Sunday was my thirteenth day in coronavirus quarantine. I must confess that although I have done some liturgical sewing and have spent more time than usual exercising, cooking, and praying, most of this precious downtime has slipped by without anything of note transpiring.
But Sunday was different.
My church — a small Melkite parish — is currently closed, but our priest has live-streamed Orthros and Divine Liturgy the past two Sundays from his own home, which he has re-arranged for this specific purpose. I tuned in yesterday from the utilitarian comfort of my sewing studio.
It was Mary of Egypt’s feast day, and our priest told us this saint’s remarkable story during his homily. She spent the first seventeen years of her adult life as a prostitute — not motivated by desperation per se, but rather by lust and love for the sport of leading others astray. At the end of that time, she traveled to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross to seduce the pilgrims gathered there. She attempted to enter a church in which the True Cross was being venerated, but an invisible force prevented her entry — not once, but three times. Realizing that her impurity was what was blocking her, she retired to a corner of the churchyard and looked up to see an icon of the Virgin Mary above the church. Beset with grief over her sins, she promised Mary that if she would be allowed to venerate the True Cross, she would renounce her life of sin and go wherever the Virgin wished. Again she approached the church, and this time she was allowed entry.
Being a former prostitute myself, I have always considered St. Mary of Egypt a patroness, although perhaps not one of my principals. But as I listened to my priest relate her story yesterday, I realized that I had never been truly contrite about those years spent peddling iniquity. Sure, I recognized that what I did was wrong, and I repented, but as for feeling a deep sense of grief over the sin aspect of what I had done, like what St. Mary of Egypt felt outside that church? No, that I had never experienced. I had always at least partially justified what I had done by telling myself that, given my extreme circumstances and lack of other options, what I had done was really not all that bad. Not exactly good, but not exactly evil, either.
This realization perturbed me. So I prayed for the grace of true contrition right there during Liturgy.
Late last night, I felt restless and decided to go for a drive. I hadn’t been out of the house in several days except for walks around my own neighborhood, and I just wanted to blast my music and feel the road race by beneath me — I didn’t care where I went. And so I started out without any clear destination in mind.
Almost as if on auto-pilot, I found myself traveling customary paths — roads that were familiar because they were routes to places in which I used to live or work. And before I knew it, I was on my way to the apartment where I had lured so many men into sin.
As I approached the corner on which the building stands, I started to feel a great weight on my chest. Breathing became significantly more difficult. I turned the corner and saw the place itself, and it hit me like a sock on the jaw: “My God, what have I done to You?”
I realized the weight on my chest was the weight of my sins. And I realized that I had made a grotesque mockery of God’s laws, laws given to us out of love and for our protection. But, most painfully of all, I realized that I had deeply wounded the only One who loves me infinitely and unconditionally. He had given me everything, and I had squandered it in filth.
A shower of profound sorrow washed over me. It was more than I could bear. I had to get out of there. So I pressed the gas and raced down the street, although I was gasping for breath and could barely see the road through my tears.
I kept driving — visiting the sites of many past mistakes — shedding years of uncried tears.
* * *
Sunday was noteworthy in another way, too: the latest interview with the exiled Archbishop Viganò was published. In it, he discusses the COVID-19 pandemic and how it relates to matters of faith. He speaks of the pandemic as an instrument of divine wrath meted out upon a world saturated with sin, and, more especially, a Church hierarchy that has abandoned its own doctrine, embracing in its stead secularism, “religious relativism,” and even blasphemy. He characterizes God as a Father who “sends us many signs, often very sternly” to repent, this being one of them.
Abp. Viganò calls for the “immediate and absolute” conversion of “[t]he Pope, the Hierarchy, and all Bishops, Priests, and Religious.” He also calls upon our societies to repent of sins “such as recognizing the right to abortion, euthanasia, and sodomy” as well as “corrupt[ing] children and violat[ing] their innocence.”
“Public sins,” he goes on, “require public confession and public atonement”; otherwise, we “cannot evade God’s punishment.”
In other words, it is time for the whole world, and especially the Church, to have its St. Mary of Egypt moment. Like her, we are being denied access to our churches. And like her, according to Abp. Viganò, it is because of our impurity.
St. Mary of Egypt spent the last years of her life battling, and ultimately overcoming, her temptations and doing penance for her sins. She was rewarded for her efforts with great spiritual gifts, including the ability to perform miracles.
Right now, we are all in the equivalent of St. Mary of Egypt’s churchyard — and, in this quarantine environment, we have ample time to reflect upon our sins and how they might have contributed to our present crisis. Will we, like her, be gifted with the grace to repent in time to save our society, our souls, and our Church from ruin? Or will we selfishly cling to the world we have grown complacently accustomed to, which is so repugnantly offensive to Our Lord?
I urge each one of you to pray for the grace of true contrition. I can tell you, it hurts like nothing else on this earth, but don’t you think it’s about time we stopped indulging every pleasure-seeking whim and started doing a little productive suffering? I, for one, intend to start doing penance right now, today. And, during this painfully pregnant pause in our mostly misguided lives, every member of the Church Militant — including and especially the hierarchy, going all the way to the very top — should and must do the same if we are to escape the horrific fate we so justly deserve.
Bettina di Fiore is a writer and liturgical seamstress based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated with honors from Mills College with a BA in English in 2008. Her blog, Watching the Whirlwind, offers cultural commentary from a Catholic perspective and personal pieces concerning her own radical conversion experience. She also contributed her conversion story to Patrick Madrid’s 2017 book Surprised by Life under the pen name AnneMarie Schreiber.