A Painful Secret

(Homily for Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A)

She was one of the finest Christian writers of the twentieth century, but, for over three decades, Dorothy L. Sayers kept a painful secret. At age 30 she had given birth to an illegitimate son. Miss Sayers hid the pregnancy and birth from her parents, co-workers and closest friends. Entrusting little Anthony to the care of her cousin Ivy, she kept in contact with the boy, supporting him financially and emotionally.* Anthony was among the few present in 1958 when the famous author’s ashes were placed under the tower of St. Anne’s Church, Soho. Some years after her death, the secret became public and Anthony released the letters his mother had written to him as a child.

To keep such a secret was not easy, but in the 1920’s, Dorothy considered it the best course for her son, herself and all others who would have been affected by the knowledge. The letters to her son give poignant testimony to the burden she quietly bore. Although she never wrote about it directly, the secret had a way of coming through in her literary works. She wrote powerfully both about the sadness of human failure and the awesomeness of mercy. As an Anglo-Catholic she confessed her sin to her priest - and in that encounter met the One today’s Gospel announces:

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

Dorothy despised the facile – and superficial – Christianity she often encountered. She had a strong sense of the bitterness which sin causes – and had at least a glimpse of what it meant for Jesus to take our sins upon himself. Refusing to soft-pedal sin, she knew the power of grace. Even her detective stories illustrate that combination of morality and mercy. Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic sleuth who is the hero of her mysteries, shows both moral rightness and the capacity for mercy. Her detective novels continue to be popular today not only because they are elegantly written, but especially because they tell the truth about the human heart – and they point to an even greater reality.

Not only did she know Jesus as the Lamb who takes away sins, Dorothy Sayers was herself a kind of sacrificial victim. She considered aborting her baby, but instead chose to do the best she could for him. It was not easy. Her friend and biographer, Barbara Reynolds wrote this about Anthony’s birth:

There were no telegrams, no letters of congratulations, no flowers and presents from delighted grandparents. Above all, no visit from a proud and beaming father. The loneliness of her situation had just begun. (Dorothy L. Sayers, Her Life and Soul, p. 125)

Dorothy accepted that burden of loneliness. And it served as a kind of wellspring for her writing: detective stories, plays, theological tracts and her translation of and magnificent commentary upon Dante’s Divine Comedy. Like Dante, her writings have helped many people see what sin really is – and that, in the face of so much misery, there is one who triumphs.


*Later she married Mac Fleming and he eventually adopted the boy.

Spanish Version

Final Version

From Archives (Second Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2011: Takes Away Sin
2008: Why Does Human Life Have Value?
2005: A Painful Secret
2002: I Accept The Blame

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