Our venerable mother Mary of Egypt was a desert ascetic who repented of a life of prostitution. She lived during the sixth century, and passed away in a remarkable manner in 522. The Church celebrates her feast day on the day of her repose, April 1; additionally, she is commemorated on the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, the fifth Sunday in Great Lent.
She began her life as a young woman who followed the passions of the body, running away from her parents at age twelve for Alexandria. There she lived as a harlot for seventeen years, refusing money from the men that she copulated with, instead living by begging and spinning flax.
One day, however, she met a group of young men heading toward the sea to sail to Jerusalem for the veneration of the Holy Cross. Mary went along for the ride, seducing the men as they traveled for the fun of it. But when the group reached Jerusalem and actually went towards the church, Mary was prohibited from entering by an unseen force. After three such attempts, she remained outside on the church patio, where she looked up and saw an icon of the Theotokos. She began to weep and prayed with all her might that the Theotokos might allow her to see the True Cross; afterwards, she promised, she would renounce her worldly desires and go wherever the Theotokos may lead her.
After this heart-felt conversion at the doors of the church, she fled into the desert to live as an ascetic. She survived for years on only three loaves of bread and thereafter on scarce herbs of the land. For another seventeen years, Mary was tormented by “wild beasts—mad desires and passions.” After these years of temptation, however, she overcame the passions and was led by the Theotokos in all things.
Following 47 years in solitude, she met the priest St. Zosima in the desert, who pleaded with her to tell him of her life. She recounted her story with great humility while also demonstrating her gift of clairvoyance; she knew who Zosima was and his life story despite never having met him before. Finally, she asked Zosima to meet her again the following year at sunset on Holy Thursday by the banks of the Jordan.
Zosima did exactly this, though he began to doubt his experience as the sun began to go that night. Then Mary appeared on the opposite side of the Jordan; crossing herself, she miraculously walked across the water and met Zosima. When he attempted to bow, she rebuked him, saying that as a priest he was far superior, and furthermore, he was holding the Holy Mysteries. Mary then received communion and walked back across the Jordan after giving Zosima instructions about his monastery and that he should return to where they first met exactly a year later. When he did so, he found Mary’s body with a message written on the sand asking him for burial and revealing that she had died immediately after receiving the Holy Mysteries the year before (and thus had been miraculously transported to the spot where she now lay). So Zosima, amazed, began to dig, but soon tired; then a lion approached and began to help him, that is, after Zosima had recovered from his fear of the creature. Thus St. Mary of Egypt was buried. Zosima returned to the monastery, told all he had seen, and improved the faults of the monks and abbot there. He died at almost a hundred years old in the same monastery.
The Life of St. Mary of Egypt is read during Great Lent along with the Great Canon of St. Andrew.
This past Sunday we heard a father and son story. This father’s son is possessed and can neither hear nor speak. The boy is overtaken and is sometimes thrown into fire to be burned up or into water to be drowned. The father takes his son to the disciples who aren’t fasting or praying and so can’t free the child. Jesus questions the father who says,
Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.
This is not a riddle. This is what God does to the soul. He takes our unbelief, and if there’s the slightest seed of belief in us, he makes it grow. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, He explains that if your faith is as a mustard seed, God will do anything. A mustard seed is tiny; you can barely see it.
According to the fathers we are like the boy because we do not hear the Word of God and we do not speak out to praise of God. But, it is also true that we are like the father of the boy. We have a little belief mixed in with some unbelief. But that little bit of belief is enough for the Lord to act.
The third Sunday of Great Lent Orthodox Christians venerate the precious and life-giving cross. It is the same hand cross that the congregation comes forward to kiss at the end of every service as the priest says, “The blessing of the Lord and His Mercy come upon you.” But on this Sunday the priest lifts the cross over his head and processes to the middle of the church as the choir and the people sing, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: Have mercy on us.” When the priest reaches the doors into the altar area he lifts the cross up and sings out, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” Immediately the choir and the people begin singing the apolytikion of the cross:
O Lord, save thy people, and bless thine inheritance. Granting to thy people victory over all their adversaries; and by the power of thy cross, preserve thy community.
Here is the theological one-two punch:
It is at this point that that entire congregation sings three times and makes three prostrations:
We adore thy cross, O Master, and thy holy resurrection we glorify.
The choir then chants:
Come, ye faithful, let us adore the life-giving wood, on which Christ the King of glory, stretched out his hands of his own will. To the ancient blessedness he raised us up, whom the enemy had before despoiled through pleasure, making us exiles far from God. Come, ye faithful, let us adore the wood, through which we have been made worthy to crush the heads of invisible enemies. Come, all ye kindred of the nations, let us honor in hymns the cross of the Lord. Rejoice, O cross, complete redemption of fallen Adam. With thee as their boast our faithful kings laid low by thy might the people of Ishmael. We Christians kiss thee now with fear and, glorifying God who was nailed upon thee, we cry: O Lord, who on the cross was crucified, have mercy on us, for thou art good and lovest mankind.
When I kissed the cross my cheeks brushed the flowers that surround it. I thought immediately of the kids in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe who brushed the fur coats in the wardrobe as they past from this earth to the kingdom of Narnia. The Cross is the Wardrobe. It is the ladder from earth to heaven.
You know that decent penitence accompanied by tears that spring from the depth of the heart will melt and burn away the filth of sin. Light a fire and make pure the soul that has been defiled. In addition, penitence through the visitation of the Spirit generously imparts an abundant flow of light to the soul, whereby it is filled with mercy and good fruits (James 3:17). I pray, therefore, fathers and brethren, let us use fasting both during this third week of Lent and in those that follow, as we daily add fervor to fervor and zeal to zeal, until we arrive at the Sunday of Easter with souls and bodies alike resplendent. St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses, Page 174
If you want to read more about St. Symeon, I wrote about my love for St. Symeon and his writings here.
Of all lenten hymns and prayers, one short prayer can be termed the lenten prayer. Tradition ascribes it to one of the great teachers of spiritual life – St. Ephrem the Syrian. Here is its text:
O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother; For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen
This prayer is read twice at the end of each lenten service Monday through Friday (not on Saturdays and Sundays for, as we shall see later, the services of these days do not follow the lenten pattern). At the first reading, a prostration follows each petition. Then we all bow twelve times saying: “O God, cleanse me a sinner.” The entire prayer is repeated with one final prostration at the end.
Why does this short and simple prayer occupy such an important position in the entire lenten worship? Because it enumerates in a unique way all the “negative” and “positive” elements of repentance and constitutes, so to speak, a “check list” for our individual lenten effort. This effort is aimed first at our liberation from some fundamental spiritual diseases which shape our life and make it virtually impossible for us even to start turning ourselves to God.
The basic disease is sloth. It is that strange laziness and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us “down” rather than “up” — which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds “what for?” and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source.
The result of sloth is faint-heartedness. It is the state of despondency which all spiritual Fathers considered the greatest danger for the soul. Despondency is the impossibility for man to see anything good or positive; it is the reduction of everything to negativism and pessimism. It is truly a demonic power in us because the Devil is fundamentally a liar. He lies to man about God and about the world; he fills life with darkness and negation. Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it he is absolutely unable to see the light and to desire it.
Lust of power! Strange as it may seem, it is precisely sloth and despondency that fill our life with lust of power. By vitiating the entire attitude toward life and making it meaningless and empty, they force us to seek compensation in, a radically wrong attitude toward other persons. If my life is not oriented toward God, not aimed at eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish and selfcentered and this means that all other beings will become means of my own self-satisfaction. If God is not the Lord and Master of my life, then I become my own lord and master — the absolute center of my own world, and I begin to evaluate everything in terms of my needs, my ideas, my desires, and my judgments. The lust of power is thus a fundamental depravity in my relationship to other beings, a search for their subordination to me. It is not necessarily expressed in the actual urge to command and to dominate “others.” It may result as well in indifference, contempt, lack of interest, consideration, and respect. It is indeed sloth and despondency directed this time at others; it completes spiritual suicide with spiritual murder.
Finally, idle talk. Of all created beings, man alone has been endowed with the gift of speech. All Fathers see in it the very “seal” of the Divine Image in man because God Himself is revealed as Word (John, 1:1). But being the supreme gift, it is by the same token the supreme danger. Being the very expression of man, the means of his self-fulfillment, it is for this very reason the means of his fall and self-destruction, of betrayal and sin. The word saves and the word kills; the word inspires and the word poisons. The word is the means of Truth and it is the means of demonic Lie. Having an ultimate positive power, it has therefore a tremendous negative power. It truly creates positively or negatively. When deviated from its divine origin and purpose, the word becomes idle. It “enforces” sloth, despondency, and lust of power, and transforms life into hell. It becomes the very power of sin.
These four are thus the negative “objects” of repentance. They are the obstacles to be removed. But God alone can remove them. Hence, the first part of the lenten prayer; this cry from the bottom of human helplessness. Then the prayer moves to the positive aims of repentance which also are four.
Chastity! If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness. If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity, it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust — the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit. Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring in us the true scale of values by leading us back to God.
The first and wonderful fruit of this wholeness or chastity is humility. We already spoke of it. It is above everything else the victory of truth in us, the elimination of all lies in which we usually live. Humility alone is capable of truth, of seeing and accepting things as they are and therefore of seeing God’s majesty and goodness and love in everything. This is why we are told that God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud.
Chastity and humility are naturally followed by patience. The “natural” or “fallen” man is impatient, for being blind to himself he is quick to judge and to condemn others. Having but a broken, incomplete, and distorted knowledge of everything, he measures all things by his tastes and his ideas. Being indifferent to everyone except himself, he wants life to be successful right here and now. Patience, however, is truly a divine virtue. God is patient not because He is “indulgent,” but because He sees the depth of all that exists, because the inner reality of things, which in our blindness we do not see, is open to Him. The closer we come to God, the more patient we grow and the more we reflect that infinite respect for all beings which is the proper quality of God.
Finally, the crown and fruit of all virtues, of all growth and effort, is love — that love which, as we have already said, can be given by God alone-the gift which is the goal of all spiritual preparation and practice.
All this is summarized and brought together in the concluding petition of the lenten prayer in which we ask “to see my own errors and not to judge my brother.” For ultimately there is but one danger: pride. Pride is the source of evil, and all evil is pride. Yet it is not enough for me to see my own errors, for even this apparent virtue can be turned into pride. Spiritual writings are full of warnings against the subtle forms of pseudo-piety which, in reality, under the cover of humility and self-accusation can lead to a truly demonic pride. But when we “see our own errors” and “do not judge our brothers,” when, in other terms, chastity, humility, patience, and love are but one in us, then and only then the ultimate enemy–pride–will be destroyed in us.
After each petition of the prayer we make a prostration. Prostrations are not limited to the Prayer of St. Ephrem but constitute one of the distinctive characteristics of the entire lenten worship. Here, however, their meaning is disclosed best of all. In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored, the whole man is to return. The catastrophe of sin lies precisely in the victory of the flesh — the animal, the irrational, the lust in us — over the spiritual and the divine. But the body is glorious; the body is holy, so holy that God Himself “became flesh.” Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and the life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. Christian asceticism is a fight, not against but for the body. For this reason, the whole man – soul and body – repents. The body participates in the prayer of the soul just as the soul prays through and in the body. Prostrations, the “psycho-somatic” sign of repentance and humility, of adoration and obedience, are thus the lenten rite par excellence.