“There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” (Luke 15:10)
Some might find it surprising that besides the usual feast day, celebrated once a year, a whole week and a separate Sunday during Lent is dedicated particularly to Saint Mary of Egypt. There is also a Matins service in the 5th week of Great Lent where the Life of St Mary is read together with the Great Canon of Repentance. It is so, because in a sense, Saint Mary of Egypt is the patroness of us all.
By and large, all of us can relate, whether in deed or in thought, to the repentant libertines and fornicators that St Mary stands for. Her decision to rise up from her fall and come to the Lord was not a thoughtful act, but rather a cry of the heart feeling unbearably hurt by this sin, still spreading today like a harmful epidemic.
Despite that, her example tells us, “Do not despair. Salvation is possible!” Many people do not go to church, because they think that they have committed so many sins and have sunk so deeply in evil that there can be no salvation for them in Confession. Besides these sins are often so embarrassing that even the thought of crossing the threshold of the temple with them appears impossible, let alone revealing them to a priest. This terrible abyss of despair often prevents a person from opening his eyes to see that the temple of God is not for heaven dwellers, but for sinners to be saved and become inhabitants of heaven. St Mary’s life clearly says, “You are not as sinful as you think. I was much more sinful.”
Her hagiography is atypical. It is worth reading this hagiography, especially written in the first version by Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem (he lived in the 6-7 centuries). Abba Zosima related her life to him personally. The same Zosima who saw Mary of Egypt. Why is this hagiography atypical? Often, when we read the lives of some ascetics, we see a certain scheme that the hagiographers tried to follow. An ascetic is born to holy parents, in childhood he does not play with his peers, he avoids children’s games, he either prays or goes to church, at a young age he renounces the world, goes to a monastery, enters under the guidance of an elder, there he undergoes complete obedience, takes up exploits, then, having achieved perfection, he retires into the wilderness, where he is even more spiritually perfected, attains contemplation and only after that he becomes a reverend father, and he is already an elder or saint himself who guides others. And there really were such saints of God. But is it an example for us sinners to follow? We were naughty in childhood, played children’s games, in our youth we did not go to a monastery, we did not enter under the leadership of an elder. And even sometimes trying to find some spiritual fathers, we took hard knocks, and our life is far from perfect… We did not go into the desert, did not reach any heights. And we cannot, as saints and venerable elders, guide others. Whom can we rest on? We just need to rest on Saint Mary of Egypt. For she tells us: “Look from what debauchery and what deep bottom one can rise.”
It is surprising that in her hagiography her falls are described in sufficient detail. She leaves her parents at the age of 12 and moves to Alexandria. This is the age when, in southern countries, puberty reaches its proper period. Sometimes even young girls become wives there. But she gives herself up to fornication and remains in this fornication for 17 years. Often not even for the sake of money, but simply because she liked to fornicate. That is, sometimes she did not even take money (she spun yarn to earn money), but just liked such debauchery. This debauchery, which is now often poured through the Internet, television. Man is very susceptible to flesh temptations. And whether you like it or not, all this at some moments breaks through the imagination of any person and he very easily goes to this sin. And so Mary, who was still not at all a saint at that time, did not just debauch, but she did it with special delight. She possessed a certain genius of seduction. Not just a talent, but a satanic genius. She managed to seduce others quickly enough. And why is she going to Jerusalem? She heard that there would be a feast of the Exaltation of the Cross of the Lord and saw that young people were entering the ship, and she wanted to indulge in fornication with them there too. And actually seduce the pilgrims. This satanic genius of seduction, carnal debauchery, reaches its peak there. Those who go to the shrine, on the way to it, are corrupted by this greatest harlot and the servant of satan.
And it seems that this is all, this is the limit. Such a person cannot be saved. And so often, seeing someone in the life around us sinning heavily, we think: “This one will definitely not be saved,” but the Providence of God is not like that. Each person is given some call from the Lord. And in 20-30 years we can see this person completely different. And we meet people like that. They were transformed into true Christians by the inscrutable ways of God and renounced their old way. This is exactly what happened to Saint Mary.
Being in Jerusalem, drowning in debauchery, she tries to enter the temple, but suddenly some force stops her and she cannot enter. She doesn’t understand what is going on. She tries again and again this force stops her. The third time, the same thing happened. And here is a turning point. Many other people would say: “Well, never mind, I will go and live on with my sweet, as it seems, life.” But something inside Mary wakes up and she realizes that something is wrong here. Others go to the cross of Christ, they enter freely, even those who have fornicated with her. While she cannot enter. And here, at that moment, her conscience awakens. Sometimes we need a wall to stop us, so that we take hard knocks, and these hard knocks make us think. Then she turns her gaze to the icon of the Mother of God and tears burst from her chest, she cries and finally says from her heart: “Let me kiss the cross of Christ and I will change my life.”
Of course, we will not retell the entire life of Saint Mary of Egypt. When a person still does not know what he will do on this path, does not know what temptations await him, but this unbearable pain about his sins already arises in him, he understands that what he devoted his life to is destruction, and at the same time his heart has already woken up and says: “Lord, I want to be only with you and the previous path does not suit me anymore. I turn away from it as from a stinking ooze.” And then the Lord allows Mary to kiss the cross, then she gets the revelation to go beyond the Jordan where she will find her peace. But she did not find peace at once. She goes to Jordan, prays again, in the church of St. John the Forerunner, she partakes of communion for the first time. In fact, according to the ancient canons, she was not supposed to partake of communion after such a depraved life. She could have been excommunicated for many years. But still she partakes of communion. We do not always need some kind of external schemes; the rules are not always justified. If your heart is already aching about your sins, then do not wait and do not think whether they will let you in or not, whether they will forgive you or not. Just get up like Mary and go to church. And repent there and turn to the Lord. And you will be forgiven for your sin and you will be admitted to the Holy Chalice. Because the rebirth has already taken place in your heart.
After that, she crosses over the Jordan. There she undergoes a long struggle of repentance. She has been fornicating for 17 years and for 17 years she has been going through the feat of a long struggle. Thoughts aroused her passions in her, the memories of the former pictures of fornication were revived and, like wild animals, they tormented her. There she deliberately bared her body in order to indulge in debauchery, but here she has to be naked, because her clothes have decayed. She suffered from terrible heat during the day and cold at night. She fell into despair, but at the height of this despair, she still prayed to the Lord. She fell to the ground and said: “Lord, save me and forgive me, a sinner.” And then the incredible happens. She is honored to contemplate the uncreated Divine light. This light illuminates a person who does not have an exaggerated idea of his own importance, who fully admits his sinfulness. And when this light illuminated her, immediately those thoughts and feelings were pacified, peace came in her soul and the passions calmed down.
17 years have passed in such a struggle. And after that she was given another 30 years to live. After that she was honored to meet Abba Zosima, to whom she told her story. And everyone gets their lesson. Abba Zosima thought that he had achieved great perfection. He was in the monastery since childhood. But at the age of 53, an evil thought comes to him that he must have already reached perfection. Then the Lord leads him into the wilderness, where he meets a person who is superior to him in spiritual life. And who is above him? This harlot and dissolute woman, who was drowning in fleshly pleasures, but she sincerely repented. And her heartfelt simplicity and openness to the Lord showed Zosima that there are those who are higher than him and that none of us on earth can achieve complete perfection. Saint Mary receives her benefit from this meeting, because thanks to Zosima, she receives communion. She partakes of the Holy Communion only twice in her life.
Saint Mary told her story for us so that we could recognize that there is no reason for despair. Because no matter what sins you are drowning in, no matter what evil you have committed, there is also a path of ascent for you. And there is your own spiritual joy. Yes, it is hard to fight with sin, yes, thoughts will eat you. But let them better bite you a little, for instead you will be saved from hell forever and flames won’t touch you.
So let us turn to Saint Mary of Egypt with a heartfelt request that she help us overcome our own passions, our carnal sins, and we ask her that our hearts be so open to the Lord that in the Lord we find the grace of the Holy Spirit and the ineffable light that brings peace to every restless soul. Amen.
Read Akathist to Saint Mary of Egypt and Saint Zosimus