14 April 2009

'Thee We Have as a Pattern of Repentance'—St Mary of Egypt

Today, 1 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of St Mary of Egypt. This post is a bit late in coming, as I have been recovering from an illness last night and have mostly slept through the day today. But I held off on posting about St Mary on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, when she is also commemorated (see the Synaxarion for this Sunday here), so I really wanted to post something on her today, however late.

St Nicholas (Velimirović) ends his wonderful ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Mary (from the Prologue for today) with the following lines:

What smells so in the awesome wilderness,
As beautiful incense in a chest of the temple?
That, Mary breathes—
With holiness, she exudes!

The Life of St Mary, written by St Sophronius of Jerusalem, is a full account of what is known of her, coming as it does secondhand through St Zosimas who heard it from the venerable woman herself. I cannot stress enough the benefits of reading it (one can find it here and here, and Fr Serge in Galveston—one of the coolest priests I’ve met!—has posted it here). But in order to provide some account of her life in a manageable form, I shall give St Nicholas’s version in the Prologue from Ochrid (available here):

Once, during the Honorable Fast [Lenten Season], a certain priest-monk (Hieromonk), the Elder Zosimus, withdrew into the wilderness beyond the Jordan, a twenty-day trek. Suddenly, he caught sight of a human being with a withered and naked body whose hair was as white as snow and who began to flee from the sight of Zosimus. The elder ran for a long while until this person crouched down in a brook and cried out: ‘Abba Zosimus forgive me for the sake of the Lord. I cannot face you for I am a naked woman.’ Zosimus then tossed his outer garment to her which she wrapped around herself and then showed herself to him. The elder was frightened upon hearing his name spoken from the mouth of this woman he did not know. Following his prolonged insistence, the woman related her life story. She was born in Egypt and at the age of twelve began to live a life of debauchery in Alexandria where she spent seventeen years in this perverted way of life. Driven by the adulterous flame of the flesh, one day she boarded a boat which was sailing for Jerusalem. Arriving at the Holy City, she wanted to enter the church in order to venerate the Honorable Cross but some invisible force restrained her and prevented her from entering the church. In great fear, she gazed upon the icon of the All-Holy Mother of God in the vestibule and prayed that she be allowed to enter the church to venerate the Honorable Cross, all the while confessing her sinfulness and uncleanness and promising that she would go wherever the All-Pure One would direct her. She was then permitted to enter the church. Having venerated the Cross she again entered the vestibule and, before the icon, gave thanks to the Mother of God. At that very moment she heard a voice saying: ‘If you cross over Jordan you will find real peace!’ Immediately she purchased three loaves of bread and started out for the Jordan where she arrived that same evening. The next day she received Holy Communion in the Monastery of St. John and crossed over the Jordan river. She remained in the wilderness for forty-eight years in great torment, fear and struggle with passionate thoughts as though with wild beasts. She fed on vegetation. Afterward, when she stood for prayer, Zosimus saw her levitate in the air. She begged him to bring her Holy Communion the following year on the shore of the Jordan where she would then come to receive it. The following year, Zosimus arrived on the shore of the Jordan in the evening with Holy Communion. He wondered how this saint would cross the Jordan. At that moment, in the light of the moon, he saw her as she approached the river, made the sign of the cross over it and walked upon the water as though upon dry land. After Zosimus administered Holy Communion to her, she begged him to come the following year to the same brook where they had first met. Zosimus came and discovered her lifeless body on that spot. Above her head in the sand was written: ‘Abba Zosimus, bury the body of the humble Mary on this site; render dust to dust. I died on April 1, the same night of the saving-suffering of Christ, after having received Communion of the Divine Mysteries.’ From this inscription Zosimus first learned her name and the other and awesome miracle was that, she, on that same night the previous year, when she received Holy Communion, arrived at this brook which took him twenty days to travel. Thus, Zosimus buried the body of this wonderful saint, Mary the Egyptian. When he returned to the monastery Zosimus related the entire history of her life and the miracles which he had personally witnessed.

St Nicholas concludes, ‘The Church holds her up as an example to the faithful during these fast days as an incentive for repentance.’ Indeed, the rôle of St Mary in the Lenten Triodion, that is, the dedication of a full Sunday to her as well as the reading of her Life at Matins on Thursday of the 5th week, forcefully underlines her status as the model of repentance par excellence. ‘Thee we have as a pattern of repentance, all-holy Mary’, as we sing in the expapostilarion for the 5th Sunday of Lent (The Lenten Triodion, trans. Mother Mary and Archim. Kallistos [Ware] [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1994], p. 460). Archbishop Andrei of Novo-Diveevo writes, ‘This was a sinner who became a classic type, a classic image of a Christian woman’ (The One Thing Needful [Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt, 1991], p. 50). Speaking of the 5th Thursday of Lent, the great Greek theologian, Panagiotes Nellas, tells us, ‘The Life of St Mary of Egypt is read, so that the intellect and will of the believer may be detached from love for the world and, following in the footsteps of the saint, may be guided into the heart of the desert, into the heart of the mystery of repentance’ (Deification in Christ: Orthodox Perspectives on the Nature of the Human Person, trans. Norman Russell [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1997], p. 164).

The moral philosopher, Edith Wyschogrod, has made some interesting comments on St Mary of Egypt in her book, Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1990), pp. 9-10 (a book to which I referred previously here). After a brief discussion of ‘three strands of narration’ in an 11th-c. French Life of St Mary (p. 9), Wyschogrod writes:

The tale’s chronological strands and textual voices may appear to the reader to convey information and, as such, to reflect an attitude of factuality toward what is recounted even when the events reported are out of the ordinary. But even if what occurs is brought to light in the indicative mood, the hagiographic material is united and framed by the imperative mood. Thus in the command ‘Listen’ and in the demand that all pray for Mary’s intercession, the imperative mood of the tale solicits others to transform their lives. The narrative voice together with the temporal scissions they reflect are organized to display Mary’s remarkable spiritual rebirth and transformation. The story’s success is not measured in aesthetic or cognitive terms but rather in regard to whether the addressees experience the saint’s spiritual rebirth as an existential demand. The tale is not intended to elicit replication but to inspire a new catena of moral events appropriate to the addressee’s life. (p. 10)

While corroborating Wyschogrod in some ways, it seems to me that Nellas actually deepens this account in his discussion of the reading of St Mary’s Life on the fifth Thursday of Lent:

The reading of her life does not have as its aim simply to move the faithful. It plays in the services an organic part which is at once deeper and more real. . . . Thus the liturgical reading of the life of St Mary makes the saint present in the assembly of the faithful in a sacramental manner, so that she can accompany them and struggle with them in the contest of repentance and prayer. (pp. 166, 167)

In addition to the various resources to which I’ve already linked, be sure to check out Felix Culpa’s posts for the 5th Thursday as well as the 5th Sunday of Great Lent. One can find the text of Archbishop Andrei’s homily for the 5th Sunday here, that of Metropolitan Augoustinos of Florina here, and that of Fr Seraphim Holland here. Be sure to see the post on St Mary at Cometh at Midnight, especially for the inclusion of an interesting poem on the Saint by John Berryman (a native of my home state, a classmate of Thomas Merton’s, and a typical tragic 20th-c. literary figure). Kevin Edgecomb also has a brief post here, and my friend Ian from Down Under has posted some of the hymnography for the 5th Sunday here. See the comments on the Saint and the interesting Western-style diptych of Ss Mary and Zosimas at Vultus Christi here. Finally, there is a good post on St Mary at the RC blog Vox Nova which begins with this observation:

For our modern, licentious society, there could be no better saint for the Church to point to than St Mary of Egypt. As Christians who live in an over-sexed culture, it is not surprising so many succumb to the temptations which completely surround them and sin. This feast day is especially important for them because it shows that there is hope. No matter what one might have done in the past, God’s love is still there for them. Even if one has become so addicted to sex that they find it nearly impossible to persevere against lust, St Mary of Egypt shows them that not only is it possible, one can turn one’s life around and become a great saint.

As Archbishop Andrei similarly writes, ‘Therefore, I say that for us this day which the Church puts before us is a comfort. There is no sinner whom the Lord would not forgive’ (p. 51).


The Ochlophobist said...

Superb post.

I have been thinking a great deal about your dante posts of late. Haven't commented yet because I am not yet sure of my thoughts.

I pray your health restored.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks, Owen. Actually I've improved quite a bit, I think.

I'm glad to hear you're thinking about the Dante posts, as I was afraid no one was! I'll be glad to hear of your thoughts when you become more sure of them!