It is very important for us to become acquainted with the lives of the Saints. In them we see how the Gospel is to be lived. We see the failures, trials, tribulations and triumphs of those who, in the end, received crowns victory. They teach, encourage and often admonish us. We are to imitate them as they imitate Christ.
One particularly beloved Saint is St. Mary of Egypt. While her feast day is April 1st, she is commemorated on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent and her life is read in church during the Great Canon on Wednesday evening of the 5th week of the fast.
Thus St. Mary is intimately connected to Lent (as seen in her life, her meetings with St. Zosima also occurred during the fast). Her life is an exceptional example of the power of repentance. It accentuates the veracity of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Unfortunately Mary is sometimes described as a harlot. She never was a harlot. She made her meager living by spinning flax. It would be more accurate to describe her as a nymphomaniac as her desire was unquenchable. She was a woman so given over to her lust that it totally dominated her life. Yet, like most sinners, she was totally unaware of this fact. Satan blinds us as to our own true estate. We must continually entreat the Lord to reveal to us our need of repentance.
I think that she is beloved because the first part of her life symbolizes the most common and deadly of sins - those of the flesh, namely: lust and all forms of immorality, gluttony and intemperance. While these sins have never been absent among men, it seems to me that today they are more prevalent than ever. Thus her life has greater meaning and urgency as it offers comfort and hope for salvation to a world greatly in need of it.
Although there is much that can be said about the life of St. Mary, I’d like to focus on that which I think is the most important. That moment when she came to her senses as did the Prodigal Son.
Mary went from Alexandria to Jerusalem for the feast of the Exultation of the Cross. She went out of curiosity not godliness, for she saw a group of men boarding a ship to go to the feast and she thought that she would go to see what it was all about. Now while great crowds of people entered the church to fall down and venerate the Cross of Christ, Mary was restrained by an invisible power. She tried to enter several times but could not. Being touched by the grace of God, however, she realized it was the multitude of her sins that prevented her from entering. She wept and lamented. Now above the door to the church was an icon of the Mother of God, the Most-pure Virgin. Mary caught site of the icon and, beholding her who was free of all fleshly desire, she asked for her help in entering the church promising to do whatever our Lady would tell her to do afterwards. She tried to enter once more and this time was not hindered. She felt how God was willing to accept the repentance of sinners and fell down before the Cross and kissed it. After this she returned to the place where she prayed to the Virgin and asked what she should do. She heard a voice from heaven say: If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest.
There is so much to be learned just from this story. First, it is our sins which prevent us from entering into the Kingdom of God and, second, God desires the repentance of sinners that they may be saved. Thus He showed Mary that its is sin which prevents us form entering the church (Kingdom of God), and that God desires that all repent - regardless of their sin - and to enter into rest. Mary immediately began to repent: she wept and lamented. To repent means to return to God. When we realize how far we have wondered from the only One who truly loves us, we weep and lament. Now this weeping and lamentation is not repentance. It is the beginning of repentance. It is the starting point on our journey back to God. The actual road is seen in Mary’s life, as for 17 years in the dessert - as many as she lived in sin - she pined for the food, drink and songs of the world, while her flesh burned with desire. She would throw herself on the ground and water it with her tears, and would not get up until consoled by the blessed Light that dispelled the thoughts that troubled her.
Another important lesson is the power of the intercessor of our Lady Theotokos. Her Son, our Lord and God, commands us to honor our father and mother. He, likewise, honors His Father and mother. The Ever-virgin has totally dedicated herself to loving and serving God and is quick to help those who wish to do likewise. It is no coincidence that we have so many wonderworking icons of our Lady Theotokos. As the Archangel Gabriel declares, she is full of grace and the Lord is with her. The intercession of His mother is not insignificant before the Lord.
And finally, these wonderful words: If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest. Sin is tiring, exhausting. We don’t realize this because we are so accustomed to it, but it is constantly driving us to satisfy the insatiable.
What was on the other side of the Jordan? Nothing. A desert. No comfort, no relaxation, nowhere to hide, especially from oneself. Mary, as we all do, needed to confront her passions, something which cannot be done without renouncing the sweetness of sin. Embracing the desert represents the renunciation of the sins and the world. We cannot love the sweetness of worldly life and commune with God. As St. James wrote: friendship with the world (sin, worldliness) is enmity with God. Most people, including those who profess to be Christians, want to be Christians without renouncing sin and worldliness. This is evident in the numerous false preachers of the Gospel, the multitude of denominations and worldliness of most Christians today. The result is the world in which we live, a world abounding in sin, especially of the flesh, a world in which the sweetness of rest is absent. True rest lies in Christ, whose yoke is easy and burden is light.
The life of St. Mary of Egypt not only shows us the power of true repentance, it teaches us how to truly repent: that we must die to sin if we are to live in God. St. Mary was glorified with the crown of victory. May we all follow her example and be deemed worthy of like reward.