This is the story of how a prostitute schooled St Ephrem on humility.
St Ephrem the Syrian was a a deacon, hermit, and Doctor of the Church, who lived in the fourth century. He was a prolific writer and he wrote such beautiful hymns that he is referred to as “the Harp of the Holy Spirit”. He was a very holy man, much loved by both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox.
Even so, no one is too great to be tempted by pride.
St Francis de Sales, in one of his sermons, recounts the story of how a prostitute schooled St Ephrem on humility.
After many years in the desert, he was inspired by God one day to go to Edessa, his native city. He had always left his heart open and receptive to the Divine Majesty, eager to receive the precious dew of heavenly inspiration, and he had always faithfully accepted them in obedience. Thus he readily embraced this one too. He went promptly to the city.
As he drew near, he was convinced that God must have something important to teach him in calling him from his hermitage. Falling on his knees, he prayed most fervently for the grace to meet someone in the city who would serve as his director and lead him to God’s will. Full of confidence that the Lord would hear him, he got up.
When he reached Edessa he came upon a prostitute. Disturbed, he said to himself: “My God, I asked You to let me meet someone who would teach me what Your good pleasure wants of me. Instead, I meet this unfortunate woman.” Eyeing her disdainfully, he noticed that she too was looking at him attentively. Enraged at her boldness, he demanded:
“Why, miserable woman, do you look at me so?” She responded very cleverly and learnedly: “
I have the right to look at you, but you have no right to look at me. You know that woman was drawn from the side of man. [Gen. 2:21-23]. Therefore, I am only looking at the place of my origin. But man was created from the earth [Gen. 2:7], so why are you not continually looking down at the earth, since that is the place from which you were drawn?”
This great saint truly valued the teaching of the wretched woman, received it humbly, and even warmly acknowledged his gratitude to her. From that moment on, he so valued that lesson that not only did he always keep his bodily eyes lowered to the ground, but even more so his interior and spiritual eyes, which he kept riveted on his nothingness, his vileness and his abjection. In this way he made continual progress in the virtue of most holy humility all the rest of his life.Sermons of St Francis de Sales.
What We Can Learn From This Story
This story teaches us how we should honor and esteem God’s word and good teachings even if they are presented by persons of ill repute. After all, the Lord desired that a prophet should be instructed by an ass [Num. 22:28-30], and that wicked Pilate should announce the great truth that our divine Master is Jesus [Matt. 1:21]—that is, Savior—a title which he even placed above the Cross, insisting: Such is the case, it is I who have said so. [Jn. 19:22]. Caiphas, the most miserable among men, pronounced this word of truth: It is expedient to have one man die for the salvation of the people. [Jn. 11:49-50; 18:14].
This makes it clear that although we must never esteem nor approve the evil lives of wicked and sinful people, yet we ought never to despise God’s word that they may offer us. Rather, we must profit from it as did St. Ephrem. A great Doctor has taught that we ought not care whether the person who shows us the way of virtue is good or had. All that is important is that it be indeed the true way. If so, we ought to follow it and walk in it faithfully. What does it matter whether they give us balm in an earthenware vessel or in a precious vase? It is enough that it cures our wounds.”
~This story is excerpted from a St Francis de Sales Sermon Titled, “Hearing the Word of God: Sermon for Passion Sunday, March 13, 1622.
The moral of the story is never be too proud to receive good advice from people considered to be the lowliest in society.
For more sermons by St Francis, de Sales, we recommend the Sermons of St Francis de Sales.
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