30 - St Mary of Egypt, March 21, 2010

Hebrews 9:11-14 & Galatians 3:23-29

Mark 10:32-45 & Luke 7:36-50

On this the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, the Church inspires us with the endearing story of St Mary of Egypt.

“The elder Zossima, a hieromonk, had gone off at one time during the Great Fast on a 20 days walk into the wilderness across the Jordan. He suddenly caught sight of a human being with a withered and naked body and with hair as white as snow, who fled in its nakedness from Zossima’s sight. The elder ran a long way, until this figure stopped at a stream and called, “Fr. Zossima, forgive me for the Lord’s sake. I cannot turn around to you, for I am a naked woman.” Then Zossima threw her his outer cloak and she wrapped herself in it and turned around to him. The elder was amazed at hearing his name from the lips of this unknown woman. After considerable pressure on his part, she told him the story of her life.

She had been born in Egypt and had lived as a prostitute in Alexandria from the age of twelve, spending 17 years in this way of life. Urged by the lustful fire of the flesh, she one day boarded a ship that was sailing for Jerusalem. Arriving at the Holy City, she attempted to go into one of the churches to venerate the Precious Cross, but some unseen power prevented her from entering. In great fear, she turned to an icon of the Theotokos that was in the entrance and begged her to let her go in and venerate the Cross, confessing her sin and impurity and promising that she would then go wherever the Most Pure One led her. She was then allowed to enter the church. After venerating the Cross, she went out again to the entrance and, standing in front of the icon, thanked the Mother of God. Then she heard a voice saying, ‘If you cross the Jordan, you will find true peace.’ [One notes the beautiful divine irony: Mary the prostitute turns to Mary the Virgin and receives not scorn or disdain but great mercy in the way of instruction on how to find cleansing and healing and true joy in union with God.] Mary of Egypt immediately bought three loaves of bread and set off for the Jordan, arriving there the same evening. She received Holy Communion the following morning in the monastery of St John the Baptist, and then crossed the river. She spent the next 48 years in the wilderness feeding only on plants, in the greatest torments, in terror, in struggles with passionate thoughts like gigantic beasts.

After telling the elder Zossima her story, she stood in prayer and Zossima saw her lifted up in the air. She begged him to bring her Holy Communion the next year on the bank of the Jordan, and she would come to receive it. The following year, Zossima came with the Holy Gifts to the bank of the Jordan in the evening and stood in amazement as he saw her cross the river. He saw her coming in the moonlight and, arriving on the opposite shore of the river, she made the sign of the Cross over the river. She then walked across it as though it were dry land. When she had received Holy Communion, she begged him to come again the following year to the same stream by which they had first met. The next year, Zossima went and found her dead body there on that spot. Above her head in the sand was written: ‘Abba Zossima, bury in this place the body of the humble Mary. Give dust to dust. I passed away on April 1, on the very night of Christ’s Passion, after Communion of the Divine Mysteries.’ For the first time, Zossima learned her name and also the awe-inspiring marvel that she had arrived at that stream the previous year on the night of the same day on which she had received Holy Communion – a place that he had taken 20 days to reach. And thus Zossima buried the body of this wonderful saint, Mary of Egypt. When he returned to the monastery, he recounted the whole story of her life and the wonders to which he had been an eyewitness. Thus the Lord glorifies repentant sinners. She entered into rest in about the year 530.”

There is much to learn from this story to guide us into the last two weeks of the Fast. I want to focus this morning on that point in the story when Mary of Egypt attempted to go into one of the churches to venerate the Precious Cross, but was prevented from entering by some unseen power, which put her in great fear. So, if it put her in great fear, why didn’t she just run away? Why did she turn to the icon of the Theotokos begging to be let in? Why did she fall to her knees confessing her sin and impurity and promise to go wherever the Theotokos commanded her? What did she experience in that fear that changed her casual curiosity to enter the Church into a burning desire to renounce the fleshly pleasures of her life and to confess her impurities and her sins and to go wherever the Theotokos told her to go, to the point that she spent the next 48 years in the wilderness feeding only on plants, in the greatest torments, in terror, in struggles with passionate thoughts like gigantic beasts? Why did she not go back to her prostitution, which was exceedingly more pleasant and comfortable than living in the greatest torments, in terror, and in struggles with passionate thoughts like gigantic beasts?

It is not at all uncommon in the Church to experience the presence of God as a dread darkness filled with a living, numinous presence of absolute purity and goodness that is so terrible in its goodness that one cannot approach. Whether it is a power external to one that prevents one from approaching, or whether it is the fear and terror one feels that prevents one from approaching, one simply cannot approach. An elder priest who is dear to me has shared with me that he had many such experiences in the monastery Church to which he was attached in his early days.

One knows intuitively that one is experiencing a foretaste of one’s dying day, when the body begins to fall away, and then the outer layers of the soul begin to fall away as one draws nearer and nearer to the grave, to reveal within the deeper layers of one’s soul and in the pit of one’s spirit now exposed the stinking carcass of the Old Man, sending up noxious fumes of vanity, conceit, pride, vainglory and envy that emanate from the tomb of one’s heart as from the grave of a stinking corpse. Exposed to the air, they seem to turn into vile, flying beasts with rattling wings that fill the air with their stench. In fear, one sees how much one has lived one’s life immersed in the foul pool of these impurities and that one is in no way worthy to draw near to the Holy One of Israel; one recoils in humiliation and shame and may utter the cry of St Peter: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Yet, one does not want to turn away from this terrible presence, as terrible as it is, and as terrified as one feels in its presence. One does not want to turn away from it; one does not want it to go away. In agony, one desires to be made clean – an agony because one feels so impure that one cannot even ask for cleansing, even as one desires it with one’s whole being.

For, there is something in this presence that inflames the soul with an intense yearning. It is the palpable sense of a divine love of such intense heat that it is terrifying. One understands that the call of the Church “to draw near in the fear of God, with faith and love,” is not religious poetry but a call that comes from the Church’s own living experience of God.

Many souls even up to our own day know from their own experience why St Mary of Egypt did not turn away from this dreadful power that prevented her from entering the Church, but why she turned earnestly toward the icon of the Theotokos, beseeching with all her heart to enter the Church that she might venerate the precious cross, and then go wherever the Theotokos told her to go, and why she spent 48 years in the greatest torments and in terror, struggling with passionate thoughts like gigantic beasts. It was the experience of the terrifying love and infinite compassion of God.

It is a testimony to us to wake up and to become sober in our mind, and to use the peace and tranquility we enjoy in this life not to be casual about the Christian faith, not to pursue the vanity of worldly delights and pleasures, but to pursue spiritual labor under the guidance of the Church that we may make ourselves ready to draw near in faith and in love into the presence of the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight, the greatly Compassionate One and the only Lover of Mankind. Amen.