SUNDAY OF ST. MARY OF EGYPT
God’s messages are simple – humility, forgiveness, atonement and love. They are so simple that those of us with pretensions of being dutiful to what we think of as rules to live by, or of being educated, often have the most difficulty comprehending them. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that the church chose Ste. Mary of Egypt as the story for this Sunday of Lent, contrasting her simple, uneducated redemption and goodness with the more formally brought about goodness of the monk, Abba Zosima. The story is powerful, without any commentary.
St. Mary, as a young girl, left her family and led a life of debauchery. She was beautiful and persuasive. For 17 years she lived so, entangling many in her sins.
Pilgrims were leaving Alexandria, by boat, for Jerusalem to celebrate the Exaltation of the Cross. Ste. Mary wanted to go, and earned her passage through more sin. On the day of the Exaltation, she went to the church, and although everyone else went in, she could not. The reason touched her heart and she prayed to the Virgin Mary, contrasting her own impurity with the Virgin’s purity. She vowed that if she could see the cross, she would renounce the world and its temptations and go wherever God would take her. She entered the church, saw the cross, and fell to the ground, worshiping God. On leaving the church, she wept, renewing her vow to the Mother of God. A voice told her to cross the Jordan and she would find rest. As she left Jerusalem, a stranger gave her 3 coins, with which she bought 3 loaves of bread. At the end of the day she had arrived at the Church of St. John the Baptist on the River Jordan. She washed herself in the River, was given the life-giving gift of communion, ate half of one of her loaves and drank of the Jordan. The next morning she found a boat which would take her across the River, and for the next 47 years she lived in the desert, alone and fleeing from anyone who came near.
Equally important to this story is Abba Zosima who had been given to the church as a baby, and by age 53 was greatly revered and sought after for his holiness. He, indeed, thought that he had reached perfection. God told him that there were many ways to salvation and that others had suffered more than he. God ordered Zosima to leave the monastery where he had lived since a child, and to go to the monastery by the River Jordan.
It was the rule of the monastery, and the reason God had brought Zosima there, that on the first Sunday of Lent, all the brothers celebrated the liturgy with its life-giving gifts, shared a small Lenten meal, and returned to the church to pray, ask each other for forgiveness, and seek the blessing of the Abbot. They then left the monastery, each to go his own way into the desert, there to fast and pray until Palm Sunday, when they returned to the monastery. Zosima too did this.
Zosima crossed the Jordan and wandered far. On the 20th day he was praying and saw a form, naked and dark as if burned by the sun. The form fled from him. He was frightened, but asked the form, in the name of God, to wait for him. The form called Abba Zosima by name, and asked whether he would lend his cloak to cover her nakedness so that she could ask for his blessing. Abba Zosima gave her his cloak, knowing that without some great spiritual insight, the woman could not have known his name. He threw himself on the ground, asking her blessing. She too was on the ground, asking for Abba Zosima’s blessing. At last she said to Abba Zosima that it was he who must bless her as he was a priest who for many years had offered holy services and mysteries to communicants.
Abba Zosima was frightened again by her knowledge, and again asked for her prayers and blessing. She again said it was he who needed to bless her, but would gladly do as he asked. She prayed long. When Abba Zosima thought she had finished, he looked up from the ground and saw that she was standing in the air, praying, not on the ground.
Abba Zosima was the more terrified. Ste. Mary then told him not to be frightened, as she was not a spirit, but a sinful woman of the flesh, guarded by Holy Baptism. Abba Zosima fell at her feet and begged her to tell him her story.
And she did. When Abba Zosima learned that she had been in the desert 47 years, he asked her what food she found. She said that when she crossed the Jordan, she had 2 1/2 loaves of bread left. They became dry and hard, but she ate them gradually over the next few years. She lived on herbs she found. Her clothes became torn and worn out. She was naked, and burned in the sun and suffered greatly from the cold.
She described how she spent 17 years struggling with afflictions and fighting with her passions. She would pray to the Mother of God to chase away the temptations and would beat her breasts and weep. Eventually a light would come which would shine on her from everywhere, and a lasting calm. But, for 17 years, the temptations and lustful thoughts would return and she would need to weep and pray until they were beaten back again.
The woman then quoted scripture, which she had never heard, nor could she read. Again the woman asked Abba Zosima’s prayers and blessing. She asked him to tell no one what he had heard, and, next year, not to leave the monastery for he would not be able to leave, until the night of the Last Supper, and on that night to bring the life-giving body and blood of Christ in a vessel for her to receive. She told him not to cross the Jordan as he had this year.
Abba Zosima, when it came time to leave the monastery, was ill and could not. On the night of the Last Supper he was recovered and left, taking the holy gifts in a small chalice. Abba Zosima went to the Jordan and waited anxiously. As he was waiting and praying, he saw her on the other side of the river. He got up joyfully, wondering how she would cross the river. She made the sign of the cross over the waters, and began walking on the waters towards him. Knowing that God promised that if we purify ourselves, we may be like God; Abba Zosima thanked God for showing him, through this saintly woman, how far he was from perfection. Abba Zosima offered the woman communion, after which she said, “Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Lord, according to Thy word; for my eyes have seen Thy salvation.”
The woman asked Abba Zosima to return, in another year, to the place he first saw her. He touched her feet and asked her to pray for the church, the Kingdom and himself. She made the sign of the cross again, and walked over the water to the other side of the Jordan. Abba Zosima regretted that he did not know the woman’s name.
The following year Abba Zosima went, 20 days journey from the monastery, to the place where he had first seen the woman. He saw her, lying dead, her face turned to the East and her hands crossed, as was the custom. He wept and said prayers, and then saw by her head words traced on the sand, asking him to bury “the humble Mary” who departed this life on the night of the Lord’s Passion after partaking of the divine mysteries. He realized she had gotten there in an hour, after he gave her communion the year before, whereas it had taken him 20 days to get there from the monastery.
Abba Zosima buried Ste. Mary and returned to the monastery glorifying and blessing Christ our Lord. He told the story and it was passed down by word of mouth until it was finally written down by St. Sophronius.