On the 5th Sunday of lent the Orthodox Church remembers St. Mary of Egypt. Her life is read during the Great Canon of St. Andrew during the previous week.
St. Mary of Egypt has always been one my favorite saints of the Church. For years her own story and celebrated place in the life of the Church gave me hope that even with my own struggles with sexuality I might still belong in the Church. For those of you who may not be familiar with the life of this 5th century saint you can read her entire story here. I’ve been wanting to share just a few reflections from her life for some time now and I can’t think of a better time than the 5th Sunday in lent which is dedicated to her.
Anytime someone brings up the role of women in the Church I always think of St. Mary.
St. Zosimas was an elder (well respected monk) in Palestine. A monk all of his life he had mastered the passions and the spiritual life to such a level that his holiness was known throughout the region. At the age of 53 he began to struggle with the thought that he was perfect and didn’t need instruction from any man. He said to himself “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?” An angel then appeared to him commending his holy life and confirmed to him that there was no man who had achieved perfection and that he should journey into the desert to a monastery near the Jordan River and there he would learn of how many other ways lead to holiness.
As we learn from the rest of the story God’s ultimate answer to St. Zosimas’ question, “Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?” that there was not in fact a man who had surpassed him. Instead we get a glimpse at the humor of God because what St. Zosimas found in the desert was in fact a woman who had surpassed him in holiness. When such a holy man as St. Zosimas struggled with his own perfection God humbles him through the life of a woman who might be argued has surpassed all men in her personal holiness. The Church gives us two women, both named Mary, who have rivaled or surpassed all men in their holiness and relationship with God. We men should all remember this, and like St. Zosimas, learn from the life of St. Mary just how far we are from the peak of that spiritual encounter with the awesome God.
A second thing that I always jumps out when I read St. Mary’s life is the depth of depravity and the longevity of her own struggle. Often in sermons given on this Sunday we are given a censored version of her story. The truth is that a prostitute compared to her life would seem chaste and poor. She was so filled with a desire for sex that she would refuse to accept any payment for sex and spent 17 years of her life chasing after it wherever she could find it. So consumed by her passions that “every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.” After living in the depths of depravity she testifies that her conscious had become inverted confusing good for bad and bad for good. In order to gain passage to Jerusalem to find “more lovers who could satisfy [her] passion.” She then spent the journey in the absolute depths of depravity even testifying that she raped the youths who brought her on board for their pilgrimage to the holy city. She arrived in Jerusalem and continued her unending hunt for youths, both locals as well as pilgrims in the city for the Exaltation of the Cross.
At this point, after 17+ years living in the absolute depths of depravity, the story turns and after an encounter with Mary the Theotokos she flees to the desert. When St. Zosimas finds her in the desert he learns that she has been in the desert for forty-seven years recounting no one for that whole time. Here it’s particularly interesting to note that her conversion was not an easy one. For her first seventeen years wandering the wilderness she was tormented by the depths of her past addictions. Her withdrawal was extremely painful but throughout it all she fled to God for comfort and protection. Too often we hear testimonies of conversion that make it sound all too easy to leave behind a life of sin. The story of St. Mary is a testimony that gives us a profoundly human story of conversion and struggle to forsake her past depravity. For seventeen years she lived in such depravity that morality was turned upside down and for seventeen years she wrestled continually to leave her past life finally coming to a place of peace.
These two reflections are by no means a summary of St. Mary’s life or even exhaustive of my own thinking on her life. I hope something here encourages you to read her whole life as well as the depth of grace and forgiveness that God offers all of us. We must keep in mind as we read her life that her story is her own and not anyone else’s. It’s tempting to hear of her time in the desert and think that forgiveness can only be found through such a radical and difficult way of life. This was the life God called St. Mary to but how he calls you will be very different. For most of us our spiritual healing and recovery from sin will take place in community and in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. Take courage friends from her life and I pray that you know that there is no life that is too broken for God to heal and transform.
Most holy mother Mary pray to God for us.