Today we celebrate Saint Mary of Egypt, who is a great
saint but whose life was not always saintly. That’s why she is such a favorite in the Church,
actually – she is a wonderful example of how we can turn our lives around when we truly repent.
What we know about Saint Mary actually
comes to us through a monk named Saint Zosimas.
He lived in a monastery as a child and then stayed to become a monk as an adult, and by the time he was fifty-three
years old, he was very holy. He was so holy that
he had a hard time finding a teacher holier than he was. He prayed
that God might show one to him. Suddenly, an angel appeared and told him
to travel to a monastery near the Jordan River.
immediately left for the Jordan Monastery and settled in. (Abba means “Father,”
and Zosimas was a priest, so we all him Abba Zosimas). He met many wonderful elders there at the monastery and saw that they
sang constantly and prayed all night long. Soon, Great Lent arrived, and
this particular monastery had an interesting custom: on the first Sunday
of Great Lent, they all received Holy Communion at the Divine Liturgy, and then the had a forgiveness service, making prostrations
and asked each other for forgiveness. And then they opened the monastery
gate and went off into the wilderness. Each monk
took some food and went into the desert. When their food ran out,
they ate roots and desert plants. The monks all crossed the Jordan River,
but then they scattered in various directions so that no one might see how another fasted or how they spent their time. They would meet again at the monastery on Palm Sunday.
So when Great Lent began, Abba Zosimas went deep into
the desert, hoping to find a teacher there. He walked for twenty days, singing
and praying, and finally he saw a human form – but he was afraid, thinking that it might be a demon.
Then he crossed himself with the sign of the Cross, and he felt better.
He turned and saw that it was a person whose faded short hair was white like a sheep’s fleece.
Abba Zosimas rejoiced, since he had not seen any living thing for many days.
The desert-dweller saw Zosimas and tried to run, but Abba Zosimas hurried after.
The stranger said to him, “Forgive me, Abba Zosimas,
but I cannot turn and show my face to you. I am a woman, and as you see, I am not wearing clothes.
If you would grant the request of a sinful woman, throw me your cloak so I might cover my body, and then I can ask
for your blessing.”
Zosimas knew she was holy, because she knew his name. He threw her his cloak,
and they spoke together and prayed together for a while.
She knew all about him – that he was a priest and a monk, looking to learn something new.
When she prayed, she raised her hands and whispered so softly that Abba Zosimas could not make out her words –
and then she rose into the air more than a foot above the ground, weeping and repeating, “Lord, have mercy!”
Saint Zosimas asked about her life,
and she replied, “It distresses me, Father, to speak to you about my shameless life.
When you hear my story, you might flee from me, as if I were a poisonous snake.
But I shall tell you everything, Father.”
that she was born in Egypt, and when she was twelve years old, she ran away from her parents and went to Alexandria, where
she lived a shameful life but felt no shame. She loved wild parties and
behaving badly, and she spent her time with every sinful person she could find.
She had a great thirst for wine and sin and spent seventeen years pursuing pleasure.
One summer, she saw that a group of pilgrims were heading across the sea to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation
of the Holy Cross. To her, this seemed like a big party and a challenge to distract some Christians from their Faith, so she
joined them on a boat to Jerusalem.
God had other
plans for Mary, and when the day of the feast arrived, everything changed for her.
When the other pilgrims headed for the church for the feast, Mary went along
with them. She walked up to the doors and tried to squeeze into the church. Although she stepped up to the threshold, a force held her back, preventing her
from entering . She tried again and again to enter, but every time –
somehow the way the crowd moved just pushed her out, or a strange, invisible force kept her away – she could not pass
through the church door. As she stood before the door, she realized that
her sins were keeping her outside, and she began to cry. She saw an icon
of the Holy Theotokos and cried out to her for help. She declared herself
unworthy, but begged the Theotokos to help her to become worthy. She promised
to change, to repent of all her sins, and to begin a whole new life. The
Theotokos helped her, and she entered the church.
the Cross, she fell to the ground and kissed it, and then she went back outside to the icon and thanked the Holy Theotokos
for helping her. She promised to keep her vow and asked the Theotokos to
guide her on the path of her repentance. Then Mary heard a voice from on
high: “If you cross the Jordan River, you will find glorious rest.”
The Holy Theotokos was guiding
her. As Mary left the church, a man handed her three coins, and she went
to buy some bread., asking the baker the way to the Jordan River. Mary stayed
out in the desert, on the other side of the Jordan, for forty-seven years without seeing another soul. When she had finished
her bread, she ate what she found in the desert, fasting like Saint John the Forerunner.
Mary said that the first seventeen years were the hardest
as she struggled with thirst and hunger. The old, obnoxious drunken songs
she used to sing would still ring in her ears, and she struggled with them tying to replace their ugliness with beautiful
prayer. It was really hard for
her to get those songs out of her head and to fight all of the desires for the sinful activities of her youth.
She would struggle and fight, throwing herself onto the ground in tears, until God would send a blessed light that
would encircle her and give her peace. After seventeen years, the peace
won, and she was able to live joyfully with the help of the Mother of God.
For now, let’s just stop and think about what an amazing story
this is. The Church especially loves Saint Mary of Egypt because she
had loved sin so much, and yet she dedicated herself to God and overcame all her wild passions.
Mary was very sinful, and yet God loved her enough to block her from entering that church until she understood that
it was time to repent Sometimes welcoming us home means locking us out.
God does what it takes to reach us and to call us home.