What is the gate of repentance which leads to divine and eternal life in God? The awareness of our sinfulness before Him. Such an awareness of sin came to St. Mary whom all Orthodox Christians commemorate today as a lofty standard of true, life-transforming repentance. However, as we see from her life, an awareness of our sins is often brought about by a seeming misfortune, or impasse, or perplexity in our life.
St. Mary was caught in the deep pit of fleshly passion and carnal sins—fornication, gluttony, drunkenness and every sensual pleasure. Yet, when she saw many running to the Church to behold the most holy and precious Cross of Christ being exalted, she also ran with them. She does not tell us why she ran with the rest of the people. Maybe she was still gripped by lawless passion, and desired to be with the crowd where she could find more lovers to satisfy her unquenchable passion.
Maybe she ran because of curiosity; she may have been caught up by the great zeal of the crowd, and so strongly influenced by them that she too wanted to share in the commonly-perceived expected joy of all.
Maybe she ran to see the Cross because there was still a small spark of piety hidden within the depths of her soul which was planted since childhood, but greatly buried and stifled from 17 years of godlessness and filthiness. As she relates about her life, after her conversion, she straightway received the Holy Mysteries, showing that she must have been baptized as an infant, having the divine and irrevocable grace of the Holy Spirit implanted within her soul.
This small spark planted within her, though unfed, was enough for her to have it fanned by the piety of the crowd and to be transformed into a great, heaven-reaching flame of unconquerable divine love which even to this day illumines us by its purity and beauty.
St. Mary stands with the choir of the pure virgins as is depicted in many of the icons of All Saints. She is seen as a dark-skinned and half-clothed body amidst a choir of white-robed virgins; she alone stands distinguished from them. The hymns praise her as having been graced with the purity of angels—and this is no poetic flourish, but a glorious and wondrous revelation of the great power of God to transform souls so much. In her are fulfilled the words of the Morning Prayer: “O Lord, grant me to love Thee as much as I once loved sin itself.” She confesses that in her sinful life she had an insatiable and burning lust for sin. But later on, she confesses to Abba Zosimas that she has an irrepressible thirst for Holy Communion, for Christ!
But this transformation did not happen so easily, as she confesses:
Having repeated my attempt 3 or 4 times [to enter the Church], at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be pushed, 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. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart. And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the icon of the Most Holy Mother of God.
The awareness of her sins came about by a divine dispensation: she could not enter the Church. For us, we do not have to look very far in order to find some seeming misfortune or difficult occasion in our own life which makes us more aware of how much we do not have love, or patience, or mercy, or prayer, or humility, or some other virtue.
Like St. Mary, these occasions will not be necessarily easy to come to grips with. She confessed that it was only “with great difficulty” that she realized why this hindrance was occurring. Nonetheless, she humbled herself, and this is the secret. After she humbled herself interiorly, and came to grips with the fact that she herself was the cause of her difficulty, only then did Christ the “Word of salvation gently touch the eyes of [her] heart and revealed to [her] that it was [her] unclean life which barred the entrance to [her].”
So it is with us: when adversity comes upon us, we must—maybe with great difficulty—always understand that the cause ultimately lies within us, but not in despair, not in self-hatred, not in self-destructive frustration with ourselves. Yes, truly, we must despair in ourselves, in our own power; but we must never despair of God’s power. By such a two-fold acknowledgment and confession—both of our weakness and God’s power—Christ will grant us the grace to perceive more clearly the exact reasons for our adversities. He will illumine us and show us a certain sin that we have, or an unrepented disposition, or a certain amount of self-trust of which we were unaware. Yet, He will not just show us, but heal us.
Most beautiful are those words which express the most-merciful action of Christ’s grace: St. Mary says that He “gently touched the eyes of [her] heart” and granted her the perception of how sinful she actually was. Maybe only St. Mary noticed her inability to enter the Church. She says that the crowd was very pressed and full. So maybe no one else really noticed her humiliating situation.
See again how merciful God is in His dealings with us. He is able to humble us and to bring us to our senses so that we might find His gift of repentance even without being humiliated in the eyes of all—although this awareness is so powerful that we might truly feel our sinful soul to be nakedly exposed to all; and this is a great grace: it is the experience of the shame which will be known at the Last Judgment. If we embrace it now, we will not know it then. Even so, sometimes God sees that we must in actual deed be humiliated in the eyes of all in order for a serious sickness of soul to be rooted out by pain, awareness and humility. God alone knows.
Nonetheless, in whatever manner it comes about, when we find ourselves in humiliating circumstances, we must meet this humiliation with humility. We must realize that God is not trying to rub in our face in a shaming way, our sins, our weaknesses, our defects, our brokenness. He is not trying to make us feel absolute disgust with our uselessness. But He is seeking to translate all of our self-reliance into a dependence on Him.
Let us remember the blind man in the Gospel. Why was he blind from birth? Two answers were given by the Apostles and the Pharisees: either this man sinned, or his parents did. But what does Christ God the Truth Himself declare? So that the glory of God might be made manifest!
These are wondrous words for us! Here is the key to all of our life’s failures, all of our inherited weaknesses and passions, of all our bad habits and dispositions cultivated over a life-time involuntarily and unconsciously. Here is the answer: we are maimed that we might be made whole; we are blind that we might be gifted with true sight; we are paralyzed that we might be resurrected! We are speaking now of spiritual healing.
Here is the answer to why there is allowed so much pain, so much evil, so much suffering and human misery on this earth—that God’s glory might be made all the more manifest, as a bright gold streak painted across a gloomy black and white picture. Without pain and suffering, failures, risings, falling down again; without ceaseless efforts which seem unrewarded and unfruitful; and without being suddenly transformed by God’s grace; without all the variations of this fallen and unstable life, we will never securely and firmly hold onto God’s immortal gifts; we will never experience the great contrast of human weakness and divine power.
O mankind: what is this mystery concerning us? What is this grace of which the Apostle Peter testifies about, when he declares, with heavenly and angelic wisdom, the fact that the grace of Christ which has dawned forth for us men of dust and ash is an unfathomable gift which even the angels greatly desire to peer into, to understand, to comprehend, to experience, to taste? What is this grace that he speaks of? What could we lowly sinners possess which is the object of envy for the angels?
Those angels who have fallen are solidified in their pride and unrepentance; and they will never taste the mercy of forgiveness because of their stubborn refusal of God’s mercy; they are bereft of saving humility. Those angels who have never fallen, on the other hand, neither will they comprehend the great grace of forgiveness; for without sin, there is no need for it; without corruption there is no experience of restoration; without suffering death, there is no resurrection.
What then? We who fall countless times in the day, we are given great and enviable gifts: the taste of mercy, the experience of divine compassion, the underserved embrace of divine love, the humble joy of transformation, the wondrous translation from the bottomless pit of the hell of sin and agony to the wondrous heights of heavenly joy; the conscious experience of that saying of the Psalmist: “This change hath been wrought by the Right Hand of the Most High Himself,” and Him alone; not by my own power; not by my own cunning; not by my own virtue; not by my own worth; but by Him Who loves mankind ineffably, incomprehensibly, unconditionally!
Let all of us who are stuck in sin, take heart! Let all of us who are subject to the slavery of sin look up! Let all of us who are deadened in sin, obliterated by passion, imprisoned within the hades of spiritual lifelessness and darkness, let us await our Redeemer, let us expect our Resurrection Himself, let us trust in the unfailing mercy of Life Himself.
Who asked Him to create us before all things existed? Certainly not angels, for they did not yet exist. Certainly it was His devising. Who asked Him to will us forth into existence, that we might be conscious, free, rational images of His glory, alone of all earthly beings endowed with the capacity to experience His divine and uncreated life? Who begged Him, after we fell, to become incarnate? What man dared to venture upon such a wild-seeming dream: that God would become Man, would suffer with us, taste our death, dive into hades after us who have fallen, and raise us up beyond even the unfallen and spotless angels, setting our human nature upon the throne of His Father? Who dared to pray such a thing?
Only His mercy, only His wisdom, only His love, only His fatherly compassion could intercede for us, could design such unfathomable things for lowly men of dust and ash.
Let no one, let absolutely no one despair now! For, the Father has given us His Only-Begotten Son, and He will give us the Holy Spirit if we constantly and humbly beg Him. These things we have been told by Christ Himself. If God the Father has given us the other Two Persons of the Holy Trinity Themselves, and Himself with Them, what will we lack? What else can we beg of Him that He will not give? If we beg repentance, shall He withhold? If we cast ourselves down and ask for life, shall He turn away? If we ask for complete transformation, shall He forsake us? No! Be sure of this! For God cannot lie; His gifts are irrevocable! His unfailing love can never be offended beyond the point of no return.
He only asks the turning of the heart, a humble casting of ourselves down onto the earth, a confession of our weakness, an honesty of our spiritual poverty—all of this is the very accessible rule of repentance given to us in the life of St. Mary, along with—a long-suffering patience and hope which rests in the fervent expectation of His coming to save us, to lift us up, to renew us, to transform us, to conform us to Himself, to make us human again, to make us angelic, to make us divine, to make us sons of God, to make us gods of the only God of gods, and Lord of lords.
To Him, our Intercession, our Boldness, our Life, our Hope, our Prayer, our Salvation, our Purity, our Renewal—to Him, Christ our God, together with His Father and the All-Holy Spirit, let us constantly offer thanks for such unutterable gifts and works on our behalf. Let us constantly beg of Him the change He wrought in St. Mary, and made manifest to us for our hope. Let us fall down in worship and prayer, and let us glorify Him and He shall not put us to shame in the age to come; and He shall number us with the repentant St. Mary, and with all the angels and saints, and with the Mother of God, the constant guide and intercession of St. Mary and ourselves. Amen.