St Mary lived, in Alexandria, by a combination of begging and spinning flax. Her appetite for sexual pleasure was not that scandalous to much modern thinking. She might have been a total unknown but for the Grace of God. She went to Jerusalem on a whim and famously tried to enter the Church for the elevation of the cross when she found she could not because it was as if there was some barrier preventing her. Her words are recorded as follows:- “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.” Then came the moment of repentance, she prayed before the icon of the Theotokos and asked for help, saying that if she was granted to see the cross she would go where she was told.
For the rest of the story I suggest you read the account for yourselves. However, she was told to go to the other side of Jordan, which she did, stopping to attend a Liturgy to receive Holy Communion, and then crossing the river and going into the desert. There she lived on three small loaves and what vegetation she could gather for 47 years until she finally met the elder who was there for Lent. She obeyed God in this harsh place, tormented by heat and frost, and even with no clothes when they fell to pieces. She is a prime example of repentance and in some ways the ultimate ascetic.
Mercifully, we do not have to all live such a hard life, and no one is tested more than they can take. At St Paul reminds us “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1Corinthians 10 v 13).
What can we learn from St Mary of Egypt? She shows, first and foremost, the operation of conscience. We all have a conscience, and we can pray for it to be strengthened as well. Alternatively. We can simply ignore it, and harden our hearts. My experience is that listening to conscience is not only good in that it leads to a greater awareness of what one really is. This is healthy; after all, one day we expect to stand before God and to be seen for exactly what we are. . Like St Mary we can all make choices and we do make these choices daily, even minute by minute, doing things which we know to be right or wrong. God calls all of us to do right as he calls us all to follow him.
St Mary shows there is no place in the Body of Christ for snobbery. We cannot assume that sanctity is the preserve of the respectable or even the likeable. I am sure there would have been people in Alexandria who would have looked down on this woman, as being poor and not working anymore to support herself. She got by on begging and spinning. She would probably be a part-time worker on social security now. Also, a number of people would have been critical of her morals, or lack of them. Yet, she is now seen as one of the greater saints – because she changed …. she repented..
She also shows the need to persevere. Deacon Emmanuel pointed out at the Liturgy on Wednesday night that St Paul spent several years in preparation after his conversion before he started work as a missionary. In an age that demands immediate satisfaction of wants and immediate results, this is not fashionable. Yet, prayer and fasting, study and being transformed by the Holy Spirit takes a lot of time; in fact it is a lifetime’s work and a constant battle. Not for nothing is one of the most widely read (and one of my favourite) Orthodox books called “Unseen Warfare”. We tend to skip over waiting on God we read the accounts of the saints’ lives. We also unconsciously edit out of our attention the real privations and sufferings preferring to concentrate instead on glorification. Yet in St Mary’s case she spent 47 years in the desert. She also had to deal with temptations and evil imagination. She said to the elder who finally met her:
“I implored her (the Mother of God) to chase away the thoughts to which my miserable soul was succumbing. And after weeping for long and beating my breast, I used to see light at last which seemed to shine on me from everywhere.”
After temptation, if it is resisted, comes blessing. It is also a great encouragement to know that St Mary herself sought the aid of intercessors in the form of the saints, in her case especially the Theotokos, in her fight. She clearly had her prayers answered but it was no easy fight. It is not enough to repent, we need to persevere. St John of Kronstadt wrote: “Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it; where there is no struggle, there is no virtue… Our faith, trust and love are revealed and proved and revealed in adversities” (My Life in Christ p 407). That is profoundly true. It is when things go wrong that we find who we really are. It is when we push ourselves and seek to do better by God’s grace we can find what we are capable of. This is as true in relations with God as it is in physical training. It is in resisting evil we find out how strong it can be. In striving to be better we learn how much bad there is in us. However, as we learn through experience how little we can do on our own, in fact nothing, we then learn how much God can do with us …. if we let Him.
St Mary shows, like a beacon, the ability of a human being to endure against all manner of torments and distractions. She shows the power of repentance and she shows the futility of self-pity. She attained, through the grace of God true greatness.
I wish I had one tenth of her courage and self-awareness. She is however prepared to intercede for us. Whatever our path is and will be; by turning back to God, by repenting we get back on the right track – to salvation.
“St Mary we honour and thank you for the example you have shown to the world. Intercede with Christ our God that we too may learn to repent and to follow the path He wants for each of us. Amen.”