Given at the Hermitage of the Holy Cross during the Sunday Liturgy.
On this Fifth Sunday of Lent, we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt. We have become acquainted with her throughout the whole of Lent. We first chanted about her works in the first week of Lent during Compline when we chanted the Great Canon. We next heard of her life only a few days ago when the Great Canon was chanted in its entirety during Matins this past Wednesday. Today, as we come toward the end of this time of Lent and repentance, we reach the summit of our awareness of St. Mary on this Sunday dedicated to her commemoration.
Although all of her life is a source of edification and amazement, today we will only look at the beginning of her life as seen through the writing of St. John Climacus.
During her first meeting with St. Zosimas, St. Mary, after much persuasion, ashamedly recounts her life in Egypt noting that she ruined her maidenhood and then unrestrainedly gave herself up to a life of sensuality for the next seventeen years. She even refused to accept money and did free of charge what gave her pleasure and described herself as having “an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth.”[i] We observe that she does not mention ever wanting to stop, to get help, or even to change her life. Instead, she enjoyed this and to such a degree as to not even accept any money but instead lived as a beggar and by spinning flax. Such was the extent of her depravity.
It so happened that she heard of a group traveling to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and she decided that she would go also. What then happened when she arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? She went to the church and tried to cross the threshold but was unable to. She tried three more times and was still unable to enter, and she described her failed attempt by mentioning that it was as though there was a detachment of soldiers preventing her from entering. It was at this moment, she says, that “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 sigh from the depths of my heart.”[ii] And turning in prayer to the Mother of God, she said,
But I have heard that God who was born of thee became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of thee suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy Blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am.[iii]
Then she was allowed to enter. Recounting her story to St. Zosimas, she said, “And so it was I saw the life-giving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Throwing myself on the ground, I worshiped that holy earth and kissed it with trembling.”[iv]
How is one to describe this moment of St. Mary’s life, what fueled this zeal and change of heart? St. John Climacus writes, or perhaps warns those who are overly bold, that,
He who thinks that it is possible to use the visible world in order to describe the awareness and effect of the love of the Lord exactly, holy humility gracefully, blessed purity truly, divine enlightenment clearly, the fear of God honestly, or assurance of heart unerringly, and imagines that by his description of things of this kind he will enlighten those who have never actually experienced them, is like a man who by words and comparisons wants to give an idea of the sweetness of honey to people who have never tasted it…[v]
Knowing that the taste of honey cannot be conveyed, what can be said is that it is this “honey” that we should desire above all else. As St. John says in another area: “If we ardently desire to run towards the state of well-being on high, we should be eager to taste the glory that is above. He who has tasted that will despise all earthly glory.”[vi]
It is this “taste of glory” which is placed in our hearts, which also transformed St. Mary and has transformed us. However, it is also this that we bury through laziness, obscure through forgetfulness, and abort through ignorance.[vii] What can we do to recover the desire for this “taste of glory”?
Using St. John one more time as a commentator on the spiritual life and, in particular, the life of St. Mary, we note that there is nothing wrong with taking examples from the vices to turn them into examples for the virtues.[viii] Therefore, here is a good example; he writes,
I have seen impure souls raving madly about physical love; but making their experience of such love a reason for repentance, they transferred the same love to the Lord; and, overcoming all fear, they spurred themselves insatiably on to the love of God. That is why the Lord does not say of that chaste harlot [in the Gospels]; ‘Because she feared,’ but: ‘because she loved much,’ and could easily expel love by love.[ix]
The love for God becomes the fuel of our fire, the animation of our fervor, and the energy of our zeal. “He is pure who expels love with love and who has extinguished the material fire by immaterial fire.”[x]
And St. Mary once clung only to her lovers, but says to St. Zosimas about her new life in the desert, “I live here clinging to my God.”[xi] Therefore, we, in asking for her help, pray in the Great Canon: “To extinguish the flame of the passions, O Mary, thou didst ever shed rivers of tears and fire thy soul with divine love. Grant also to me, thy servant, the grace of tears.”[xii]
Some may think, “I understand what your are saying. However, I did not live such a dissolute life. I did not indulge in such depraved passions, but I see how one can turn such vice-filled passion to virtue-filled zeal, but my life has, generally, been more temperate. How am I then, to increase my desire for repentance and zeal and love towards God?” Again, St. John notes the many ways in which one can add fire to their zeal for the cause of encouraging humility and repentance before God, writing:
There are some who all their lives use the bad deeds previously done by them, and for which they have received forgiveness, as a motive for humility, thereby driving out their vain self-esteem. Others, having in mind Christ’s Passion, regard themselves always as debtors. Others hold themselves cheap for their daily defects. Others, as a result of their besetting temptations, infirmities, and sins, have mortified their pride. Others for want of graces have appropriated the mother of graces [i.e.,. humility]. There are also people (if they still exist) who for the sake of the very gifts of God, in the measure that they receive them, humble themselves and so live as to account themselves unworthy of such wealth, and each day add it to their debt. Such is humility; such is beatitude, such is the perfect reward!
Despite where we have come from, or where we are presently, may we, by God’s grace, become aware of our own sinfulness, using whatever means are available to us so as to add fuel to the fire of love for God in our hearts. Moreover, as the simple confession of the thief on the Cross brought him to Paradise, may we know such contrition during this time of Lent wherein we prepare to meet Christ. And as God is close to those who repent, despite the life that they once lived, may we also like St. Mary, come to know repentance, and, with heartfelt contrition, pray that daily prayer: “Vouchsafe me, O Lord, to love Thee now as fervently as I once loved sin itself, and also to work for Thee without idleness, diligently, as I worked before for deceptive Satan. But supremely shall I work for Thee, my Lord and God, Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” (Morning Prayer, Prayer VIII)
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF OUR HOLY MOTHER MARY, LORD JESUS CHRIST, OUR GOD, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.
[i] The Great Canon: The Work of Saint Andrew of Crete (Jordanville: Printshop of St. Job of Pochaev, 2005), 87.
[ii] Ibid, 89.
[iii] Ibid, 90.
[v] Climacus, Saint John. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed. (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2012), Step 25. 1.
[vi] Ibid, Step 22. 29.
[vii] Cf. St. Mark the Ascetic, “Letter to Nicolas the Solitary” in Philokalia (London: Faber & Faber, 1984) 1:158-160.
[viii] The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 26.51.
[ix] Ibid, Step 5. 26.
[x] Ibid, Step 15. 2.
[xi] The Great Canon, 91.
[xii] Ibid, Thursday of First Week, Song 6, Verse 3, To Mary.