Jesus was a guest in the home of a Pharisee, a member of a movement among the Jews to re-commit to the practice of their ancient laws of piety and purity. And while he was there, somehow, a woman of the city – a sinner – managed to get into the house and approach him, as he reclined at the dinner table. And she began to wash his feet – an intimate and inappropriate act. And look, she’s not even using water – she’s using her tears! And rubbing his feet with this pungent ointment, and kissing them!? His host the Pharisee – and probably many others present too – was thinking, Isn’t this Jesus supposed to be a prophet, who sees the truth of people? Can’t he see what kind of woman this is? How shameful and unclean she is? How can he allow her to touch him?
And Jesus, who was a prophet, who could see the truth of people, said, I have a story to tell. There were two men who owed money to a third man. One owed fifty thousand dollars, and one owed five thousand dollars. Now, the third man decided to forgive those debts and set those men free from their obligations. After that act of mercy, which of the two men whose debts were wiped out would love him more?
One hundred and twenty-three years ago tomorrow, a baby girl was born was born to a respectable English family. More than respectable, really – Papa was the chaplain of Christ Church Cathedral at the great and ancient university of Oxford. A clergyman and a scholar. He and his wife named their only child Dorothy. Dorothy Leigh Sayers. She spent her childhood immersed in the life of the church and the university. At the age of 19, Dorothy won a scholarship to Somerville College, a women’s college at Oxford. There she studied modern languages and medieval literature, finishing with first-class honors. Women could not be awarded degrees in 1915, but that rule changed a few years later and Sayers was awarded a Master of Arts degree in 1920.
Sayers’ vocation was as a writer. Her first poetry collection was published in 1916, and she began work on her first mystery novel in 1920. Her great academic work was a poetic translation of Dante. She also spent a decade working as an advertising copywriter, and is responsible for some of those clever slogans you see on vintage Guinness posters.
If you know Sayers’ name, the odds are that it’s because of her mystery novels – or perhaps the BBC mystery shows based on the books. I first read Sayers because my grandmother pressed the books upon me in my teens, and I’m so glad she did. They are delightful reading, with nuanced and lovable characters, and written with both humor and deep insight into many areas of human life, including the lasting impact of war, the education of women, ethics in advertising, and traditional English bell-ringing!
Sometime in the late 1930s, Sayers, a successful and acclaimed mystery writer, was invited to write a series of plays about the life of Christ to be performed at Canterbury Cathedral. She took up this work and fell in love with it. The plays were very well received, and were published as The Man Born to be King in 1943. Sayers became an important lay theologian and interpreter and advocate for Christian faith, in a jaded and secularizing age. Like her contemporary C.S. Lewis, who was a friend, she was driven by her own faith to use her skill as a writer to try to make Christianity relevant and understandable for modern people. She wrote this about G. K. Chesterton’s work but it applies to her own writing as well: she was a voice that claimed “that Christianity was not a dull thing but a [joyful] thing; not a stick-in-the-mud thing but an adventurous thing; not an unintelligent thing but a wise thing, indeed a shrewd thing.” She went on to write many public essays and several theological books, including The Mind of the Maker, a wonderful work on Trinitarian theology and the holiness of creative work.
She was also an outspoken feminist and integrated those convictions with her Christian faith. In one essay she writes, “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women [in the Gospels] were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man [Jesus] – and there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; …. who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend…. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about women’s nature.” (From Unpopular Opinions)
Sayers’ name was on a list of holy women and holy men to be commended to the church for commemoration that was passed at General Convention last summer. I was glad to see her name there, and resolved to add her to the cycle of saints whom we particularly remember and honor here at St. Dunstan’s. Not just because she is a personal favorite of mine, though she is; but because the work she was about is the work we are about: speaking the drama and hope, the joy and struggle, and, yes, the intellectual respectability of our faith, into a world that believes Christians to be dull, reactionary, and stupid. Sayers’ proposed feast day is the day of her birth, June 13. And when I looked at the Gospel for this Sunday, I knew this was the right day.
What I’ve told you so far is the public face of Sayers’ life, and her successes. Here, briefly, is the private face of her life, and her failures. In the 1920s Sayers fell in with the counter-cultural Bohemian artistic crowd in London. Writers, artists, performers; late nights, alcohol, drugs and… flexibility in personal relationships. Sayers went through several unhappy and ill-fated love affairs. In 1929, as the world was crumbling with the dawn of the Great Depression, Sayers’ world was crumbling too. Still unmarried, she had become pregnant. Remember: she’s a clergyman’s daughter. A scholar’s daughter and a scholar herself. A well-known and successful female author. One of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford. A feminist who knew that if her situation became known, it would seem to bear out fears that educating and liberating women would lead to promiscuity and the collapse of family life. This was a great and weighty shame for her. She retreated and bore her child in private – a boy who was left in the care of her cousin, and claimed as her nephew. It wasn’t revealed that he was her son until her death in 1957. Though she married a few years later, she never had another child.
Sayers didn’t write or speak publicly about any of this during her life. But I believe this Gospel story might have had special meaning to her. It’s one of those stories in which Jesus is handed an opportunity to be disgusted by a woman – her emotions, her body, her past, her weaknesses – and instead, Jesus treats her as a human being, and honors both her pain and her devotion. Sayers gave birth under a cloud of shame and secrecy and gave up the chance to be a mother to her only son so that she could continue her public life as a successful writer. And Sayers – instead of blaming God for the judgmentalism of humans, instead of abandoning God for seeming to abandon her – Sayers found hope and healing in the heart of the Gospel. Transformation. Redemption. Metanoia, turning – a change of heart and mind that bears fruit in a changed life. In the wake of that great shame, that great loss, she devoted her life to serving and proclaiming the Jesus who did not spurn or shame her, but welcomed her and loved her.
And she tells this Gospel story in her play, The Man Born to be King. She makes this nameless woman into Mary, Jesus’ friend, who in her younger life was seduced by the pleasures of the world. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that in putting these words in Mary’s mouth, she was telling her own story: “I loved the wrong things in the wrong way… yet it was love of a sort… until I found a better kind of love. [There was a time when] I wept and was ashamed, seeing myself such a thing of trash and tawdry. But when you spoke to me, I felt the flame of the sun in my heart. I came alive for the first time. And I love life all the more since I have learnt its meaning.” (p. 180)