by V.K. McCarty
The image of God was truly preserved in you, O mother,
For you took up the Cross and followed Christ.
By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away;
But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal.
Therefore your spirit, O holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the Angels.
Troparion, Tone 8.
As the Sunday of Mary of Egypt approaches and her feast-day on April 1, we encounter a poignant charge to repentance in our lives, this one embedded in our Liturgy centuries ago, here in the vortex of Great Lent. So, alongside the Scripture readings is a monk’s tale, a parable taught not by Jesus specifically, but coming to us from the treasury of Orthodoxy itself. It is the story of a monk and a pilgrim in the desert. As the seventh-century Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius, who wrote it down, says, he is writing what he heard about: “the holy story which has reached us…In the monasteries of Palestine, there lived a man renowned for his way of life and his gift of words. From the days of his infancy, he was reared in monastic trials and good deeds…seeking always to subjugate the flesh to the soul.
“Frequently, he was deemed worthy of divine visions, illuminated from on high…However, he began to be tormented, for it seemed that he had attained perfection and needed no teaching from anyone. And so, he began to reason: Is there a monk on earth capable of passing on to me any new kind of spiritual achievement in which I have not already succeeded?” This monk, then, while fasting in Lent and following the tradition of his monastery to wander out into the desert, this monk gifted with words and visions, encounters what his soul is lacking. After twenty days fasting in the wilderness, he sees an extraordinary pilgrim: “black as if scorched by the fierce heat of the sun, the hair on the head white as wool.” And this “fugitive” speaks, calling Abba Zosimas by name.
This, then, is the story of Zosimas meeting Mary of Egypt [—here, she is depicted in haunting detail by the sculptor Donatello.] During their encounter, she displays quintessentially the very virtue he lacks—repentance—and she does so confessing a singularly memorable marathon of remembered sins, female sins—and, so she is associated with the alluring terminology of harlotry in all its colorful detail. This is St. Zosimas’ tale of Repentance as it is modelled by one woman’s divinely inspired response to the realization of her sins. This one saint’s story, after all, has become acceptable pornography, even for young monks—the good parts are there for the taking this one Sunday.
Lest any of us, though, become ensnared by the gender-specific amusement of slut-shaming, it is good to remember that in these early centuries, any intimacy experienced outside of betrothal could easily be characterized—for women, certainly—as prostitution. It may be fun to titter at a celibate monk’s description of a woman’s sexual confession to him—with free reign to embellish the tale, mind you—when in fact, her actual involve-ment, if described today, might sound far more normal in our own social world, especially if describing, say, a fraternity boy. And if there were years in the life of Mary of Egypt outside the bonds of marriage that did indeed convict her morally, and perhaps also convicted numerous men—we can certainly hope some of them repented as well.
And yet, this story serves a powerful theological function, far greater than the doubtful report by a monk of a young teen victim of child-trafficking from the sixth century. For this story has grown in ecclesiastical prestige and has become a treasured component of our Orthodox Lenten heritage. Over the generations of liturgical worship, Mary of Egypt has become a chief prototype for the human action which wins God’s forgiveness—Repentance. It is interesting to note, however, that as the early-century monk’s tale goes down the irresistible rabbit hole of harlot talk, we never actually hear of the prideful man’s repentance. It is hoped, though , that we the faithful do indeed repent. Do we need God’s forgiveness? Does a successful hard-working Orthodox churchman really need the forgiving divine intervention that was necessary for some notoriously promiscuous female?—God knows. God knows.
On the other hand, I tell you, it may take a woman’s story to get people to stop and listen, even by savoring the good parts. It may take a woman’s story to help people—male and female—to each come to a realization of what they have done, to each come to an awareness of the sinful self, and clarity about their shame and guilt. Perhaps Mary of Egypt and the “Woman Fallen into Many Sins” on Tuesday night in Holy Week, and Mary Magdalene, as she came to be seen—perhaps they all have become necessary in the progress of our Liturgy and Lectionary in order to effectively visualize opening ourselves to the possibility of repentance. For in the story, we the faithful are able to witness—as if we ourselves stood beside Mary of Egypt—the experience of awakening moral conscience. Mary finds the force of it so overpowering that it denies her access to the doors of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. “The Word of Salvation touched the eye of my heart,” she says, “and showed me that the impurity of my actions obstructed my entrance.”
And what does Mary do with her newfound contrition? Are you listening, my beloved? She appeals to the icon of the Holy Mother of God, the Theotokas: “I call upon thee,” she says, “to be my guarantor, of hope before God, thy Son…This is what I pray, to gain some hope from my burning faith, and trusting in the mercy of the Mother of God.” And with that, Mary of Egypt gains access to the Jerusalem church at the very moment it is revealing one of its treasures, its relic of the Wood of the True Cross on its Exaltation feast-day. Then, returning to the icon of the Mother of God in gratitude, she prays to her, as she enters the wilderness in prayer, like the Desert Fathers: “Lead me now, where ever thou dost command. Be for me now the teacher of Salvation. Lead me by the hand along the way of repentance.”
For there is no repentance without prayer, without an inner life striving for God. Yet, truly, the action of the soul moving toward God—deeply, honestly regretting sin—is prayer. Awareness of the love of God often shows by its radiance the true nature of our sinful actions. But for many, it may be that, in honestly asking if you yourself pray, stretching yourself toward the forgiving love of God, the honest answer, even in Lent, may be—not lately. Then, the Mary of Egypt story is activated this day for you personally as a life-changer. Its charge to repentance is urgent and universal, not just for sinful women. God’s message is radiating out to us from the story of Mary of Egypt in the daily Liturgy, and all the Scripture lessons as well. Here she is shown in haunting detail by the Renaissance sculptor Donatello in Florence.
After the salacious parts of the story, which may be more fun to remember her by, Mary of Egypt is described struggling with her demons in the desert, doing combat with temptation, like St. Antony the Great, and invoking again and again the compelling mercy of the Holy Theotokas, the pure Mother of God, to give her strength to continue to ask God’s forgiveness in her pilgrimage of faith. So, Mary of Egypt has become an iconic figure in the tapestry of Orthodox faith—she appears in Goethe’s Faust; she is the subject of a Balzac novella, and of operas by Sir John Taverner and Ottorino Respighi. Hers is a tale of miracles, of poignant anniversaries, of magic stones and walking on the water, and of the power of the Eucharist.
“May God,” says Patriarch Sophronius, in conclusion: “May God Who works great miracles and bestows gifts on all who turn to Him in faith, reward those who hear this account. May He grant them a blessed portion together with Saint Mary of Egypt and with all the saints who have pleased God.”
Quotations from the vita in this sermon are taken from: The Life of St. Mary of Egypt, S. Katherine, S Thekla, trans (Whitby: The Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption, 1974).
V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. Her new book, From Their Lips: Voices of Early Christian Women, is available from Gorgias Press.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.