A Jesuit priest who used to say Mass at our convent was on the subway making his way to visit his mother on Ash Wednesday.
At one stop a young man entered the subway car and told the priest to hand over his wallet. When the priest explained that he did not have a wallet with him, the young man made him empty his pockets.
The priest pulled out his train pass, some change, and a little silver box. The young man demanded to know what was inside the box.
The priest said, “Well, I am a Catholic and it is Ash Wednesday so I am bringing some blessed ashes to someone who is sick.”
The young man responded, “Oh, I am Catholic, can I have some ashes?”
So the priest opened the little box, said the prayer and traced the cross on the man’s forehead.
The young man left at the next stop.
When I heard this story everyone around me laughed, imagining the priest tracing the cross on the young thief’s forehead and saying, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
I said, “I hope he didn’t hold anyone else up that day with his forehead marked with a cross!”
After our laugh however, I kept thinking about that young thief.
I thought about how we are all actually quite a bit like him.
I hear a lot from people who are ashamed of the way they live their faith. Perhaps it is the Latino culture here in Miami but many people idealize religious life and say to me, “I am such a bad Catholic, but you would not know about that, you are a sister, so close to God.”
This kind of talk makes me want to gag. Of all people, I know who I am. I know that I am only in the convent (and not a prison, hospital or coffin) by the grace of God. I also know my sisters, even the ones who entered the convent as young teenagers before they had a chance to wreak havoc on their souls. We are all sinners. Every. single. one. of. us.
Inside and outside the convent, we all have our sins, our foibles, our hypocrisies. Perhaps some look more serious than others. Some people wear their sins on their sleeves (or their waistlines), while others hide their putrid, rotting sins in whitewashed tombs of pride. But the truth is that we are all imperfect Catholics. All of us. The sinners and the saints.
So as I continue in this Lent, I feel like I am that young thief exiting a subway train. My forehead was marked with a reminder that I am a sinner, and chances are, despite my best intentions, I will sin again, and again, and again. But every day I am given new chances to change. Perhaps no one will see the tiny hummingbird flutters of change from the outside. Or perhaps others will just think I am perfect because I am a nun (and they don’t live with me). But I know that I am a sinner.
I am a sinner.
But God is at work.
And that is really what Lenten penance is mostly about, not my work, but God’s work.