St Mary of Egypt
On this fifth Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate a woman who has become an example and hero of repentance for Orthodox Christians, St Mary of Egypt.
We read her life this week at the Matins service on Monday evening. For those that were not able to hear it, I’ll briefly summarize her life… St Mary lived in the latter half of the 4th century and was known throughout Alexandria as a notorious prostitute. One year, she joined a large group of people on board a ship heading to Jerusalem. Most of the passengers were pilgrims making their way to the Holy Land in preparation for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Mary’s purposes for boarding the ship and being in the proximity of so many people were far less honorable. Having arrived, she persisted in her sinful ways and even joined the throngs of people heading toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the day of the feast. However, when she attempted to enter the threshold of the church, she was prevented from entering by some invisible force. She tried several times to cross the threshold of the church but was repelled by this force each time. This striking manifestation of her unworthiness due to her sins struck deep into the heart of St Mary and she retired into a corner of the courtyard where she wept bitter tears. She realized her shame and sin and pleaded with the Most Holy Mother of God that if she would be permitted to enter into the church to venerate the precious wood of the Holy Cross, she would spend the rest of her life in repentance and service to God. She approached the threshold again and, this time, was able to enter without any hindrance at all. She venerated the Holy Cross and, afterwards, retired into the desert to work out her salvation.
St Mary lived alone and in obscurity for nearly fifty years as a hermit in the wilds of the desert. Only the Lord knows of her prayers and tears and struggles throughout this time. At the end of her life, a priestmonk by the name of Zosimas happened upon St Mary and learned of her life. St Zosimas was blessed to bring her the sacraments of our Lord’s Body and Blood. When St Zosimas returned to meet her a year later, he discovered the body of St Mary, who had reposed shortly after receiving Holy Communion a year before.
The life of St Mary of Egypt fills us with awe at the depths of her repentance and also at the depths of the love of God. St Mary, who lived her early life in utter depravity, repented thoroughly and was granted such grace that she walked upon the waters of the Jordan River and had the gift of insight – perceiving the revelations of God.
We should take heart that no matter what sins we may have committed, no matter what troubles we may get ourselves into… though we turn our back on God, He never turns His back on us! What is required is repentance… Not simply feelings of guilt or wishes for improvement, but a conscious and determined action of turning around from the way which leads us away from God to the way which leads us toward God.
The decisive and profound repentance of St Mary is set before us as our example.
Quoting from a sermon by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, he writes:
‘St Mary of Egypt can teach us something very great. As Saint Seraphim of Sarov repeated more than once to those who came to see him, the difference between a sinner who is lost and a sinner who finds his way to salvation lies in nothing but determination. The grace of God is always there; but our response is not. But Mary responded; through the horror of her new perception of herself she responded to the holiness, the grace, the wholeness and sanctity of the Mother of God, and nothing, nothing was too much for her to change her life.
Year after year, in fasting and prayer, in the scorching heat, in the desperate aloneness of the desert she fought all the evil that had accumulated in her soul; because it is not enough to become aware of the evil, it is not enough even to reject it in an act of will, – it is there, in our memories, in our desires, in our frailty, in the rottenness which evil brings. She had to fight for her whole life, but at the end of that life she had conquered; indeed, she had fought the good fight, she had become pure of stain, she could enter the realm of God: not a temple, not a place but eternity.’
St Mary is presented to us in these latter days of the Great Fast as a beacon of hope and as an inspiration of challenge. We find great hope in that the worst of sinners can come to realize the goodness of God and that in turning to Him, we face open arms. And we find an inspiration and challenge in seeing the endurance and determination which St Mary showed in fighting her good contest.
May she be our guiding light away from the darkness of sin and toward the beauty and light of God. May she intercede for us – praying that we might have some fraction of her strength and determination. Oh, most holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us!