Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt

Talk given by Trish Orlovsky on Sunday, April 5, 2009

On this 5th Sunday of Great Lent we enter the closing weeks Fast, and the church fathers give us the story of Mary of Egypt. Mary's story is a quintessential display of the power of repentance-and is key in our understanding of her prominence during this season of repentance and the role of "community" in the act of salvation.

The story was read last night at Vespers, so I will share the highlights.

Good and pious Priest Zosimas believes he has reached the heights of piety through good deeds, fasting, and prayer. Zosimas believes he has learned all he can from his spiritual community-where he has lived for 53 years--and travels to the monastery at the edge of the desert, seeking new examples of piety, testing whether he has learned all there is about repentance and forgiveness. There, Abbot John directs Zosimas and all the monks to go out into the desert, to leave the monastic community to advance their own spiritual life during the course of the Fast, so that they return on Palm Sunday and bring spiritual insights to the monastery and advance the edification of the whole (sort of like bees returning to the hive). The dynamic synergy of this community is that salvation of the one is shared to uplift and strengthen all.

Away from his rituals, routines, and the comfort of his monastic brethren, Zosimas seeks spiritual cleaning through prayer, rationing his small but carefully prepared morsels for sustenance, and living in silence in the desert.

While obediently avoiding fellow monks, he is strangely drawn to a wild and solitary figure--sun-blackened, naked, white haired--which appears like a phantom on the horizon. He pursues this figure and comes upon an old woman who immediately impresses upon Zosimas. Mary (though he does not learn her name until her death) does not boast of her piety, her self-denial, or speak of "greater" lessons she has learned in her solitary wanderings in the desert. She prostrates herself before Abba Zosimas and begs for his blessing. Eventually, he compels Mary to speak the story of her life, of her early years in Alexandria, of abandoning her self for 17 years to her passions and self-gratification, how she used men for her own pleasure and they used her for theirs. Her community in Alexandria was debauched and totally self-centered, but a community nonetheless. But God has other plans for Mary.

In pursuit of pleasure and, presumably, more men, Mary, 29 years old, boards a ship carrying pilgrims bound for Jerusalem to the feast of the Elevation of the Precious Cross. There is no overtly spiritual reason for Mary's boarding the ship for this journey; in fact, she herself says it was only her desire for more men and good looking sailors that prompted her to take the journey. She has no money for passage but was confident that her body would be sufficient to barter food and passage. Mary continues to use her body to satisfy her desires, often taking no payment in return.

Upon reaching Jerusalem, she follows the crowd to the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although not yet aware, Mary is in search of some other sort of deeper satisfaction that is clearly unlike anything she has experienced before. No longer thinking of her pleasures, she longs to enter the church, to become a member of the community of the faithful. In this place and at this moment, surrounded by this community, Mary has a new desire.

But, Mary is stopped, suddenly and surely, by some "force" from entering the church because before becoming part of this community she must prepare herself and repent of her sins. She must put off her old self and take on something new

Exhausted by her repeated efforts to force her way into the church, Mary sinks down outside the doors and comes face to face with the icon of the Mother of God. Confronted with the pure and undefiled Virgin, the embodiment of self-less love-Mary is struck with her utter selfishness and sinfulness. She immediately repents of her sins and begs for forgiveness, crying out for direction as to how she can atone for her sinfulness. A single voice--representing the voice of the Church community-speaks out from the crowd and assigns her a solemn penance, the most severe of all, which the Early Church prescribed for adultery, murder, and idolatry--that was, isolation from the Church, its people and sacraments.[1]

Mary flees to the desert with a few loaves and some herbs to become a desert pilgrim, a penitent, desiring nothing more now than forgiveness and reconciliation with God. But she is not alone on her journey. Being obedient to this call to repentance, Mary unites herself to the new community of the Church, battling her personal demons, surviving on what little the desert would offer for sustenance and shelter, but supported by Christ and the Church faithful. For 48 years she battles her demons, and fasts, and weeps, and prays and wanders the desert, until she is found by the Abba Zosimas.

He asks how she endured the suffering, deprivation, and solitude, Mary says:

"For in only thinking of those evils from which He rescued me, I receive as inexhaustible food the hope of my salvation, for I feed and cover myself with the word of God, Who governs the universe. For man shall not live by bread alone, and because they had no shelter, those who have removed the covering of sin have embraced the rock."

Clearly in her solitude Mary is never really alone. Through her we see that salvation is never achieved outside of community. In her nakedness she is clothed with the garment of incorruption, sustained by faith in God. During this time she begins uniting herself through her tears of compunction and constant, pure prayer to the most authentic and good community-available to each of us when we forge-through prayer and silence and as members of the community of the faithful--a direct, personal relationship with that "Rock" which is Christ.

In Zosimas, Mary now builds a relationship with a man on completely different terms. Having cleansed her soul and purified her body in the burning away of her sins, Mary meets Zosimas as confessor and priest, who administers the Holy Gifts to her. She asks him now for the sublime pleasure of receiving absolution of her sins and receiving the Holy Gifts. Mary's receiving Communion is the full realization of her union with the community of the Church: She becomes united to the Mystical Body of Christ. Having entered the Mystical Body, she has perfected repentance.

Mary's story ends when Zosimas returns the next year on Holy Thursday to give her Communion, and finds Mary's withered body in a wadi, where she died after having received Communion. In the Biblical symbolism, this wadi is the Garden, the return to Paradise--the place where flows the rivers of God's abundant love, the source of the river of living water. [2]

Next to her body she has drawn her name in the sand and instructs Zosimas to bury her in this spot. Being too old to dig a grave for her in the dry, baked earth, Zosimas asks a lion standing next to Mary's body to help him dig a grave with his claws. Though this may seem an unlikely setting, we have in this scene a re-creation of Eden and an image of perfect community-God, the Church, and his creatures--working in harmony and cooperation to fulfill his purpose. Zosimas returns to the monastery to share this wondrous story.

In closing, I share the words Zosimas spoke to Mary at their last meeting:

Glory be to Thee, Christ our God, Who didst not disregard my prayers and didst show mercy to Thy servant. Glory be to Thee, Christ our God, Who hast shown me--through this servant of Thine--how far I am from reaching the measure of perfection."

May the prayers of Holy Mother Mary of Egypt guide us to repentance. Amen.

[1] From The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

[2] Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, by Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit, and James C Whilhoit, ps. 730. Published by InterVarsity Press, 1998. ISBN 0830814515, 978083081451.