Saint Mary of Egypt

by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd

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The world has done its best to convince us that fleshly pleasures bring us happiness and that sin has no consequence.  The world (who thinks that sin is a made-up legal problem instead of something that steals life from us) says, it’s not really sin if it gives you pleasure…if it makes you happy!  However, the Saint who’s life we’ll recount at tonight’s Canon of Saint Andrew service challenges us to take a more realistic look at these things and at ourselves, and then to re-focus our attention on Christ instead. 

Each year, we commemorate Saint Mary of Egypt.  She is one of my very favorite saints because her life challenges our preposterous notions about what makes someone a saint, and the kind of people who become saints.   If you’re the type of person who thinks that saints are a different breed of person than all the rest of us…that saints are just people who, from the time of their birth, God made better than all the rest of us…then Saint Mary of Egypt is there to essentially poke a finger in your eye for such flimsy thinking.  Her early life is most distinctively not saintly.  In fact, her life contains everything that Hollywood values most in a seductively salacious story…the stuff that sells tickets. 

Mary of Egypt left her parents’ home at the age of twelve and went to the cultural and commercial center of North Africa, Alexandria, where she became enmeshed in a life of bodily depravity.  There, she spent the next several years of her life trying to satisfy her ravenous appetite for every sexual pleasure.  When she was twenty-nine, she decided on the spur of the moment to attach herself to a group of Christian Libyan and Egyptian men who were voyaging to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a feast day which attracted pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire.  She listened to their stories about Christ and His cross, and then took great pleasure in trying to defile as many of them as possible, offering her body to pay for for her passage on the ship.  It was in Jerusalem though, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, that she underwent a mystical experience that led to her conversion and repentance.  A fragment of the cross of Christ had been placed on display inside the church for pilgrims to venerate.  Mary saw many of them leaving the church afterward, quite moved, having had such an encounter with Christ.  She was curious and thought that she might also like to have such an experience, and so she joined the crowds that were streaming toward the church, and she pushed her way into the narthex with the others.  But when she reached the door to enter the nave of the church, something mysterious prevented her from going in.  She tried again, three or four more times, but each time she reached the door she could go no further.  Finally, exhausted, she stood in a corner of the narthex, trying to figure out what was happening.  Gradually she realized that the depraved, defiling sexual acts that payed her passage to this place prevented her from entering the church and having this encounter with Christ. 

As she stood weeping at this realization, she noticed that there was an icon of the Theotokos on the wall near where she was standing.  Looking into the eyes of the Mother of God, she asked for her help.  She begged to be allowed to look on the life-giving cross, where the Virgin Mary’s Son had died for her.  She promised that she would renounce the world and its temptations and her own warped appetites and go wherever the Theotokos led her.

Then she tried again…and to her surprise, nothing kept her from entering the church.  After kneeling before the cross she returned to the icon and asked the Mother of God to lead her. Then she heard a voice saying “If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest.”  She obeyed, crossed the Jordan River and went into the desert, where she spent the rest of her life redirecting her focus on thirsting for God.

So how do we know about her? Because there was a priest/monk named Father Zosimas, who had become famous for his asceticism (his spiritual struggles, like fasting and prayer).  Eventually he mistakenly came to believe that he had probably attained perfection in these spiritual struggles; that there was nothing more anyone could teach him.  Then he visited a monastery, where it was the custom that the monks spent all of Lent alone in the desert, not seeing how anyone else lived or fasted.  When they all returned on Palm Sunday, no one would ask anyone else how he had succeeded in his Lenten fast.  Thus no one was tempted to impress anyone else; each one had to struggle only with himself before God. 

So following this rule, Fr Zosimas also went into the desert alone, and after twenty days, as he stopped for prayer, across the shimmering sands he saw another human being in the distance.  It was Mary, her skin darkened and leathered by the sun because her clothes had long ago worn out and fallen off.  He tried to approach her but she avoided him, because of her nakedness, until he threw her his cloak.  Then he begged her to tell him her story, and she reluctantly obeyed.  He could tell, by the way she talked and things she knew about him that she lived in much closer communion with God than anyone he had ever met.

I have to admit, when I first heard about her, I wasn’t sure what to think of her.  She seemed too drastic – too extreme in her sinfulness, and especially too radical in her repentance.  Why did she have to spend the next 47 years repenting, punishing herself for her sins?  Why didn’t she just accept God’s forgiveness and get on with her life?  As it turns out, there’s more to repentance than we commonly believe.   Repentance isn’t about guilt and punishment.  And it’s not just saying you’re sorry and then moving on. 

Repentance is about self-awareness…the examined life.  In that moment before Mary of Egypt prayed to the icon of the Theotokos, when she stood in the corner wondering why she couldn’t get in to the church, she became aware that she was a sinful person, and for the first time in her life she realized that it actually mattered.  Up to that moment she had lived her life doing whatever she felt like doing, satisfying her every carnal desire, and believing that it didn’t make any difference.  But God, in His marvelous mercy, gave her the experience of seeing that her actions did matter, and that it prevented her – literally! – from coming close to Him.  That's the object of repentance – not to merely wipe the slate clean, not to simply hit the “reset” button, but rather, to come closer to God and to be transformed by Him. 

The first step in coming closer to God, is seeing ourselves as we really are.  Not as we think others see us, not as we want others to see us; and not as our parents told us we should turn out, either…but as we really are, with all our pretenses and defenses stripped away.  Self-awareness is realizing that left to our own devices, we end up in a pretty vacuous darkness.  Self-awareness is seeing ourselves as God sees us…as fulfilled only in Jesus Christ.

So repentance starts with self-awareness.  It’s about recognizing the obstacles that keep us from coming closer to Christ - not our particular sins, so much as our sinfulness; not the things we do, so much as the desires that make us do them…the desires that draw us away from unity with Christ’s will.  Saint Mary of Egypt’s particular sins were merely the symptoms of the deeper problem, so she needed to treat the sickness that drove her to keep committing those sins.  In order to repent and be transformed into Christ-likeness, we need to recognize the appetites, or passions, that are driving us away from God into spiritual and emotional sickness.

If someone like her could do that, then every single one of us can too!