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(April 2012)

Saint Mary of Egypt: An Inspiration to All

Adapted from various sources and articles.

From the Editor: There are a few of the many saints of our Church whose lives shine as great examples for all to follow. Studying them aids us in acquiring the motivation and ability to strive in our life-long struggle towards the attainment of salvation. This is the case with the breathtaking life story of St. Mary of Egypt. We "remember" her twice per year, once on her feast day (April 1st) and once on the fifth Sunday of Great Lent. Her life story is one that leaves us all with a great hope and understanding that some day, by the grace of God, we too can be saved, in spite of our sinful and unworthy state. She, against any and all reasonable odds, tamed and transformed the desert from a place of death to a place where everlasting life was attained. She truly is a spectacle before us all; she is there to remind all of what can be accomplished if prayer and fasting and labor are applied. May she serve as an inspiration to all of us and, through her intercessions, may we all achieve the desired fruit of salvation.

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St. Mary’s Life Story

One day she saw the crowds of pilgrims preparing to go to Jerusalem, to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. She went along, announcing to her fellow travelers, "I have a body and that will serve as both fare and food for me."

The trip was an eventful one, as Mary explored the outer limits of lust and passion with her companions (both those who were willing and those who were not). In Jerusalem, when the day of the Feast came around, Mary too set off for the church, drawn by the energy of the crowds thronging to venerate the True Cross. At the doors of the church, at its very threshold, Mary was driven back "by some kind of force." Trying with all her might, she could not enter, although those around her went in with no difficulty at all. Then she understood: It was her own self that prevented her entrance, the sinfulness of her life that held her captive outside the church.

Scared and praying fervently to the Virgin Mary, with her heart open and clear, Mary begged forgiveness and again sought entry at the church. Guided then by a vision of the Theotokos, Mary left at once for the desert beyond the Jordan River, for there, her vision told her that she would find rest. On the way, she stopped at a church built on the river banks; there she was baptized and partook of Holy Communion. From there, she came to the desert, led still by the vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The desert became her home, the place where she found her rest. Her conversion and turn to the life of solitude were unknown to any other living being, until after forty-eight years the priest Zosimas came and found her. When Zosimas first found Mary he did not know who she was, and she had never seen him. But she knew him before he had even spoken to her, and addressed him by name, "Father Zosimas, forgive me."

The priest was struck with dread: was she an angel? Mary, for her part, was alarmed because of her nakedness (her clothes had worn along time ago…), and begged him to lend her his cloak so that she could stand in modesty before him. He was alternately terrified and wonderstruck as he watched and listened to her.

She knew all about him—about his life as a priest and the monastery in which he lived, and she clearly understood it all better than himself. When she prayed she levitated. Although illiterate and unschooled in Christianity (she had, after all, fled to the desert as soon as she converted) she was able to quote scriptural proofs for her teachings. But most of all, there was the enormity of her story.

Zosimas drew out from her (much against her will) the details of her former life and her conversion; and he questioned her closely on the hardships of her desert life through those many years. She described her harlotry openly, as well as her life in the desert; how hard it had been, the suffering from cold and heat, hunger and thirst, temptation, longing for company and comfort; and yet her determination to live out her repentance in a manner suitable to her sin. She did not see, though Zosimas could, that she had attained a degree of sanctity that could only be measured by the degree of sinfulness she had known. For unlike him, she had no illusions about her accomplishments. She knew only the truth of God, and her love for Him.

Then she asked a favor, for she understood that the Lord had sent Zosimas for a purpose. She asked him to return to his monastery and tell no one about her, but in a year’s time return to her on Holy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper, and bring her the Eucharist, of which she had not partaken of since her conversion many years ago. Reluctantly, Zosimas left her presence in the desert for the monastery. At last he returned at the appointed time, yearning for her presence. She came to him, walking on water to cross the Jordan while he again gave way to awe. As he knelt to reverence her she reproved him saying, "What are you doing, Father Zosimas, you who are a priest of God and carrying the holy mysteries?" And at once he obeyed her, resuming to his priestly duties with fumbling fervor.

Mary received the life-giving gifts of the sacrament, groaning and weeping with her hands held up to heaven, and she cried out, Lord now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word: for my eyes have seen your salvation.

Again she sent him away, to return again the following year at the same time. But when the time came and Zosimas hastened on his journey, he found his beloved guide dead, with a letter to him written in the sand beside her body. From this he learned that she had died within an hour of receiving the sacrament the previous year—the fulfillment of her hope. He learned, also, for the first time her name: she signed herself "Mary the sinner." Grieving and marveling, Zosimas buried the holy woman helped by a lion who came to venerate the body of the saint. Then, he went back to the world to give the gift of her story to others, just as she had given it to him.

St. Mary’s Significance to the Orthodox Faithful

Nothing is impossible for anyone of us, if prayer and fasting and labor are applied. This we know thanks to the example, the spectacle, before us of holy mother Mary of Egypt—a woman that knew whom Zosimas was from afar, who knew God’s will for Zosimas to fulfill one last wish of hers that she would have the Mysteries the following year; a woman who, when she prayed, stood in the air. We can’t even lift up ours eyes to heaven, and she was standing in the heavens when she prayed. She walked upon water as if on dry land. And she called herself a miserable sinner.

She struggled for many, many, many years. She spent a total of 17 years in great, terrible struggles after she had repented. She had lived a life of total, complete debauchery and depravity. Her modesty precluded her from completely fulfilling the command of Zosimas and she couldn’t tell him everything that she did, but suffice it to say that she was a most wretched and sinful one. Everything that is possible to do to defile one’s self she did. But when she repented, she understood something that we would do well to understand.

Labor! This is the key to the Christian life: Laboring in Christ. And the church understands this. The church makes the connection between St. Mary and the sinful woman who was also a prostitute, a repentant prostitute of whom our Savior would later say, The harlots and the tax-collectors are coming into heaven before you (Mt 21:31), when speaking to the Pharisee.

He is in the home of the Pharisee and a prostitute comes in, and she begins to anoint his feet with her tears, and with ointment. Why? Because of love. Because previously she had been forgiven. She knew this in her soul. It changed her. She lived with this reality. And she was thankful in the depths of her being. That’s what made her anoint His feet. Love. But this anointing, this coming to the house—is labor! Without labor you can’t be saved. Without demeaning yourself and remembering what God has done for you, you won’t be saved.

St. Mary of Egypt realized what God had done, and what the Mother of God had done, by praying to her Son, and helping her. She spent her repentful years in the desert alone, coldness, nakedness, hunger, longing, desire that could not be fulfilled. She said she would even go and bite the ground and lay on the ground until these feelings would go away from her. Oh, yes, she still had impure feelings, for many, many years. But she had great love, and labored because of this love. Just like this woman who anointed our Lord’s feet.

This is the key to the Christian life. This is why the Church presents this woman, great among women, and St. Mary of Egypt, great among the saints, as examples for us. And we’ve been given everything they’ve been given. Read what our Savior says about he who has little forgiven, loveth little, but he who has much forgiven loveth much. (Lk 7:77). Then He refers to the sinful woman.

We can take this two ways. If you have very little forgiven, then you don’t have much to be thankful for. We have little forgiven if we do not repent and strive to learn the commandments, and live the Christian life. But when you realize what’s been done for you, then you realize that you have had much forgiven. For really everyone, everyone—has had much forgiven them. And so he should love much. He should turn to His Savior. But a man who doesn’t turn to our Savior is not a Christian whether he calls himself a Christian or not. I don’t care about all the "trappings"—I don’t care how many hymns you know—I don’t care about any of that. It’s all part and parcel of the life of the church. It’s critical for our salvation—but the knowledge of things doesn’t save. Action based on knowledge: that’s what saves.

So when a man knows what Christ has done for him, he loves much. When a man doesn’t care, when he’s all filled up with pride, or filled up with the life that he’s living, or filled up with lust or avarice or whatever else, then how can he love? He has no room in his heart to love. He’s already chosen the object of his love. And he will have his reward, right here, such as it is: For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? (Mt 5:46). And even the richest man is a pauper, compared to the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.

This woman and St. Mary sealed their repentance by action, by activity. St. Andrew compares Leah and Rachel to activity and contemplation. (St. Andrew makes a reference to Gen 29:16-30, 31-40: Because of his crying need the Patriarch endured the scorching heat of the day, and he bore the frost of the night, daily making gains, shepherding, struggling, slaving, in order to win two wives. By the two wives understand action and direct knowledge in contemplation: Leah as action, for she had many children, and Rachel as knowledge, which is obtained by much labor. For without labors, my soul, neither action nor contemplation will achieve success. He said that without activity and contemplation you cannot be saved. This woman who anointed our Lord’s feet, she contemplated what our Lord had done for her; He had forgiven her. Perhaps she was the one who had been caught in adultery and was about to be stoned (Jn 8:4-11). Perhaps she was just another nameless, faceless prostitute that saw Divinity and cleaved to it and changed. And when she contemplated what He had done her heart was filled, and this is what caused the activity, action, desire, longing to be with her Savior, to caress him, to kiss his feet, to be close to Him, to be in His presence.

Do we have this longing? If we don’t then we should fear greatly for our souls. The church presents us extravagance here, extravagant repentance, and without it we can’t be saved. for there exist no such thing as partial repentance. If you have something that ails you, then you must lament it, you must pound your breast about it. You must prostrate with tears over it. You must do whatever you have to do, labor in order to eradicate it, and in the process of doing that, at the same time, you must renew yourself with Who God is.

St. Mary of Egypt knew. This was a woman who could neither read nor write. This was a woman who, the only time she had darkened the door of the church was at her baptism, save two other times, the day she saw the holy cross, and received the holy mysteries at the monastery of the Forerunner before she went into the desert. And in the end of her days, she knew the entire scripture by heart, and she lived the entire scripture by heart. The church speaks of her as an angel. She had so transcended the flesh that she previously had lived with in such a base way. None of us probably can claim to have been as sinful as she was. That’s the truth. But none of us can claim to have one tiny grain of repentance compared to her.

The Christian life is simple. If you know that which you’ve been forgiven of, you should love much, but the only way to know is to open your eyes and to pray with your heart. God will fill you. He will show you. You will be overwhelmed by it. You won’t want anything but … Christ. The key to the Christian life is thus to constantly contemplate what God has done for you, and act upon it.

These women are the examples we have before us today. But what does the world tell us? It tells us all manner of garbage. Probably all of us have had this secular saying said to us, when one or the other of our parents said, "I don’t care what the other kids do. You don’t do it that way." The world tells you so many things, and the church says, "I don’t care what the world tells you. God your Savior tells you to do something else." In fact, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ said this to His apostles, didn’t he, when they had been jousting about who would be greatest? (Mk 9:33). They had forgotten Who He was. He tells them a very important saying: He who will be greatest must be the servant. But before then what did He say? He described the way the world is, how the greatest, the chiefest among people are the ones who grind people in the mud, and lord things over people, and the boastful pride of life in the extravagance of power and authority. And then He said that it shall not be so among you. (Mt 20:25-27). Instead, the church gives us the example of the sinful woman, formerly sinful woman—two formally sinful women, the unnamed woman who is great among the saints, and Mary, who is great among the saints.

Don’t listen to the world. Listen to what the church says. Be renewed!