Lent is a time to examine our lives and take stock. To help us in all this the Church provides a series of commemorations and special services. Today is dedicated to Saint Mary of Egypt, one of the greatest examples of personal repentance that we have. I would urge you to read her life by St. Sophronios. Her early sins, by her own account, were grave.
St. Mary went, it seems, on a whim to the Holy Land for the feast of the Elevation of the Cross, and there she found she could not enter the Church.
She says: “I was stopped by some force which prevented my entering…. Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be punched, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me”
The call to repent comes to us all in different ways. She could have simply ignored it or explained it away, but instead, she responded. She said:
“And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the icon of the most holy Mother of God.” She confesses, and asks ” Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of you suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy Blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before your son that I will never again defile myself…, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever you lead me.’
So she entered and saw the Cross, and the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance… Her words again ...
“I came out of the church and went to her who had promised to be my security, to the place where I had sealed my vow. And bending my knees before the Virgin Mother of God, I addressed her with these words: ‘O loving Lady, you have shown me your great love for all men. Glory to God Who receives the repentance of sinners through you. What more can I recollect or say, I who am so sinful? It is time for me, O Lady to fulfil my vow, according to your witness. Now lead me by the hand along the path of repentance!’ And at these words I heard a voice from on high: ‘If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.’ Hearing this voice and having faith that it was for me, I cried to the Mother of God: ‘O Lady, Lady, do not forsake me!’”
Someone gave her the money to buy three loaves, upon which she lived until they were finished. She then lived on herbs, often troubled by demons, suffering heat and cold, praying and learning the psalms. She was in the desert for forty seven years. As she puts it:
“...I have fed on herbs and all that can be found in the desert. The clothes I had when I crossed the Jordan became torn and worn out. I suffered greatly from the cold and greatly from the extreme heat. At times the sun burned me up and at other times I shivered from the frost, and frequently falling to the ground I lay without breath and without motion. I struggled with many afflictions and with terrible temptations. But from that time till now the power of God in numerous ways had guarded my sinful soul and my humble body. When I only reflect on the evils from which Our Lord has delivered me I have imperishable food for hope of salvation. I am fed and clothed by the all-powerful Word of God, the Lord of all. For it is not by bread alone that man lives. And those who have stripped off the rags of sin have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rocks” (Job 24; Hebrews 11:38).
When holy Zosima came across her in the desert he asked her if she had books to learn scripture she said: ” I never learned from books. I have never even heard anyone who sang and read from them. But the word of God which is alive and active, by itself teaches a man knowledge. And so this is the end of my tale. But, as I asked you in the beginning, so even now I implore you for the sake of the Incarnate word of God, to pray to the Lord for me who am such a sinner.”
She was clearly deeply holy at this stage yet very humble. She swore the elder to secrecy and asked him to return to her a year later, to take her communion. He was worried about how he would cross the Jordan and she walked across it to meet him when the time came.
Thus she received the holy mysteries, and when he went back the following year he found her body. She had left written in the earth: “Abba Zosima, bury on this spot the body of humble Mary. Return to dust that which is dust and pray to the Lord for me, who departed in the month of Fermoutin of Egypt, called April by the Romans, on the first day, on the very night of our Lord’s Passion, after having partaken of the Divine Mysteries.”
He buried her there with the aid of a lion that dug the hard earth with its claws, and told the monks what had happened on his return.
Mary’s story demonstrates certain things. She was a great sinner, she says yet Christ accepted her repentance. The Gospel reading we heard earlier (Luke 7:36-50) has the same impact as this; Christ was not ashamed to accept the attention of the sinner; he welcomed it.
Next: she made a decision to repent. She did it; no ifs, no buts, no excuse, she did it. Metanoia, a change of mind is what is asked of us. She did that by an act of will. The tears and remorse were incidental. She also asked the help of the Mother of God; she got it, and she invoked her aid in the desert. Even in the desert Mary was not alone, she was a part of the wider Church. No Christian is totally isolated in fact.
Mary made a vow and kept it. She went to the desert. She made a promise to abstain and and kept it.
“But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” (James 5:12)
She was open to God. Someone I know from Texas wrote recently “The deal I made with God was that I’d quit drinking for at least 5 years if my stolen baroque trumpet was found. As you know, it was. It’s not for me to second guess this, and I will answer the call. I LOVE beer, but I love God more. And this is God’s Will. So be it.” I do not know what is in store for him, but St Mary obeyed and achieved great things.
Forgiveness is fast but it was not the end. God carried on allowing her to attain greater purity. She was tempted even in the desert, yet as we are told “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Her condition looked dire yet she bore it. She was truly holy.
Sometimes God will erase a problem quickly and easily, sometimes we have to struggle on. “Attentiveness is a sign of true repentance; it is the soul’s restoration, hatred of the world, and return to God. It is rejection of sin and recovery of virtue.” (St Nikiphoros in The Philokallia, vol 4 page 205). Metanoia (change of mind) is an on-going process. Growth towards God is a continuous task, a battle against evil, fought however with the help of the Angels, the Saints and of Christ himself. Mary of Egypt supremely shows the power of repentance. May we follow in her path.