We’ll tell you a little about her life as she revealed it to the saintly desert-dweller Zosima. She was born in Egypt, and left her parents’ house at age twelve and went to Alexandria, where she began to live a life of sin. She drowned herself in fornication, and not even for money—just for its own sake. One day she set off with a crowd of people to Jerusalem for the feast of the Exaltation of the Lord’s Cross. During her voyage on the ship she seduced many travelers. When she arrived in Jerusalem, she wanted to enter along with the crowd into the church, but some unseen force prevented her. She began to deliberate in her mind—why couldn’t she go into the church while others could? Then the light of God flashed in her heart, and it dawned on her that her own heavy sins were preventing her.
Mary wept for a long time, and suddenly, gazing upward at the wall, she saw the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos. She began to beg the Mother of God to forgive her, and to let her into the church so that she could venerate the Cross of Christ. So what happened? After making this prayer, Mary entered freely into the church, fell down before the Holy Cross, and turning to the icon asked the Theotokos to set her upon the path of salvation. Then Mary heard a voice, saying, “Go to the Jordan, and there you shall find rest for your soul!” She obeyed this voice, and after three days she had reached the monastery of St. John the Baptist near the Jordan River. She immersed herself in the holy river and then entered the church, where she received the Holy Mysteries. She then crossed the Jordan and began living in the desert there. Mary lived there for forty years, eating roots, and enduring fierce hunger. In her life you can read how she had to struggle in the desert with the sin that tormented her. She told St. Zosima, “At times there was no water, and I longed for the costly wines that I used to drink without measure. My tongue involuntarily wanted to repeat those mad songs that once consoled me. I fought terribly against my evil habits. Sometimes I would fall down on the ground from exhaustion. My dress rotted away with time, my body suffered from the cold or burned from the intense heat. But after seventeen years, there came peace.”
Having told Zosima her life, she asked him to bring her the Holy Gifts from the monastery next year on Holy Thursday. When the time came, St. Zosima came to the desert and prayed a long time, waiting for the ascetic. Finally he saw her approach the river, bless it, and then walk upon the water to the other side. The elder was amazed and wanted to fall at Mary’s feet, but she said, “What are you doing? You are a priest, and carrying the Holy Gifts.” Having received Communion, the holy ascetic asked the monk to come again to her in the desert. Zosima returned a year later and found her dead. Next to her body were inscribed the words, “Fr. Zosima! Bury here the body of humble Mary, who died on April 1.” That was April 1, the year 521—the very day she had received Holy Communion.
What can we learn from this life? St. Mary of Egypt was a harlot. However, fornication is not only a matter of bodily sin, of the misuse of one’s one body and of another’s personhood. As Metropolitan Anthony of Surouzh said, “Fornication is when a person errors [in Russian, the root word blud is present in both the terms “fornication” and “to error”]; it means that the integrity of the human soul is fractured, reduced, and the person is no longer capable of loving one person and the one God with his whole soul, whole heart, whole mind, or whole body… Fornication. In the broader sense given to that sin in the Holy Scriptures, it is the idolatrous attachment to the visible world… Fornication means giving your heart not to one who is worthy of love; it means instead of directing your will to the one thing needful, to pure, holy love for a person, for people, and for God, you vaporize it, disperse it anarchically, in all different directions, so that it serves all idols, all desires, and every impulse. Aren’t we all infected with the sickness of fornication? Are we whole of heart, and undivided in mind? Doesn’t our will falter? And what a great miracle God has wrought through repentance! From a vessel of sin and impurity, a woman became a vessel of purity and holiness. This is the repentance to which the holy Church calls us today!
Brothers and sisters, our lifetime is very short. We are inescapably approaching the threshold beyond which there is no further opportunity to bring forth good fruits. The Lord Who created the world loves the work of His hands—humankind, created in His image and likeness. He is waiting for good fruits from us. For now, we have the opportunity to produce them. The time of Great Lent is a gift from God, which we can use to acquire worthy fruits to the glory of God, and for our salvation. It is necessary to make use of this gift in order to bring forth the worthy fruits of truth and peace, repentance and sanctity, without which we cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. Without God we can do nothing; by the same token, God cannot save us without our participation. He is holiness, but we are weakness. Recognizing this, the holy Church makes particularly strong prayers during the days of Great Lent, asking the Lord to give us strength and pull us into the work of repentance. Repentance is healing and purifying, it is the opportunity to bring good fruits to God. It is bound up with particular difficulties. The Kingdom of God, according to the testimony of the Holy Gospels, suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force (Mt. 11:12). But, as St. Isaiah said, “God gave man the authority … through repentance to change and become completely new.” It is all within our power, all within our authority!
What is required of a person who has decided to repent, to go to confession? What does he need in order to make his confession true, pleasing to God, and soul-saving? The penitent must have contrition for his sins, the intention to change his life, faith in Christ, and hope in His mercy.
Thus, first of all, he must have contrition for his sins. If we do not see our sins we must pray to God, so that He would help us to see them. It is no accident that the Church so often repeats the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian: “Oh Lord! Grant me to see my failings.”
We sin when we, who are great sinners, do not want to recognize that we are sinners deserving punishment from God. False pharisaical righteousness ruins us during our time of confession. Only those who have overcome it and admit their sins in humility and contrition can worthily repent. If we approach confession out of habit, “because that is what we need to do”, then our confession will be useless. In the words of St. Ephraim the Syrian, “If you are only drawn to the Doctor out of custom, you will not become healthy. Only tears and contrition will cure your illness.”
Of the penitent are required sincere the desire and intention to correct his life. Let us pay attention to this. After receiving the Sacrament of confession and Communion, let us try to stop repeating our iniquity, to stop deceiving ourselves, to stop lying to God, or violating the Divine Mysteries.
Our passionate desire to live well only on earth smothers our faith in the future blessed life. Acting this way, we do not believe in the coming to earth of our Benefactor, Christ the Savior, or in the economy of our salvation. Let us repent of our lack of faith, our carelessness, and our feeble hope in God. The benefactions God gives us cannot be counted. We need to ask God with tears for forgiveness and repeat: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all that He has done for me” (Ps. 102:2).
From the penitent is required faith in Christ and hope in His mercy. In approaching the Sacrament of confession, we should believe that Christ Himself accepts our confession and God alone has the power to cleanse us and save us. For us He spilled His holy Blood, which cleanses us if we have heartfelt faith and a good intention. Have faith in God (Mk. 11:23); Be it unto thee according to thy faith says the Lord (Mt. 9:29).
So, by observing these conditions it is possible for us to have true repentance—the kind of repentance that St. Mary of Egypt had. Every sin of ours is a sin against God, a loss of purity and wholeness. And our repentance returns us to God, and makes us His children by adoption. “O repentance! Coming from mortal men you are the means which gives us immortality. Filled with you, the soul says: I am black, but beautiful … as a result of bitter weeping over our sins, our blackness is beautiful—thanks to the brilliance that repentance pours out… O repentance! You are the healer of the passions; you soften the terrible sentence, extinguish the flame of rancor, humble anger, and light the perpetual lamp of friendship… O repentance! You tear up the bonds of sins and save the soul that is guarded by you” (St. John Chrysostom).
During the remainder of these days of Great Lent, let us take care to correct our lives, and to bring to God the saving fruits of repentance. Amen.