My reading list for my last American Studies seminar in college featured a book by Kathy Peiss called "Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York." I had a strange sensation while reading this book that mystified me at the time. I still remember almost every photograph in that book and whole paragraphs are still lodged in my memory. This social history of turn-of-the-century girls with their flouncy hats and tickets to Coney Island, didn't seem particularly interesting at the time. (I was much more of a Gov 100 girl back then). Yet now, I'm starting to put the pieces together.
I think the Holy Spirit was trying to tell my something. Enmeshed in the sin of vanity, I was a "charity girl" who needed to reform my ways!
In "Cheap Amusements", the author describes how the new "Nickelodeons" (or movie theaters) started a break down in the strictly chaperoned "courtship" of the Victorian Era. According to what I remember of Peiss's thesis, the movies theaters held an upper balcony where the prostitutes and their clients saw movies. (Note: wasn't my secular college reading list just lovely? :-) Below, on the main floor, were regular immigrant girls on their new fangled "dates". The prostitutes looked on these girls with contempt and called them "charity girls", because they gave their sexual attention away "for free".
I found a quote on the internet that describes this in more detail:
"When reading Peiss’ essay Dance Madness, I found it interesting that there were many different types of girls seen in dance halls, one group being “charity girls.” These women would receive gifts and attention in return for sexual acts. These women were not seen as prostitutes, for they did not have sex for money. Charity girls were not trying to make a living, and they were not looking for a husband, but were looking for “the pleasure of dancing, flirtation, and sexual encounters.” (Peiss, 116) (quote found here.)
Peiss asserted that Working Class girls hacked away at the strict social rules regarding purity, (giving away a hug here, a quick kiss there)in order to receive free tickets to dance halls, Coney Island and movie theaters. Breaking free of established social customs from the Old World, the rules of chastity individualized among young immigrant girls in New York City. Each Charity girl held onto her own "line" of purity. One would never kiss until she had a "steady" date, another would demand "food, tickets AND a new hat." The Charity girls saw themselves as distant from the prostitutes as stars are from the sea. But the prostitutes saw their similarities and poured contempt upon them.
In shock, I put together the warning I received in my heart while reading this book 15 years later. I WAS a prostitute! I was a "Charity Girl." At the time, I never would have self-identified with such a despised label. After all, I never traded sex for outright cash. But in college, I did imperil my precious gift of virginity for a couple of pitchers of warm beer, some Chinese food dinners, a few laughs and the title of "not being alone" on a Saturday night.
The prostitutes were right to pour contempt on my head! My sins were far worse! My sins of unchastity were hidden in cultural acceptance and my "payment" was a pittance!
All of this is swirling around my head this week, because I've fallen in love with Mary Magdalen this Easter. I LOVE her. At my Easter homily, Father Doug described the beauty that Mary the Mother of God stood beside Mary Magdalen at the Crucifixion. Father Doug said "there was the Virgin Mary representing the home Jesus came from and there was Mary Magdalen representing the home he chose during his public ministry."
"The home He choose..." that lit up in my mind like a Neon Sign.
Jesus CHOSE Mary Magdalen, the sinner. The prostitute. He came from the purity of the Holy Family, and he chose the dirty, impure home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus to befriend.
I find all these thoughts very calming as I climb higher in the second mansion of Carmel. I am NOT the Virgin Mary! I am not worthy of this gift of Catholic family life.
Yet my Jesus is a friend of prostitutes. Jesus told the angry Pharisees: "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him." (Matthew 21: 28-32)
I'm not yet a witness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I haven't made it yet. I don't feel his resurrected presence yet in the marrow of my bones. But I am chasing after him! I've heard on the reliable authority of my beloved St. Mary Magdalen that something remarkable happened on that first Easter day.
So please hurry on ahead of me in prayer today! You don't want a former prostitute, a reformed "Charity Girl" to get to the Kingdom ahead of you! :-)