We have reached the last Sunday of Great Lent. On this last Sunday, the Church presents before us the quintessential example of repentance—the life of St. Mary of Egypt. The Church has put repentance before us as the central task we are trying to accomplish throughout the course of the Fast and establish as a pattern for a whole new way of life. We have been trying to integrate repentance into our everyday life through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Yet how often have we fallen short of repenting? How often do we find ourselves in a place of shame and sorrow, shaking our heads at ourselves that we have committed the same sin again and again that we promised to God in the confessional that we’d never commit again? How often we are tempted by despair and despondency due to falling into our habitual sins!
Yet the Church tells us not to despair. Even if we have blown it for the nth time, the Church still calls us to faith and repentance. Sometimes we may cry out “Oh Lord is there any hope for me?”, and Holy Mother Church responds back, “yes!” Though we may be stubborn and think we are too far gone to return to the Lord, the Church puts the life of St. Mary of Egypt in front of us to give us hope that it is never too late to repent! It is never too late to return to God. No matter how much we have rolled around in the mire of our sins, no matter how many times we have failed in our resolutions to turn back to God and to surrender to Him, there is always hope in God’s mercy!
We have focused on repentance and on particular aspects of repentance throughout the course of Lent. In this article, I’d like to look at the life of St. Mary of Egypt and focus on particular themes of repentance in her life and how we can learn from her in our own processes of repentance.
St. Mary of Egypt was born and raised in Egypt. At age 12 she began living a licentious life for 17 years and then traveled to Jerusalem to see the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. When she tried to enter into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to see the Cross, she was stopped by an unseen force, which she realized was the impurity of her sin. She cried to the Theotokos and promised to repent of her evil ways and renounce the world if she’d be granted entrance to the Church. After that, she easily entered the Church to venerate the Cross of Christ. Later, she went to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist where she received absolution for her sins and Holy Communion. She then left for the desert for 47 years, living on whatever God provided for her to eat in the wilderness in repentance of her sins.
One year before her death, she came in contact with Abba Zosimas who was out in the desert fasting himself during the holy season of Lent. She then told Abba Zosimas her life story, while displaying amazing graces of clairvoyance and other miraculous acts such as levitating while in prayer in the desert. She asked Abba Zosimas to give her communion the following year, in which she walked on water to cross the Jordan to get to him to receive communion. After receiving communion, she reposed peacefully in the Lord, after a life of fasting, praying, and giving to others through her prayers (almsgiving). Abba Zosimas related her life story to his monastery and St. Sophronius of Jerusalem wrote down the story in order to preserve its memory in the life of the Church.
Let us begin our lessons from the life of St. Mary of Egypt; first with sin.
Sin separates us from God and breaks communion with His Church
When St. Mary of Egypt tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre without repentance, she felt a force preventing her from entering in. This teaches us that sin separates us from God and His covenant people. The only way this can be healed is through repentance to God and acceptance of penance prescribed for us by Mother Church. Once St. Mary of Egypt realized that it was her sin that was keeping her from her Lord, she immediately recognized her sin, repented of it, and took upon herself the penance of living an ascetic life in the desert to purify herself of her sins by God’s grace.
Do we realize that our sins separate us from God and His Church? Do we go to communion with sins in our heart that we refuse to let go of and surrender to Christ? Do we think we are right with God while backbiting our brother? Do we profess to be faithful Christians while gossiping about others? Do we judge our fellow parishioners in our hearts? If we think we’re fine, we’re terribly mistaken! We cannot love both God and mammon. We cannot approach the Chalice without some kind of resolve to put away our sin once and for all and surrendering our wills and lives to the King of Glory. St. Mary realized what was separating her from God and His people, and she did not delay in correcting the error of her ways so that she could be received back by the Father.
Second, God is long suffering with us and grants us time to repent.
God does not long the death of the sinner, but eagerly awaits our return to Him
St. Mary of Egypt originally set out to see the Cross out of curiosity and to commit sins with the pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. She was going to commit evil, yet God, who is boundless in mercy, worked out the events to grant her the opportunity to see her sins and return to Him. As St. Mary of Egypt said,
But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.
Third, our repentance is acceptable to God through Christ.
Through the Gospel, the world can be reconciled to God
It is no mistake that it is through the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross that St. Mary of Egypt realized the state of her sin she was in. It was by beholding the life-giving tree of the Cross, upon which the sins of the world were placed, that she realized her need for the Savior and for her need to repent. But that is not all…
There is no Gospel without the Mother of God and reconciliation to the Church
We know the Theotokos is our chief intercessor to Christ her Son our Lord, and we see how St. Mary of Egypt entreated the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede for her so that her repentance would be acceptable to God. Listen to St. Mary’s holy prayers to her:
O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know, O how well I know, that it is no honour or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to Thy Icon, O Ever-Virgin, who didst keep thy body and soul in purity…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 for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before Thy Son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever Thou wilt lead me.
We see that she understood that reconciliation with God, is also reconciliation with His Church as well, simultaneously. For after seeing the Cross and entering into the Church, she went to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist and received absolution (forgiveness) of her sins. She then partook of the Holy Mysteries of Christ.
One recalls easily the story of the Prodigal Son. Once the prodigal came to his senses and saw his sins, he repented and returned back to his father. His father received him, allowed him re-entrance into the family, and then ordered the fatted calf to be killed for a feast in his son’s honor. In other words, he went to confession, received absolution, and then received the precious Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. Full reconciliation with God is experienced through partaking of the reconciling sacraments of the Church.
Once she did this however, she began the real work of repentance through fasting and prayer.
As our Lord says in the Gospel, certain demons (or sins) do not come out “but by prayer and fasting.” She began her repentance in Jerusalem by going to the Monastery to receive absolution and the Sacred Eucharist. She then began the real work of repentance, which is our purification, illumination, and deification. She did this by fasting and prayer. She wrestled with her demons in the desert, just as Christ was tempted in the desert, and through that, she attained purification of the nous – illumination, and by God’s grace, received glorification (deification) at the end of her life.
Is it any wonder why the Church calls us to fast as often as She does throughout the year? We need to fast, and we need reminders to do just this, so the Church, like a loving mother, gently reminds her children the disciplines they must follow in order to receive their reward. We may not like fasting – we may indeed despise it, but we need it. We fast with prayer in order to purify our wicked hearts of the passions and experience the process of salvation (purification, illumination, and deification—justification, sanctification, and glorification).
We also see that she was illumined through her gifts of clairvoyance and other miracles.
Through her strenuous repentance, she was purified from her wicked passions of the flesh and became illumined and therefore received heavenly gifts from God. She was clairvoyant, and was able to walk on water, levitate in prayer, and prophesy of events to take place, because of grace of the Holy Spirit that dwelt in her through her repentance. A former harlot, now a prophetess and a holy mother – this is the potential each and every one of us have! This is not out of our reach. It may sound bizarre – even impossible, but this is indeed the potential every human being has in Christ. When the human person is purified of sins and becomes a true temple of the Holy Spirit, the possibilities are endless for what God can do in and through that person. These gifts are given not for the person’s sake, but for God’s glory and for the salvation of souls around them.
She was granted a Christian ending to her life.
We pray “for a Christian ending to our lives: painless, blameless, and peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgement seat of Christ” in the Liturgy and all the services of the Church. St. Mary was granted Holy Communion before she left this world and entered life eternal. This is what we pray and hope for: that we may end our lives partaking of Christ, after having recently received absolution of sins by the priest. Ultimately, a Christian ending to our lives is a life that bore the fruits of repentance. St. Mary of Egypt did just that. She was a great sinner, but by cooperation with God’s energies, became a great saint and an inspiration for us all to follow in her footsteps in our return to God.
In short, St. Mary of Egypt is the quintessential example of what true repentance looks like and what the potentials are for each and every human being if we surrender our will and our lives over to the care of God. That blessed communion with God St. Mary of Egypt had is possible for all of us too! No matter how far we have strayed from God, we can always come back to Him. He will always receive us. As long as we have breath in our lungs, we have another blessed opportunity to repent and return to our Lord.
We must not despair. The devil wants us to give up and forget about living a spiritual life because of our many failed attempts, but God, Who is rich in mercy, does not give up on us. He still believes in us, even when we don’t believe in ourselves, and accepts our repentance through Christ. He gives us this life as an opportunity to constantly repent and turn our whole beings to Him.
May our Lord fill our hearts with hope through the prayers of His Holy Mother, so that we may not waste this precious life He has given us in selfishness. May we return to Him with all our hearts, even if we fall every day, and thereby use this blessed time of Lent to repent and be reconciled to Him through His Holy Pascha that we are journeying towards in the Heavenly Kingdom. Always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
For Further Reading:
Akathist to St. Mary of Egypt; with The Life of St. Mary of Egypt http://www.amazon.com/Akathist-St-Mary-Egypt-Life/dp/B0062W6UFO/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1460516303&sr=8-4&keywords=life+of+st+mary+of+egypt
The Life of Repentance and Purity by Pope Shenouda III
Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession by St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite
Hesychia and Theology: The Context for Man’s Healing in the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
The Science of Spiritual Medicine: Orthodox Psychotherapy in Action by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
The Person in the Orthodox Tradition by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos