In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this, the last Sunday of Lent (which ends, liturgically, on Friday: Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday forming a bridge to Great and Holy Week), we remember St Mary of Egypt. In some ways it is a counterpart to last Sunday’s commemoration of St John of the Ladder: they are both ‘monastic’ saints, St John an example of the rigorous asceticism of the monastic life, in which we share during Lent; St Mary an example of repentance, and a reminder than no one can put him or herself beyond repentance—whatever we have done, whatever sins we have committed, there is nothing so bad, so alienating from God, that we cannot repent. However hopeless we may feel we are, however many times we have repented and failed: the possibility of repentance is still there—no one is beyond repentance. That is an important message, for the devil’s commonest ploy is to try to persuade us that we are just hopeless: we are always failing, and we shall fail again, so why bother? But the Father is always there, always eager to receive us with open arms—arms that will never be closed to us, so long as we turn back and repent.
But that is not all that St Mary of Egypt has to tell us. The short account of her life (which is meant to be read in sections in the course of the chanting of the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete at Matins of Thursday last week), composed by St Sophronios of Jerusalem (the last patriarch before the Muslim conquest in the 630s), is (as one might expect from a learned and skilful writer like St Sophronios) unusually constructed. Most saints’ lives begin at the beginning and go on till they come to the end, and then stop (as Alice was advised), but not this life. The story of St Mary is placed in a frame, as it were, which is the story of a Palestinian monk, called Zosima, who, after many years as a monk, finds himself wondering whether he has achieved anything at all. As he wonders, a voice tells him that he has done the best he could, and no one can attain perfection in this life, but that a greater ordeal lies ahead of him and he should go to a monastery beside the river Jordan—which he does. There the custom was that each Lent the monks left the monastery and spent the forty days in the desert—the Judaean desert. And so it was, that when Lent came, he, like his fellow monks, received Holy Communion on Forgiveness Sunday and then went into the desert with frugal provisions for the forty days. As he makes his way, deeper and deeper into the desert, he sees a shadow, and looking more carefully sees that it is a human being, with a body blackened by the sun and abundant hair whitened by the sun. As he goes over towards her (for it turns out to be a woman); she runs off, and he follows, and this goes on for some time: the woman running away and the elderly monks scampering after her in a most undignified way. At length the woman shouts to him, using his name, Zosima, asking him to throw her his cloak so that she can cover herself. He asks for her blessing, and she replies saying that he, a priest, should give her a blessing, as he has served the Divine Mysteries. Zosima is doubly puzzled at her knowledge of his name and of his being a priest. He gives her a blessing and asks her about herself. She is reluctant to tell her story, but at least sketches it out. From Alexandria, she came to Jerusalem as a prostitute, plying her trade. Intrigued when the crowds went into the church of the Resurrection on Good Friday to venerate the Holy Cross, she tried to enter herself; but it was as if there were a glass wall, preventing her, but no one else. Eventually she looks up above the doorway that she cannot get through, and sees an icon of the Mother of God; she comes to realize that she cannot enter, because the Mother of God is preventing her from defiling the relic of the Cross by her presence. And at that moment, she repents, and begs forgiveness from the Mother of God. She enters, venerates the true Cross, and then goes down to the river Jordan, receives Holy Communion at a monastery there. Then she sets out into the desert. That, she tells Zosima, was 47 years ago. As she talks, Zosima finds himself wondering if she is real, and not some demon tempting him. And again, Mary realizes what he is thinking, and reassures him; he is again amazed at her powers of secret knowledge. In the end, they part. She tells him that next year he won’t be able to spend the forty days in the desert, as is his custom, but that on Holy Thursday he is to come from his monastery with the Holy Gifts, down to the Jordan, and there she will meet him. And so it is: next Lent, he cannot go into the desert, as he is struck down by a terrible fever. On Holy Thursday, he does what Mary had asked, and taking the Holy Gifts goes down to the river Jordan. He gets there; it is in flood. How is Mary going to cross when she comes from the desert, for he, Zosima, certainly can’t cross to her side? She appears out of the desert, makes the sign of the Cross over the Jordan, and walks across the rolling waves as if they were solid. She receives Holy Communion and then tells Zosima that next year he is to come to where they had met the year before. A year passes, and he sets off to where they had originally met. Not an easy task, for one place in the desert looks much like another. Eventually he finds a stream, and then across from there sees Mary lying dead, facing East. He goes over to her and discovers a message (although Mary was illiterate) telling him that after receiving the Holy Gifts the year before, the next day she had come there to die (on Good Friday, the day of the Lord’s Passion), and she asked Zosima to bury her. How he, Zosima, by now an old man, was to fulfil that wish, he couldn’t imagine. And then a lion turns up. Zosima is frozen to the spot in terror, but he sees that the lion approaches Mary and scoops out in the desert a hole into which Zosima can place her. They then cover her up with sand, and Zosima says psalms and prayers for the departed Mary. The lion wanders off.
Just two things from the account I want to draw attention to. First, St Mary receives communion only twice in nearly 50 years: just after her conversion through her encounter with the Mother of God, and then the day before her death. We are privileged: we can normally receive the Holy Gifts frequently—weekly or monthly or even more often—St Mary of Egypt received them just twice. Many of us now, as a result of the Coronavirus crisis, are having to get used to not receiving Holy Communion for perhaps weeks or months. We can simply regret this—or use it as an opportunity to prepare for Holy Communion, whenever that will be. If you look in an Orthodox Prayer Book, you will find an office of preparation for receiving Holy Communion with 11 or 12 prayers. Perhaps it is our custom to recite these on the evening or morning before receiving Holy Communion, and if so, maybe we find ourselves tempted to rush through them. Perhaps between now and the next time (whenever that is) that we can receive Communion, we should read these prayers, one at a time, one each day, as part of our daily prayers. So that we are preparing to receive Christ in Holy Communion, living in a state of preparation. In this way we shall find ourselves entering more deeply into communion with Christ: living between when we last received the Holy Gifts and preparing for the next time (which won’t be nearly 50 years, as it was with St Mary!). That is one thing: the other is solitude. Mary spent that nearly fifty years in solitude; it was the practice of Zosima and his fellow monks to spend Lent in solitude—in both cases in the desert. Many of us find ourselves living in self-isolation, as it is called, as a result of the Coronavirus. This will be an experience of loneliness, missing our friends and others we know, but it could also be an experience of solitude, which is very different: a solitude in which we wait for the coming of Christ, for his presence; a solitude in which we come to know ourselves better. That perhaps applies even more if we are not strictly on our own, but just living as part of our family, being there, together with those we belong to in our family—something we all too often take for granted. But these are the people God has given us to share our life, and now we find ourselves having to experience this, not just take it for granted—to experience seeing in those we live with others created in the image of God, others in whom we are to see signs of the divine presence, those we are to love. Perhaps it is no bad thing that we are beginning all this during Lent. Amen.