She looked like the proverbial "bag lady." Her unkempt hair, disheveled dress and grocery bag were the first things you noticed about her, causing me to feel most uncomfortable as she would slowly slouch past. But every day she was there for Mass at the Atlanta Cathedral. Rain or shine..it didn't matter. This street "creature" as she was called, occupied the first pew on the Gospel side of the church.
When I worked at Westminster Schools, I was able to frequently slip out and attend the mid-day liturgy. I always occupied the back pew, not to distance myself from the woman, necessarily, but I like to be alone...you know...just Jesus and me. Who cares about the rest of the pew sitters. After Mass, she would shuffle down the aisle on her way back to the streets. I, of course, would piously keep my eyes from contact with her...like I said, just me and Jesus.
One fateful day, as she made her way down the aisle, I noticed that it appeared she was heading for my pew. "Oh, God, No. Please don't let her stop...," I ardently prayed. But the Holy Spirit had other plans. She stopped right next to me. I raised my eyes, perturbed that my "deep meditation" was being summarily interrupted. Of course, had it been the Archbishop, I would have considered it a great honor. But this was no archbishop.
I managed a somewhat supercilious, "Yes?" She looked straight into my eyes and said, "Do you think that you will persevere until the end?" She then turned abruptly and headed toward the exit. That was all she said but, for some reason, I was thunderstruck. I slumped back into the pew and tears began to fill my eyes. I had been addressed by a prophet, in the guise of a street person. The Holy Spirit was letting me know that I should forget appearances. His instruments are of His choosing. How do you think John the Baptist must have looked: dressed in animal skins, uncut hair due to his Nazarite vow, and a half chewed locust protruding from his lips? Oh God, how much Your ways are not our ways.
I cherish the encounter. I still think about it and I refuse to let her message go unheeded. Jesus warns us about being so self-assured and self-righteous that we might fall, eternally. "No one can call Jesus, Lord, except by the Holy Spirit," Paul tells us today. And by the Spirit I so call Him. But it must be a daily thing. Jesus must be Lord of my Sunday and then my Monday and then my Tuesday...until my last day. By the power of the Spirit I can persevere until the end. Paul's words will be mine: I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, I have kept the faith. And this great truth I owe to an unknown and unlikely saint, with disheveled dress, unkempt hair and a Food Lion shopping bag.