Instant Conversion

One feature of the Gospel for this Fifth Sunday of Lent has intrigued many readers: Jesus’s writing on the ground with his finger. For what could he possibly have been writing? One ingenious scribe, in the ninth century, thought that he knew the answer, and so he inserted this phrase into his manuscript: “He was writing the sins of the bystanders, one by one.” That would certainly account for their leaving, “beginning with the elders.” For me, however, the most significant sentence is the final one: “Go on your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Do you see what an encounter with Christ can effect? Having been forgiven or, better, have been converted by this meeting with Jesus the Lord, the ‘woman caught in adultery’ is empowered to change herself radically. She’s a different woman, and now she can hear without trembling Our Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[1] We have here an instance of the Catholic view of the moral life. If we—each one of us—were to co-operate fully with the graces we receive, we could be as free from sin as Jesus told that woman to be. The same conviction is found in the Mass. Should you listen carefully to the priest after we recite together the Our Father, you will hear him say, “Grant that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin.” Similarly, when you make your Easter confession—if you make your Easter confession—you will say the act of contrition: “I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, . . . to amend my life.” Saint Paul echoes this conviction in the second reading of today’s Mass, when he glories in the righteousness, he has received through his faith in Christ. You could also find in today’s first reading a poetic description of the change that took place in that adulterous woman: “Do not remember the former things,…for I am about to do a new thing. I will make a river in the desert… to give drink to my chosen people.” The desert is an apt symbol of the barren waste of a sinful soul, but once it has been watered by the grace of God, it becomes fruitful.

We may feel ourselves so inured to our habitual failings that the summons to be perfect seems like a pipe-dream. Let me counter this temptation towards scepticism with an account of a conversion that was instant and total. No, I’m not thinking of Saint Paul, but of someone you will not have heard of. Her name was Anne of Gonzaga, the Princess of Palatine. We know about her because the most famous preacher of the time—Bishop Jacques Bossuet—delivered her funeral oration on 9 August 1688.[2] She was a highly intelligent, charming and grossly immoral woman who had been a favourite in the French royal court under Louis XIV, known as “the Sun King” because of the splendour of his palace at Versailles. She had received adulation from every side that served only to confirm her in her luxurious, self-indulgent way of life. How, then, could someone like her be expected to be touched by God’s grace when she already knew all about Christian doctrine and morality and had rejected them? “What hope can there be,” Bossuet asked, “for such a one as that? And yet she changed, as suddenly and as completely as Saint Paul. How so? It was owing to a dream. She dreamt that, walking alone in a forest one day, she encountered a man who was blind. She stopped and, in the course of their conversation, she discovered that he had been blind from birth. “Ah,” she said, “you know nothing of the beauty of light, the brilliant splendour of the sun. “You are correct,” the man replied, not can I imagine what it must be like. Nevertheless, I can and do believe that it is of the most ravishing beauty.” Suddenly, his look and manner altered, and his voice took on an authoritative tone. “You should learn something from my situation,” he said, “for there are wonderful, excellent things that escape your view and which are nonetheless true and desirable, even though you cannot understand or picture them.”

When she awoke, she was a different woman. She abandoned the decadent frivolity of court life to devote herself to prayer and to caring for Christ’s beloved poor. In her own words, “I sprang from my bed in a state of exultant joy, eager to begin a new life of devotion and service.” And her funeral, instead of being attended by a few courtiers impatient to escape back to their entertainments, was crowded with people who had experienced the effects of her prayers, her example and her active and universal charity. So you see: there’s hope for the likes of us. Keep track of your dreams

[1] Matt 5.48.

[2] Jacques Bossuet, “Oraison funèbre de très haute and très puissante Princesse Anne de Gonzague de Clèves,” Oraisons funèbres, edited by Jacques Truchet (Paris: Gallimard, 1998), pp. 255-91.