Ashes for sinners and saints.
The reason I started rummaging through Cassian and the Desert Fathers was because I wanted to find a story about a poor woman who continued to dress in rich attire when she showed up at the hermitage food shelf - all because she was (more or less) ashamed to beg - or look poor. Cate Blanchett's character in "Blue Jasmine" reminded me of that story - as well as a host of other stories on charity and repentance - ah! and stories on discretion and humility and non-judgement - stories the holy fathers are so famous for.
In the film, Jasmine French
, sort of a Ruth Madoff character, loses everything but her Hermes handbag, Louis Vuitton luggage, and Chanel wardrobe. She moves down the ladder to live with her tacky sister. It's a horrible comedown - a reality check she simply can't bear. At the end of the film, the woman is talking to herself on a park bench - the film ends - just when she is finally ready for conversion - after a bit of therapy maybe. At that point she could be likened to Margaret of Cortona, whose lover had been murdered and she went a little crazy for a time, had no place to go, and so on. St. Margaret was a sinner like us - and in an unique way, considering the circumstance, a bit like Jasmine. Both had been rich ladies, both lost their lover/husband, both were involved in something shady, both ended up destitute. Rock bottom.
Of course, such loss of fortune doesn't just happen to public sinners. For instance, if Jasmine had been exceedingly virtuous, we might compare her to a saint like Elizabeth of Hungary. How's that, you ask? St. Elizabeth lost everything too, and even went a little crazy after her husband died, she was rejected by the family, and ended up homeless. So, hitting bottom - no matter how - can happen to anyone. Nevertheless, it is not the end - rather, it is an occasion of grace.
Maybe it's a stretch? Maybe, but I'm convinced saints and sinners are very much closer than we think. Closer to one another, closer to God. "No pit is so deep that his love is not deeper still."
That said, I obviously found the stories I had been looking for in the Desert Fathers and Cassian. It would have been my post for Ash Wednesday, but something else happened.
Anyway - what follows are the two stories that reminded me of Jasmine French ... you know ... hanging on to your designer clothes even though you are dirt poor ... maybe not.
A monk received from God the grace of ministry, to serve the poor as they had need. A woman dressed in rags came up to him to receive her share of food. When he saw her rags, he meant to take a great handful, so as to give her a big helping: but his hand remained nearly shut and he was only able to give her a little. Another well dressed woman came up and seeing her clothes, he intended to give her only a small portion, but his hand was opened and he gave her a big helping. So he inquired about the women, and found out the well dressed woman had been a lady who sunk to poverty and continued to dress well because she had a standard to maintain for her family. But the other had put on rags so she could receive more. - On Hospitality
One of the hermits said, 'There are some who do good, yet the devil insinuates a mean spirit into them, so that they lose the reward of all the good they do.
Once, when I was living in Oxyrhynchus with a priest who was generous in almsgiving, a widow came to ask him for a little barley. He said to her, "Go and fetch some, and I will weigh it for you." She brought him some, but when he weighed it he said, "It is too much!" Making the widow ashamed. After she left, I said, "Priest, did you lend barley to that widow, or what?" He said, "No, I gave it to her." So I said, "If you wanted to make her a gift, why were you so exact about the measure that you made her ashamed?" - On Hospitality
I think Pope Francis understands the wisdom of the Desert Fathers.