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.Continue reading