Something Greater.

The Readings for the Sunday of St Mary of Egypt
The Fifth Sunday of the Great Fast

OUR HOLY MOTHER MARY OF Egypt, as she is called in the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, is perhaps my most-favorite of female saints. Her regular feast day is 1 April which is always in Lent so – like the other saints of this Church Season – she was given a Sunday so that her feast would not get obscured. However she – of all the saints in Lent – is especially Lenten. It makes sense that she should have a Sunday. 1 April being Saturday this year, this whole weekend is hers. There is nothing twee or Victorian about her. She is not a visionary or mystic. She is a sinner who returned to her God. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Her Life is read in Church on Wednesday or Thursday of this week as part of Matins. (Wednesday night is normal, but I’ve been in places where it’s read on Thursday night – may just be a scheduling issue…) This year one thing stands out.

As I mentioned, she is a sinner who repents, nothing more. But she is a very prolific sinner. I’ve appended her words to the end of this post. She did not do things out of hatred of God or love of evil. She wasn’t paid to do evil. She was simply following her bliss: things that she enjoyed.

But the thing that stands out is at the beginning of the tale, the whole point. The Elder Zosimas has been a monk since childhood until he was 53. “After that, he began to be tormented with the thought that he was perfect in everything and needed no instruction from anyone, saying to himself mentally, “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?” Thus thought the elder, when suddenly an angel appeared to him and said: “Zosima, valiantly have you struggled, as far as this is within the power of man, valiantly have you gone through the ascetic course. But there is no man who has attained perfection. Before you lie unknown struggles greater than those you have already accomplished. That you may know how many other ways lead to salvation, leave your native land like the renowned patriarch Abraham and go to the monastery by the River Jordan.

The whole tale is predicated on this promise: to show him something greater than his own journey. To this end he meets St Mary of Egypt who has struggled alone for her 50 years in the desert of her own choice seeking God. There’s not further comment on the Angel’s promise in the text, but the implication is clear: the monk thinks he’s done it all… but this one sinner who repented is greater, living in the angelic realm even while on earth.

Beyond that, St Mary seems to have had communion only twice as an adult and never even once attended the liturgy. This is paralleled by the odd practice of the monastery to which the Elder attaches himself: at the beginning of Lent the entire community leaves the monastery, each going his own way. They only return on Pascha. This is a story about someone inside the church being sent beyond the church’s walls to meet a saint.

Can we imagine that God’s power stops at the doors of the Church? No. Can we imagine our faith has no effect in the world? No. How great is God’s mercy? Infinite. How loudly can God call us even through our sins!

Holy Mother Mary of Egypt, pray to God for us!

I am ashamed to recall how there I at first ruined my maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to sensuality It is more becoming to speak of this briefly, so that you may just know my passion and my lechery. for about seventeen years, forgive me, I lived like that. I was like a fire of public debauch. And it was not for the sake of gain — here I speak the pure truth. Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money. I acted in this way so as to make as many men as possible to try to obtain me, doing free of charge what gave me pleasure. do not think that I was rich and that was the reason why I did not take money. I lived by begging, often by spinning flax, but I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life. That is how I lived. Then one summer I saw a large crowd of Lybians and Egyptians running towards the sea. I asked one of them, Where are these men hurrying to?’ He replied,They are all going to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross, which takes place in a few days.’ I said to him, Will they take me with them if I wish to go?’No one will hinder you if you have money to pay for the journey and for food.’ And I said to him, `To tell you truth, I have no money, neither have I food. But I shall go with them and shall go aboard. And they shall feed me, whether they want to or not. I have a body — they shall take it instead of pay for the journey.’ I was suddenly filled with a desire to go, Abba, to have more lovers who could satisfy my passion. I told you, Abba Zosima, not to force me to tell you of my disgrace. God is my witness, I am afraid of defiling you and the very air with my words.”

Zosima, weeping, replied to her: “Speak on for God’s sake, mother, speak and do not break the thread of such an edifying tale.”

And, resuming her story, she went on: “That youth, on hearing my shameless words, laughed and went off. While I, throwing away my spinning wheel, ran off towards the sea in the direction which everyone seemed to be taking. and, seeing some young men standing on the shore, about ten or more of them, full of vigour and alert in their movements, I decided that they would do for my purpose (it seemed that some of them were waiting for more travellers whilst others had gone ashore). Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.’ I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once. How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. 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.