took off the concealing headgear he was wearing and at last allowed the tears to flow.
"Mary, my daughter," he said, "don't you recognise me? You are my own flesh and blood. Wasn't it I who brought you up? O my daughter, what has become of you? Who has destroyed you? Where is the clothing of angels that you used to wear? Where is your continence, your tears, your vigils, your sleeping on the ground? How did you come to fall into this pit after dwelling in the heights of heaven, my daughter? If you had sinned, why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you immediately let me help? My beloved brother Ephraem and I would gladly have done penance for you. Why have you behaved the way you have? Why desert me and plunge me into such grief. After all, is there anyone who hasn't sinned, except God?"
As he was saying all this, and much more besides, she remained in his grip as still as a stone, transfixed as much by fear as confusion. But the blessed man kept on talking to her through his tears.
"O Mary, my daughter, haven't you got anything to say to me? Flesh of my flesh, can you not speak? Haven't I come all this way especially for your sake? Let your sin rest upon my shoulders, my daughter, that in the day of judgment I may stand in your place before God and make satisfaction to God for your sin."
He went on till midnight pricking her conscience with such words and overwhelming her with his life-giving tears. Little by little she began to regain a little confidence, and answered him through her tears.
"I am so covered in confusion," she said, "that I can hardly bear you to look at me. But how could I possibly have poured out my prayers towards God, when I had been wallowing in such filth?"
"Let me bear the burden of your sin," said this most holy man. "Let God require your sin at my hands, if only you will listen to me. And come, and let us go to our own place. Look, there is that most loving Ephraem who has been most deeply upset because of you. He prays without ceasing for you to the Lord. Don't have any doubts, my daughter, about the mercy of the Lord. Though your sins be as big as mountains, yet his mercy is greater than all creation. Don't we read about how the unclean woman came to him who was spotless without in the least contaminating him? By him she was cleansed, she washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7.38). There is more hope of a spark setting the sea on fire than there is of your sins contaminating him.
"There is nothing new in falling down in the contest; the wicked thing is to keep on lying there. Be brave, retrace your steps. For as long as you go on lying down the enemy is laughing at you, but he knows that you will be all the stronger when you get up. Have pity on my old age. Give me some recompense for the labours I have undertaken in spite of my grey hair, I beg you. Leave here and come back with me to your cell. Don't be afraid, it is human nature to be in danger of falling. But even though a fall can happen quite quickly, by the help of God to rise again can be quicker still. For God does not will the death of a sinner but rather that he may be healed and live" (Ezekiel 18.23).
"If you are sure that I can do penance, and that God will accept my reparation," she said, "then, see, I am going to do what you say. You lead, and I will follow your holiness, and kiss your footprints, because you have grieved so much about me and drawn me out this unclean morass."
And she laid her head down at his feet and wept for the rest of the night, crying: "What shall I give to the Lord, as retribution for all my sins?"
"Come, daughter," said Abraham as soon as it was light, "let's go back to our cell."
"I have a little money here," she replied, "and some clothes. What do you want me to do with them?"
"Leave them behind," said the blessed Abraham. "They are the wages of sin."
So they arose and departed. He put her on his horse and walked in front of her. Just as a shepherd who has found his lost sheep puts it on his shoulders rejoicing (Luke 15.5), so did the blessed Abraham begin this journey with his niece rejoicing. When they got home he put her in the inner room which he had previously occupied, and he remained in the outer room. Wearing the monastic habit once more, she passed her days in humility of mind and body, her eyes bathed in tears, disciplining herself with the strictest abstinence, declaring unceasingly with untroubled confidence before the Lord that her tears were offered in sure hope of the forgiveness of her sins. She cried out for mercy so powerfully that he would be hard hearted indeed who would not have been overcome with compassion at the sound of her weeping. Who is there so devoid of mercy that would not have wept in sympathy with her in her lamentation? And who in true compunction of heart would not have given thanks to God?
Her penitence was beyond measure, compared to ours. So zealously did she pray to the Lord to pardon what she had done, that she was bold enough to ask God for a sign that her sins were indeed forgiven. And the most merciful Lord who wills no one to perish but rather come to repentance (1 Timothy 2.4), so graciously accepted her penances, that after three years salvation began to come to many other people through her prayers. For crowds of people began to flow eagerly towards her, begging that she might pray to the Lord for their salvation.
The blessed Abraham lasted for a further ten years in this life, to witness the depth of her penitence and glorify God, until in his seventieth year he rested in peace. For fifty years he had been faithful to his profession with great devotion, humility of heart and charity unfeigned.
He had shown favouritism to no one, as many are inclined to do, loving this person and despising that. He never relaxed his rule of abstinence, he never slumped into indolence, he was never careless, but lived each day as it if were his last. The way of life of this most blessed Abraham, and the battles he endured, were such that he ever stood resolute in the face of the enemy and never retreated. In his struggles in the village, [In his earlier life he had been responsible for converting a pagan village, at the behest of his bishop. See chapter iv and following, in Life No 7 in Book 1a.] and in all his battles against the phantasies of the demons, he never relaxed his mind or quailed before anyone. A great and memorable battle he had in the matter of the most blessed Mary. With spiritual wisdom, prudence and innocence he rescued her from the carelessness and incontinence of a morass of iniquity. What a miracle! He ventured even into the lair of the dragon and trod him underfoot, snatching his prey from out of his very mouth. What agonies and sweat this blessed man endured.
We have written all these things for the comfort and devotion of all those who desire to govern their lives devoutly and zealously, and to the praise and glory of God whose grace has surrounded us abundantly at all times. I have described the rest of his virtues in another book. When he was lying in peace, having passed to the Lord, almost the whole city gathered. Each person approached his most pure body with the greatest devotion, tearing off bits of his clothing to obtain a blessing for themselves. And if they were ever ill, they only needed to touch the scrap they had torn off to be fully restored to health.
Mary lived for another five years, pursuing an extraordinarily strict mode of existence. Day and night she continually prayed to the Lord with great lamentation bathed in tears, so that the many people who came by night to hear the voice of her weeping were so affected by her plaints that they joined her weeping with their own weeping. And on the day of her falling asleep, when she was taken up out of this life, all who saw her gave glory to the Lord because of the shining splendour of her countenance.
O what a wretch am I, my beloved brothers, compared with those who have already fallen asleep and passed to the Lord with such great faithfulness! Their minds were never preoccupied with mundane business, but centred solely in the love of God. But I, indeed, remain buried in self-will, stumbling and unresponsive. My soul is wintry, an unending tempest leaves me bare, and despoiled of the hope of bringing any good work to perfection.
I am astonished at myself, my beloved brothers, because of the way in which I daily fail. I build for hours, then for hours I destroy what I have built. At night I say, 'Tomorrow I will repent', but in the morning when I get up I put it off for another day. Again towards evening I say, 'Tonight I will keep vigil and besiege the Lord with tears that he may look mercifully on my sins', but when nighttime comes I fall asleep. There are those who like me have been given a talent and have laboured day and night to trade successfully and gain the prize of being given power over ten cities (Luke 19.17), but I in my laziness have hidden my talent in the ground, and my Lord is hastening near and will strike fear into my heart, and I mourn for the days of my negligence, for I have not any excuse to offer.
O my God, have mercy upon me and save me, for you alone are without sin, you alone are merciful and kind, and apart from you I know no other, nor is there any other in whom I believe, Father most blessed, and only begotten Son incarnate for our sakes, and holy Spirit who gives life to all things. It is in your nature, O lover of mankind, both to keep me in mind, and to lead me out of the prison house of my sins. It is at your behest that I both came into this world and shall depart from it. Be merciful to me in my helplessness, and bring salvation to me, a sinner. Your grace is my helper in this world, my refuge and my hope of glory. Let it hide me under the shadow of its wings in that terrible and horrendous day. For you know the secrets of our hearts and minds, you know how many depravities and scandalous by ways I have scorned, you know how many shameless vanities and inclinations to heresy I have rejected. And all that not in my own strength but by your grace which has enlightened my mind. Wherefore I pray you, holy Lord, to save me into your kingdom and be graciously pleased to bless me along with all who are pleasing to you, for yours alone is the glory, the adoration and the magnificence, Father Son and holy Spirit. Amen.
The Life of St Thais the Harlot
[Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on 8 October. The story dates from the 4th century.]
by an anonymous author.
There was once a harlot called Thais who was of such great beauty that many young men were ruined because of the money that they spent on her. She provoked such jealous quarrels among her lovers that the blood of many a young man must be laid at her door. When she came to the notice of abba Paphnutius, he donned secular clothing, took a solidus with him and went to see her in the Egyptian city where she lived. He offered her the solidus as the price for her favours, which she accepted, and invited him to come inside. Immediately on going inside he could see a bed with most beautifully ornate drapery, obviously intended for use.
"Isn't there an inner room we can use?" he asked.
"If you are frightened that others might see you here, don't worry. No one will come into this outer room. But if it is God you are frightened of seeing you, there isn't anywhere hidden from the eyes of the Divinity."
"You believe there is a God then?"
"Yes, I have heard about God and the kingdom of the world to come and the torments laid up for sinners."
"If you know this, why have you brought so many souls to ruin? Don't you know that you will have to give an account not only of your own sins but also for theirs?"
Thais fell at the feet of Paphnutius the monk and besought him with tears to give her some penance to perform.
"I believe that if you will pray for me I might gain forgiveness," she said. "Give me just three hours, and after that I will come to whatever place you say and do whatever you decide."
So while Paphnutius went off to prepare a place for her, she collected together all the beautiful things she had gained from her life of sin, went into the middle of the city, and as the people looked on, set fire to them.
"Gather round, all you people who have sinned with me," she cried. "See, I am burning everything you have given me." It was all worth about forty pounds of gold.
When all had been consumed, she went to the place which the abba had prepared for her, which was a small cell in a monastery of virgins. He sealed up the door with molten lead, leaving only a small window through which she could be given food. He instructed the sisters to give her a little bread and water each day. As he was departing after sealing up the door, Thais called out to him.
"Where are you expecting me to urinate, each day?" she asked.
"In the cell, as you deserve." he replied.
"What sort of prayers should I offer to God?" she asked.
"You are not fit to talk about God. The name of God is not fit to be heard coming from your lips, nor should you lift up your hands to heaven, for your lips are full of iniquity and your hands are stained with iniquity. All you may do is to sit facing the East and repeat over and over, 'You who have moulded me, have mercy on me'."
After she had been enclosed for three years Paphnutius began to feel compunction about her, and he went to see abba Antony to ask him whether God had yet forgiven her sins or not. He gave him a full account of all the circumstances of the case, whereupon Antony called all his disciples together and decreed that they all should keep solitary vigil that night to pray that God might reveal to one of them the answer to the question that abba Paphnutius had come about. They all departed and began to pray without ceasing, till abba Paulus, Antony's chief disciple, saw a vision of a throne decked in precious drapery attended by three virgins with faces of shining splendour.
"This cannot be anything other than a symbol indicating my father Antony," thought Paul, but a voice came from heaven:
"It is not your father Antony, but Thais the harlot."
When abba Paulus came forward to tell what he had seen, abba Paphnutius went back home, confident that the will of God had been revealed. He went to the monastery where Thais was enclosed and broke the seals on her door. She had been expecting that she was to remain enclosed for ever, but as Paphnutius opened the door he said to her:
"You can come out, for God has forgiven your sins."
"I call God as witness," she said, "that since the moment I came in here I have kept all my sins in view as a great burden. My sins have not diminished, I have kept them all continually in remembrance."
"It is because you have kept the thought of your sins constantly in mind that God has forgiven you. It is not because of the penances you have performed. "
Fifteen days after taking her out of the prison, Thais rested in peace.
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