|33 - Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, St Mary of Egypt, April 21, 2013|
Given the easy accessibility to certain websites made possible by our advanced technologies today, Orthodox priests are reporting increasing numbers of faithful struggling with the terribly seductive, erotic force of pornography. Today we commemorate the life of St Mary of Egypt, died on April 1, in the year 522 AD or so, who, from the age of 12, was completely taken by love for the sensual life of the flesh and played the harlot for 17 years. You could say that she was, for her day, a “porn star”. And yet, she repented and was saved through the prayers of the Theotokos and by the power of Christ’s Cross.
The beautiful story of her repentance and sanctification exemplifies the good news of the Gospel: that our Lord Jesus Christ loved us and died for our sins that He might raise us up out of this present evil age into His Kingdom of Light. (cf. Gal 1:4) Our commemoration on this Fifth Sunday of Great Lent of St Mary of Egypt gives us an occasion to set forth the spiritual beauty of the Church’s theological vision of erotic desire in order to expose the terrible darkness of perverted sexuality that seeks to draw us away from God, using our erotic desire as the means.
St Maximus the Confessor (d. 662 AD), writes: “God is said to be the originator and begetter of love and the erotic force.” (5th Cent. Of Various Texts, Philokalia II, §87, p. 281) The erotic force within us is not evil; it is good, even very good because it is of God. If it is of God, however, it is spiritual. Its natural object, then, is not the flesh but the Spirit. (And, I think if we would reflect closely on the matter, we would discern in our lust spiritual qualities that give to it its thrill, its force, but which we can’t see because we confuse those spiritual qualities with the flesh that we are lusting after.) The origin of erotic desire is Spirit, because it comes from God who is Spirit; and so its telos, its goal, its natural end is Spirit, the Spirit of God.
St Denys the Areopagite (6th Cent.) writes: “The divine erotic force produces ecstasy (a going out of oneself), compelling those who love to belong not to themselves but to those whom they love.” (Ibid. §85)
From this, we can see that erotic love is the force of life; for it is through the erotic love of God that He came out of Himself when he breathed His Spirit into Adam and made him to become a living soul. It is by the Spirit that Jesus was raised from the dead. By the Spirit, Christ bestows life on those in the tombs; and, by the Spirit, those who receive Christ in love become children of God, born of the Spirit from above.
Think closely on what these holy fathers are teaching us: this erotic force within us, driving us to come out of ourselves in order to belong not to ourselves but to those whom we love, is spiritual. It originates from God. Naturally, then, our erotic desire yearns for life, for divine life, for the life of Spirit, for the Good, even for God, the originator and begetter of the erotic force within us. So, St Mary wasn’t sinful because of her erotic desire. Neither are we sinful because of our erotic desire. It’s not our erotic desire that makes us sinners, because our erotic desire is of divine origin and quality. It’s what we give our erotic desire to that makes us sinners or saints. We, because of our self-will and disobedience have fallen into lust and greed and have become blind. Unable to see the Good because of the impurity of our hearts, we give our erotic desire not to the Spirit of God who is eternal (but which we can’t see), but to the sensual lusts of the flesh that is mortal and corruptible (which we can see). The flesh and its lusts are from the dust and to the dust they return. So, when we give our erotic desire to the flesh, we make ourselves belong to death, because we make ourselves belong to the flesh that will one day become a corpse.
Of course, we don’t love a corpse, what is dead and ugly. So, when the beautiful bodies we lust after grow old and ugly, we turn our erotic desire to younger, more beautiful bodies. But, those bodies, too, will grow old and ugly until they become one day food for the worms and stench. St Denys said: “The divine erotic force…compels those who love to belong… to those whom they love.” When we lust after the flesh, we become “wedded unto death,” as we hear at the funeral service. When we turn our erotic desire toward fleshly beauty, and keep transferring our erotic desire to younger bodies, we are making ourselves belong to a chimera; we are chasing after a chimerical beauty that doesn’t exist except in the wisps of our fantasy.
Can you see how lust is the perversion of our erotic desire? Our erotic desire is divine, it is spiritual, it is of God. It is a loving force in us that yearns for real beauty that really exists in the eternal Good – who became “real” in the flesh and could be seen, and dwelt among us. But, lust is our erotic desire fallen victim to a deception, to a chimerical promise that cannot give what it promises.
Moreover, God is Three Persons. To say that our erotic desire originates in God, then, is to say above all else that our erotic desire is inherently personal. It desires to belong to a person, not in his or her fleshly beauty – because that is but a chimera, it doesn’t last – but in his or her spiritual or personal character.
We are not sinners because of our erotic desire. We sin because we direct our erotic desire away from its originator and begetter, God, and towards the flesh. This makes us harlots, if not in the deeds of our body, like St Mary of Egypt, then in the lustful desires of our mind and heart. But, a harlot is simply an idolater: one who gives his erotic desire not to God, its originator and begetter, but to the sensual desires of the flesh and so makes himself belong to death, when we were made to belong to God in love.
I believe that it is through our erotic desire, because it is of divine origin and quality, that the devil seeks to seduce us away from God. He hopes to pervert our erotic desire by enticing us with the beauty of the flesh. If we listen to him, we can easily forget that the flesh is not eternal. We see that the flesh is beautiful to the eyes because the body is, after all, made in the image of God. We forget that the flesh owes its beauty not to itself but to God, and that on its own, apart from God, it will one day become a corpse, food for the worms and stench.
St Mary of Egypt’s flight into the desert, then, was not to escape her erotic desire. It was to flee the sin that had perverted her erotic desire and taken it captive. She fled in order to follow Christ into the same wilderness the Spirit led Him; she fled in order to put on Christ and through the prayers of the Blessed Panagia and by the power of Christ’s Cross, to be tempted by the devil in order to triumph over the devil, and to find healing and sanctification of her erotic desire by giving it no more to the flesh but to the Spirit, so that she would belong to Christ and the life of His Holy Resurrection, and not to the flesh and the corruption of death. So also, our ascetic fight is not to extinguish our erotic desire, but to give it to the Spirit so that we belong to God, so that we fulfill our baptismal oath to “unite ourselves to Christ.”
We see in the life of St Mary of Egypt how terrible this struggle was for her; but she triumphed over the devil by the power of Christ’s Cross through the intercessions of the most blessed Panagia Theotokos. Like St Mary of Egypt, we can triumph over the devil when, like her, we resolve to give our erotic desire back to Christ our God who first loved us and gave Himself for us. In the resolve of our erotic desire, we take up our cross, the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting and mercy. For the power of Christ’s Cross, the grace of His Resurrection, the power that puts the devil to flight, that destroys death and gives life to those in the tombs, this is the very same power that begins to work in us when we take up the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting, those “flowers of abstinence that grow from the Tree of the Cross.”
This is to say that “faith” is much more than mere acceptance of some religious assertion that Christ died on the Cross for us. The faith of Christ is the work of the Cross, the work of denying ourselves and taking up our cross to follow Christ in love. If you have repented, but now find yourself sorely tempted to go back to Egypt, this does not mean that you have fallen away from Christ. It means that you are right where you should be: in the wilderness, fighting the devil who is trying to seduce you back to Egypt by appealing to the erotic desire in you, so that you will give your erotic desire to the sensuality of the flesh and so make yourselves to belong to death and the devil, and not to the Lord Jesus Christ who loved you and gave Himself for you, and by His Cross destroyed the death that is in you by His death and gave you who were dead in your sins and trespasses life, the life of His Holy Resurrection.
Remember how St Mary was bathed in the healing, luminous grace of the Theotokos after her terrible bouts with the devil because she remained steadfast in her resolve and did not give in to his seduction, even though her lustful desires came at her like terrifying wild beasts, and she thought she would die. She did not give in but called on the Theotokos to help her. To keep herself from going back to Egypt, she would throw herself on the ground as though dead until the intensity of the struggle passed. She was, in effect, by falling to the ground so she couldn’t go back to Egypt, taking firm hold of the cross she had been given, and by the grace, the power of the Resurrection inherent in the cross, she triumphed over the devil and became a saint.
And so can we; if we give ourselves to what our erotic desire truly wants: the beauty of God’s spiritual, eternal life. In the Church, we are joined by the saints who have gone before us, and by brothers and sisters who are taking up the same fight as we are. In this blessed communion, we can encourage each other to stay in the wilderness until our erotic desire is sanctified in Christ and the desert of our soul blossoms like the rose in the power, the grace, the love and joy of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. Amen.