She was once a sinner, and such a sinner! Her soul was the home of seven devils! She was a hireling of Satan, to catch the souls of men. But a flash of light came forth from the Heart of Jesus, and in that light she saw herself sinful and hateful in the eyes of God. His grace filled her heart with a deep and crushing sorrow for her many sins. Prostrate at the feet of Jesus, she kissed them, and washed them with the tears of true repentance. Jesus, who never despised or rejected repentant sinners, commanded the devils to depart from her; He then washed her soul, and made her clean as an angel. Her many sins were forgiven her, because she loved much; for her deep contrition was not dictated by servile fear, but by pure love. After the ascension of Jesus, she shut herself up in a grotto, where she wept and did bitter penance during the remainder of her days. When her last hour was come, the angels descended from heaven, and took her pure soul to the bosom of Jesus. Her intense love and her penitential tears deserved for her a "crown of justice." They beautified and glorified her far above many a one who never sinned grievously; for she is crowned with the high honors of heaven, and enjoys a union with Jesus far more intimate than many who never offended God.
Nor is she alone in this exceeding glory wherewith an ardent love and penance clothe sinners. Thousands of others who sinned grievously, and imitated her penance, are now shining in glory far above others who never sinned. Think you that St. Peter, who denied his Lord, is below all those who preserved their innocence, and even below all the baptized infants in heaven? Think you that St. Paul, who once persecuted the Church, is now below all on that account? Think you that the great St. Augustine, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Pelagia, and a host of other illustrious penitents, are all below mere babes on account of their sins? They certainly are not. Their intense love for God, their sorrow, and their tears atoned for their sins, and placed them far, very far above many who, though they never sinned grievously, never performed an act of heroic virtue in their whole lives.
Remember that charity, by which is meant love for God and for our neighbor, is the greatest of virtues, and has the power of elevating the greatest sinners to the highest glory of heaven. Mary Magdalen, therefore, though once a great sinner, is, at this moment, enjoying a most intimate union with Jesus, and shines like a very star, in the presence of God.
Even in this world she is glorified far above many who were not sinners. When Jesus sat at the table of Simon the Leper, Mary Magdalen anointed Him with precious ointment. Some of the Apostles complained of the waste; but Jesus defended her conduct, and added: "Amen, I say to you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached, that also which she hath done, shall be told for a memorial of her."* Again, we read in the Gospel of St. Mark, that Jesus, "rising early the first day of the week, appeared first to Mary Magdalen, from whom He had cast out seven devils."+ Again, in the Litany of the Saints, the Church places the name of Mary Magdalen before all the virgins. This is certainly a high honor. Her feast, also, is one of a higher order than that of Martha her virgin sister, and above that of many other virgins; for she is the only woman, besides the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, in her mass, enjoys the privilege of the Credo. No other woman, whether a virgin-saint or not, enjoys that privilege, unless she is the patroness of a particular church. In that case, the Credo is said in her own church, but nowhere else; while for Mary Magdalen it is said in every church of the world. There is, moreover, a congregation of Magdalens, whereof she is the model and patroness. It is attached to the order of the Good-Shepherd, and is filled, not only with women who have sinned, but with virgins, too, who have fallen in love with the beautiful penitential spirit of Mary Magdalen.
* Matt. xiv.9. + Mark xvi.9.
All this must certainly be very consoling to those who have sinned grievously, and who have, perhaps, thought that, on account of their sins, they have lost all right to a high place in heaven. Mary Magdalen, St. Peter, St. Augustine, and a host of other illustrious penitents, teach us that a high degree of glory is ours, no matter what sins we have committed, if we love ardently, lead a penitential life, and practise other virtues in an eminent degree.
There is one more beautiful throng standing around the throne of God, and enjoying a high degree of glory in heaven. It is made up of the vast multitude of men and women who sanctified themselves while living in the world. They are known as the Pious people. They lived in the world, but were not of it. They did not live according to its spirit; for its spirit is the sworn enemy of God. Many of them, while surrounded with the wealth and magnificence of this world, practised the virtues of the cloister. Others belonged to the middle classes of society; and others, again, to the poorer classes. But in whatever class their lot was cast, they all sanctified themselves by loving God and their neighbor, and by acquitting themselves of their respective duties. What a beautiful and glorious throng they are!
Here are kings and queens who, in their exalted position, knew how to be humble, and who used their wealth and position for the benefit of their subjects. Here are representatives of all professions and trades in society -- lawyers, physicians, soldiers, tradesmen, and cultivators of the soil. Here, too, are the servants of the rich, who thought it a kindness to be allowed to do all drudgery, in order to have wherewith to live. Here are good husbands and wives, who truly loved each other, and were faithful unto death. Here are those good parents whose first care was to teach their children the knowledge and love of God. Here, too, are the good children who honored their parents, and cared for them with a tender charity, when age and infirmity had rendered them helpless. Here, too, are young men, and young women, who, though they had no call to consecrate their virginity to Jesus Christ, led the lives of angels amid the fascinations of the world.
All these have led pious lives. They mortified their passions; they were given to prayer; they frequented the sacraments; they performed acts of charity according to their means; and practised the virtues of their rank and calling. All these have, therefore, reached the honors and distinctions which God distributes among them who have served Him with fidelity. Though they are neither martyrs, nor doctors, nor religious, they all led holy lives; they all have received a "crown of justice," which was due to them as a reward for their love of God, and for the virtues they practised while on earth. Many of them were great saints, such as a St. Louis, king of France; a St. Elizabeth, queen of Portugal; a St. Monica, widow; a St. Genevieve, the virgin-shepherdess; a St. Zita, the angelic servant-girl; and many others, whom the Church has placed upon her altars, and proposed to our imitation.
You see, then, that the high honors of heaven do not belong, exclusively, to any privileged classes, as you might imagine the martyrs, doctors, virgins, and religious to be. A high degree of glory is offered to all, and by the grace of God is attainable by all, without any exception. If, therefore, you have hitherto looked upon it as a presumption to aim at a high degree of glory, because you were neither a consecrated virgin nor a religious, banish such a thought from your mind. For, instead of being a presumption, it is a virtue to aspire to a high sanctity, and, consequently, to a high degree of union with God in heaven. Therefore, whether you are married or single, rich or poor, learned or ignorant, you are called upon by your Lord Jesus to fight the good fight unto the end, with a solemn assurance that, when you have finished your course, a just Judge will encircle your brow with a "crown of justice," and admit you into the society of those who signalized themselves in His service.
Before closing this chapter, we must say a few words, at least, about the two remaining classes of the blessed, and, probably, by far the most numerous in heaven. The one is composed of those who were not pious, nor generous to God. Many of them sinned often, and grievously, and did very little to atone for their sins; and the virtues they practised were few, and never brought to any perfection. This class also includes all those who spent their whole lives in sin, and who were saved, like the thief on the cross, by the grace of a death-bed repentance. Evidently, neither these, nor others who practised scarcely any virtue, are crowned with the high honors of heaven, which are the reward of a virtuous life. They are, nevertheless, perfectly happy, in their own degree, and sing the mercies of God, who saved many of them almost in spite of themselves. Theirs may be called a crown of mercy, rather than one of justice.
The other class is composed of baptized infants, and of children who died before they were responsible for their deeds. These form by far the most numerous class in heaven, if it be true that one-half of all the children that are born die before the age of seven. But in heaven they are no longer children; for their elevation to glory has developed them into men and women. They therefore enjoy the full perfection of human nature, as well as those who died adults. They are, moreover, admitted to the Beatific Vision, and, consequently, they see, love, and enjoy God, and partake of the additional pleasures of heaven, as well as they who lived longer on earth. They, and they alone, enjoy the happiness of heaven entirely as a free gift of God, without any co-operation of their own. They are in heaven in virtue of their adoption as children of God, and through the merits of Jesus Christ.
Whatever may be their degree of glory, we certainly can never place them on a level with the Apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, religious, and pious people who have fought a good fight against the world, the devil, and the flesh. They never sinned, it is true, but neither did they ever make an act of faith, of hope, of charity, or perform any other act of virtue. Hence, theirs may be called a crown of liberality; for they enjoy their beatitude as a free gift of God's unspeakable liberality. Their never-ending song is, therefore, one of gratitude to God for taking them out of the world before their souls could be defiled by sin, or their little hearts turned away from virtue by the fascinations of the world.
Here, then, kind reader, we have the whole multitude that we saw standing around the throne of God. Though we have divided them into different classes, and considered their glory separately, you must not infer from this that the blessed are really separated from each other in heaven. For how greatly soever the glory of the highest may differ from that of the lowest, they all, nevertheless, compose one great family of brothers and sisters, of whom God is the Father, Jesus Christ the Elder Brother as well as the King, and Mary the Mother as well as the Queen. They all mingle together, converse, and otherwise enjoy each other's society; for they are all united by the bond of the purest charity. They all exclaim, with the royal Prophet: "to Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. . . . For there, the Lord hath commanded blessing, and life for evermore."* They all are happy, because they all see, love, and enjoy God, as well as the additional pleasures with which He perfects and completes the happiness of His beloved children. They are all filled to overflowing with the happiness of which the royal Prophet speaks, when he says: "They shall be inebriated with the plenty of Thy house: and thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of Thy pleasure. For with Thee is the fountain of life."+ By their union with the Fountain of Life, which is God himself, the blessed see all their desires fulfilled, and, knowing not what more to crave, they rest in God as their last end, and enjoy him forever.
* Ps. cxxxli. + Ps. xxiv.