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.
Every year during Lent we celebrate the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt. St. Mary was only 12 years old she left her home and traveled to Alexandria where she threw herself into wanton and “insatiable” sexual behavior for many years, “ensnaring many souls,” sinking deeper and deeper into depravity, until one day—upon attempting to enter a Church–she experienced herself barred from entering by an invisible presence. She realized her sin, repented deeply, prayed to the Mother of God, was allowed to enter the Church, and so began a new journey. Eventually she took up life in the desert and there remained for many years until a spiritual father encountered her twice, whereupon she died after finally having received Holy Communion. In an oddly moving twist to the ending of the story as it has been passed down, Fr. Zosimas was assisted in burying her in the desert by a passing lion. Anyone who knows and loves Aslan of Narnia will, I’m sure, share my love of that little detail.
We enter into this stark and amazing story, in the midst of our Lenten journeys, which emphasizes not only the power of repentance but the battle between impurity and holiness. And yet, sometimes in ensuing discussions I feel left with a sense of a script for purity and piety (and possibly more than a touch of mistrust of feminine eros) rather than having touched the depth and complexity of human experience. I think that if we look to this as a story of morality and ascetic struggle for the sake of morality rather than existence itself, we may actually risk missing the full and extraordinary magnitude of what may well have happened, and—perhaps more poignantly—what still can happen in our own lives.
Christianity is a religion of desire. At first glance, this statement may seem counterintuitive and contradictory. After all, Christians are told to deny themselves, to take up their cross and follow Christ (Mt 16:24). Several prayers, especially in the Divine Liturgy, also seem to downplay desire. In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, prior to the reading of the Holy Gospel, the priest prays for the revering of the Lord’s commandments so that, “having trampled down all carnal desires,” the Christian may do that which is pleasing to God. Similarly, the the prayer during the Cherubic Hymn, the priest prays that “No one bound by carnal desires and pleasures is worthy to approach, draw near, or minister to You, the King of Glory.” Church history is filled with numerous examples of ascetics and saints who renounced their desires, whether that includes St. Benedict throwing himself into the thorn bush to chasten his sexual desire, or Eudocia the Samaritan (whom the Orthodox Church commemorated on Forgiveness Sunday) who abandoned her earthly riches and physical beauty to the disdain of her former lovers. Countless entries within the Church’s illustrious hagiography follow a similar trajectory: a person with worldly fame and material pleasures experiences a conversion, and then sells her belongings, and embraces a life of poverty and self-denial. It would then seem that “desire” has an awfully negative place within Christian discourse. In other words, if you desire something, it is probably bad and sinful, and the way to holiness is thus avoiding what we desire and instead pursue those things we do not like.
How would you describe Orthodox Christianity in one word?”
This question was posed to a panel of scholars at a Theology conference several years ago. A few of the panelists gave their answers—offering responses like “Liturgy,” “Authentic,” “Theosis,” and “Traditional.” Then the final panelist, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, gave his reply: “Freedom,” he said, “Orthodoxy is freedom.”
“Freedom” certainly wasn’t the answer that most of us were expecting. Oftentimes, Orthodox Christianity seems like the opposite of freedom…it seems firm, rigid, full of canons and long services. It seems conservative, not liberal, unchanging, not free-flowing. Especially during Lent, many Orthodox feel burdened by the restricted diet, the heavy schedule of services, and the increase in philanthropic activities.
Yet, I’ve become more and more convinced that “freedom” is the best one-word description of Orthodoxy, and that, properly understood, Lent is Liberation. Continue reading →