|31 - St Mary of Egypt, April 5, 2009|
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.”
Note that after St Mary of Egypt repented and undertook to follow Christ as the Theotokos directed her, she was not led into a rose garden where she spent the rest of her life smelling roses (or even like a rose) and drinking ambrosia. She was led into the desert where she spent the rest of her life in fasting and in prayer, in the greatest torments, in terror, struggling with passionate thoughts like gigantic beasts.
On a smaller scale, perhaps, this has been the experience of many of you. Some of you have discovered that the joy of your Baptism or Chrismation has been followed not by a lessening of spiritual struggle but by a more intense spiritual struggle, greater than any you may have known before. Why are we surprised by this? After he brought Israel through the Red Sea and delivered them from Pharaoh and his armies – a type of our baptism – where did God lead the Israelites? Into the desert. And, the Savior, immediately after he was baptized by John, was led by the Spirit into the desert. The spiritual struggles we encounter after our baptism are the same thing: they are the desert that God has led us into after delivering us from Pharaoh and his armies, or from the Evil One and all his minions.
Why does God lead those whom he delivers into the desert? Why does he himself, after his victory over Satan in the waters of the Jordan, go into the desert to do battle with the devil?
It’s because he is leading us back to Paradise – the land of Canaan, the Garden of Eden, the Kingdom of Heaven. Like the Israelites and like St Mary of Egypt before her repentance, we have made our home in Egypt that is separated from Canaan by desert. That is to say, we have given ourselves over willingly to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life and we have become separated from God by death and corruption. To bring them to Canaan, God had to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert. To bring us into the Resurrection of Christ, God has to lead us out of the lust of the flesh and the pride of life and through the desert of death.
In spiritual terms, going into the desert means turning around to confront our will by which we have willingly given our love over to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. This is why baptism is followed by spiritual struggle. Having passed through the waters of our baptism like the Israelites passing through the Red Sea, we must take up our love and follow Christ out of Egypt, out of the lust of the flesh and the pride of life and into the desert, into the work of uniting our love to his cross. This work of repentance is done through the disciplines of prayer and fasting and charity.
Without this work of repentance, our faith is dead because without this work we are choosing to stay in Egypt that is surrounded by desert; we are choosing to leave our love united to the life of the flesh whose end is death and corruption. To follow Christ into his resurrection, we must take our love away from the flesh and unite it to his cross. This work of crucifying our love for the flesh to the cross of Christ is the purpose of the Great Fast. Through the fast, we go into the desert of our soul and do battle with our will’s habitual tendency to fill the emptiness of our inner life with the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life rather than with the life-giving and life-creating Holy Spirit of Christ.
The story of St Mary of Egypt reminds us that our Lenten discipline is all about uniting ourselves to Christ so that in him we may die to the flesh and live to God and receive healing of our soul and body unto life eternal. The Cross of Christ delivers us from the emptiness of our lusts that fill our souls with gloom and despair, and make us bitter and cynical. And, because Christ is risen from the dead and is in our midst even now, his Cross opens us onto his resurrection in Paradise even now. That’s why the ascetic disciplines of the Church are the source of a spiritual joy that can be experienced even now and that the world cannot take away. It is why the faithful take up the rigors of the fast with joy. The ascetic disciplines of the Church are the cross that unites us to Christ in the joy of his holy Resurrection.
In this, the story of St Mary of Egypt can also inspire those who have ignored the fast up to now or who have been indifferent to it. If St Mary of Egypt inspires in you a desire even yet to take up your cross and follow Christ into his Holy Resurrection, it’s because her story proclaims the ineffable love of God, and there is still time to repent. For God is good and gracious, and he desires not the death of a sinner but that he turn from his wickedness and live; and in his mercy, he will deliver even those who take up their cross to follow him at the eleventh hour.
The Midnight hour of Pascha approaches. The Heavenly Bridegroom draws near. O holy and beloved Mary of Egypt, pray to Christ our God that he will have mercy on us sinners and save us! Amen.