After going through nearly all of Great Lent (there is only a week left), the Church gives us the memory of St Mary of Egypt. One of the effects of the fast and self-denial of this season is that we begin to see more clearly with our spiritual eyes – and the first thing that we see is our own sinfulness. We see how far we are from God and how little we have accomplished in spite of all our labors. We are exposed to the danger of falling into despair of our own salvation for we see ourselves as sinners desperately in need of the grace of God. And so, today, in order that we might receive some encouragement, we are reminded of the life of St Mary of Egypt.
St Mary’s life was one of great sin and repentance. Even as a youth, she was addicted to the passions of sensuality and lust. She took every opportunity to satisfy her own lustful desires and in the process dragging many others into sin as well. She was completely depraved, a willing and powerless slave of her own passions, no better than a rutting beast. But God, who desires not the death of a sinner, but that all should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, contrived to call her to repentance. Though she lived in the metropolis of Alexandria, she was gripped by the sudden desire to accompany a group of pilgrims to the Holy City of Jerusalem for the feast of the Elevation of the Cross. Even though the purpose of this journey was that of a pilgrimage to the Holy City, she still continued to sin without abatement. Upon arriving at the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem when the Holy Cross would be brought out for veneration, she found that she was unable to cross the threshold of the Church to enter. Even though no one else seemed to be barred, she was unable to enter. Three times she tried and three times she was turned back. She found herself outside the doors of the Church before an icon of the Mother of God and there the light of God’s grace found her. She saw her own sin and at that moment repented and before the icon of the Virgin she made a vow to the Mother of God that if she could enter the Church and venerate the cross then she would immediately do whatever was necessary never to sin again. A fourth time she tried to enter the Church and not only was she not impeded, but it was as though the way was cleared for her. Having venerated the Holy Cross, she returned to the icon before which she made her vow and asked to be shown the path of repentance. She heard a voice saying to her to cross the Jordan River and there to find rest. Immediately she set out for the Jordan (about a day’s journey by foot) and crossed over into the desert to work out her repentance.
Even though she had nothing to offer to God, except her desire to repent, He accepted her. Even though she had been an abject slave to sin, He poured out His grace upon her. No matter how far we are from God, if we repent of our sins, no matter how great and pervasive they may be, and turn to Him, He will reach out to embrace us. But that is not the end. From that moment on St Mary began the struggle against temptation which lasted in the desert for 17 years (the same amount of time that she had lived in sin) before she was able to live without the daily torment of her past sins and their memory pulling at her to bind her again in the chains of passionate slavery. Listen to her own words by which she described this spiritual struggle to St Zosimas who encountered her in the desert after 47 years of isolation and prayer:
“Believe me, Abba, seventeen years I passed in this desert fighting wild beasts – (i.e.) mad desires and passions. When I was about to partake of food, I used to begin to regret the meat and fish of which I had so much in Egypt. I regretted also not having wine which I loved so much. For I drank a lot of wine when I lived in the world, while here I had not even water. I used to burn and succumb with thirst. The mad desire for profligate songs also entered me and confused me greatly, edging me on to sing satatnic songs which I had learned once. But when such desires entered me I struck myself on the breast and reminded myself of the vow which I had made, when going in to the desert. In my thoughts I returned to the icon of the Mother of God which had received me and to her I cried in prayer. I implored her to chase away the thoughts to which my miserable soul was succumbing. And after weeping for long and beating my breast I used to see light at last which seemed to shine on me from everywhere. And after the violent storm, lasting calm descended.
“And how can I tell you about the thoughts which urged me on to fornication, how can I express them to you, Abba? A fire was kindled in my heart which seemed to burn me up completely and to awake in me a thirst for embraces. As soon as this craving came to me, I flung myself on the earth and watered it with my tears, as if I saw before me my witness, who had appeared to me in my disobedience and who seemed to threaten punishment for the crime. And I did not rise from the ground (sometimes I lay thus prostrate for a day and a night) until a calm and sweet light descended and enlightened me and chased away the thoughts that possessed me. But always I turned the eyes of my mind to my Protectress, asking her to extend help to one who was sinking fast in the waves of the desert. And I always had her as my Helper and the Accepter of my repentance. And thus I lived for seventeen years amid constant dangers. And since then even till now the Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by the hand.”
See the difficulty of breaking away from such a life of sin. Whenever we repent and seek God’s forgiveness, He freely bestows that upon us and frees us from our enslavement to sin, restoring to us our free will and ability to love God and choose to follow Him. But the demons do not easily give us up and begin to make war on us, trying to drag us back into their power. Just as a man who is physically injured receives treatment and begins to recover is still quite weak and susceptible to re-injury, so also the man, who has sustained spiritual injuries as a result of sin and who by repentance and forgiveness receives treatment and begins to recover, is also still weak and susceptible to re-injury drawing him back into his sin. The demons know our weaknesses and from the moment of our repentance they work to exploit that knowledge and re-injure the soul so that it might again fall under their power. However our Lord loves us and does not want to see us fall back into sin and so He gives to us the strength that we need to resist this demonic onslaught. For St Mary that onslaught lasted 17 years and as we heard required every ounce of strength that she had and complete reliance upon the grace and help of God and the prayers of the Virgin Mary in order to avoid falling back into her sin.
The demons who once had us in their power will use every trick and technique that they can to pull us back into sin. They will remind us of the memory of the worldly pleasures that we experienced while under their power. They use the pull of habits – all those little sinful things that became a part of the routine of life. They use the stimuli and sensations that formerly had reinforced our sin (such as satanic songs that St Mary mentioned) to pull us back. Wherever our weaknesses lie, they will find them and exploit them.
But we can also fight back by calling out to our Savior asking Him to come to our aid and deliver us – for if He is with us the demons will flee. We can call out to the saints (as St Mary did to the Virgin) who will also step in and come to our aid. We can call out to our guardian angel who stands beside us as a heavenly protector and warrior and he will drive off the demons as well. We are not left alone in this struggle. In addition we have one another, the members of this spiritual parish family, who we can ask to pray for us and who walk with us as we fight this spiritual battle together. We have the blessings of holy water, holy oil, miraculous myrrh, and other sources of spiritual solace which provide us comfort and help in our struggle. We also have the sacraments – our Baptism and Chrismation, Confession, the Body and Blood of our Lord, Holy Anointing and the other sacraments – by which the grace of God is poured out upon us. There is much that we have to help us in the struggle, however, in the end it is still a struggle. Even St Mary after 30 years of living free of the torments of temptation in the desert, when encouraged by St Zossimas to describe her life of repentance, said, “You remind me Zossimas, of what I dare not speak of. For when I recall all the dangers which I overcame, and all the violent thoughts which confused me, I am again afraid that they will take possession of me.” And yet she was able to do so, not because of her own strength, but because she relied wholly upon the grace and mercy of God.
St Mary of Egypt is held up before us today as an example of God’s all-encompassing love and limitless compassion. She is a beacon for us of hope reminding us that no matter the depth of our sins that we see, no matter how far we might seem to be from God, that if we turn to Him and rely totally upon Him, then He will embrace us and draw us to himself. As you continue into final days of Great Lent, recall the words of St Zossimas who, having heard St Mary’s tale of repentance exclaimed, “Blessed is God Who creates the great and wondrous, the glorious and marvelous without end. Blessed is God Who has shown me how He rewards those who fear Him. Truly, O Lord, Thou dost not forsake those who seek Thee!”