New York City is known for its beautiful churches, many of which are open for prayer throughout the day. A certain Anglican visited his parish church on a busy weekday afternoon. He wanted to light a candle and say a prayer in a particular chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. From the moment he entered the west doors, even a casual observer could tell that he knew what he was doing.
As the pledge campaign was approaching, he picked up a pledge card for the Every Member Canvas, extracted an iPhone from his suit pocket, went to the calculator, sorted out ten percent of his income for the church and an additional three percent for the music program. Filling in the lines on the card, he slipped it into his pocket to turn in later in the week. Turning to an opposite table, he made a mental note to sign up for the next mid-week Bible Study class. Entering the nave, he moved up the center aisle and reverenced the altar. Before turning towards the Lady Chapel, he looked in the direction of the sanctuary lamp, deeply bowed and before lighting a candle, which had been his original intention, he slipped into a pew to pray, carefully adjusting his trousers before kneeling so as not to cause wrinkles at the knee. Flicking a bit of lint from his coat sleeve, he crossed himself, then lifted his hand preparing to shield his eyes and pray.
At that moment, he was distracted as, out of the corner of his eye, he observed some movement in the side aisle. Turning his head, he watched as a young woman, obviously of a disreputable reputation and line of work, made her way into the chapel. Her makeup was excessive and her clothing risque. It was clear from her confusion that she seldom frequented places of worship. She neither reverenced the altar nor acknowledged the sanctuary lamp. In fact, she seemed unable to even lift her head. As she moved closer and looked up for a moment, our man in the pew could see, even in the dim light of the chapel, what appeared to be streaks of tears on her face. Finally, she moved by him with a hesitant and uneven gait, and settled into a pew some distance away.
Reflecting upon that which he had seen, the man began to pray. “God,” he thought, “there’s so much misery in the world. I’m so thankful that my life isn’t like all the others out there. My business dealings are honest, my tax returns haven’t been audited for years and while most of my friends have had multiple divorces and affairs (especially Jim at the office – his mind wandered for a moment) I’ve always been faithful. I’m so glad that I’m not like them, or even worse, like that poor woman over there. God, it’s a lot to be thankful for…” Suddenly, he heard something that broke his concentration. The woman, previously silent in her personal grief, was now sobbing, and the sound reverberated off the stone walls and low vaulted ceiling of the chapel. She did not know how to pray or what words to use, but from the wellspring of distant memory arose a single phrase, “God be merciful to me a sinner”. Through her tears and with uneven breath, she repeated the phrase again and again, her voice growing softer with every word.
The man kneeling in the pew, his concentration broken, breathed a sigh of importunate resignation, crossed himself, rose, reverenced the altar and made his way toward the street, remembering along the way (although he had almost forgotten) quickly to light a candle at the small bronze sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child.
The young woman, her tears spent, also arose and made her way toward the back of the church. She paused, however, along the way when she noticed a statue, bathed in blue light from burning candles. She saw it was a mother and child, but the look on the mother’s face was arresting. It seemed to know all the joys and all the pains of life and yet, the face was radiant with love. She thought of her own unborn child that she would never know, and the tears welled up again. The young woman, not fully knowing why, lit a candle and beneath her breath again whispered the long forgotten, yet heartfelt words, “God be merciful to me, a sinner”.
Out on the busy city street, the man had already disappeared into the crowd, safe and assured of his place in God’s kingdom and confidant of his own righteousness, though, in some ways, he felt vaguely distracted rather than comforted as a result of the time he had taken from his day. The woman, who had walked slowly down the steps, almost not wanting to leave, turned to go in the other direction, unsure that her broken words had been heard in that place, yet feeling some intangible sense of peace and knowing, somehow instinctively, that life, her life, could be different.
Of the two, I think the woman went to her home knowing more of God’s presence than the man. Why? Because those who lay themselves bare to God’s mercy will be covered by God’s love, but those who come dressed in their own sense of righteousness and well-being will find themselves spiritually impoverished, even when they do all the things that we all agree they ought to do. For you see, our God whom we worship, in addition to fulfilling our obligations to his Church and his altar, requires yet one more thing. It is, unfortunately, something that we all too often lack. It was something possessed by the young woman in our narrative and by a renegade Jewish tax collector in a far older story, for, as the Psalmist says, “the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise…”