This Sunday we commemorate the great female ascetic St. Mary of Egypt. There are so many things we can learn from St. Mary. The Church gives her to us during this time of fasting as the supreme example of a life of asceticism. Last Sunday was the Sunday of St. John Climacus whose book The Ladder of Divine Ascent is the supreme ascetical text, and this week we have St. Mary of Egypt who shows us the supreme ascetical life. We even read her entire life during the Great Canon of St. Andrew this past Thursday, so you know that she is incredibly important. There are so many things we can learn from her—but the thing I want to focus on is the remembrance of sins.
I think that when we are tempted to sin we like to justify it to ourselves saying “I’ll just do this now, it won’t be a big deal, I can confess it later”—but this is precisely what the devil wants us to think. Before we fall he tries to convince us that our sin is no big deal, and afterwards he tries to drive us to despair over the sin we have just committed. But as we see from the life of St. Mary, sin never has just an immediate, temporary effect—the consequences stay with us. She lived a debaucherous, lustful life of iniquity for seventeen years, but upon her dramatic conversion she fled into the desert to flee the temptations that beset her and to dedicate her life to Christ in prayer and fasting. She was in the desert for forty-seven years before she met St. Zosimas, and as she tells him, for seventeen of those years she was continually haunted by the memories of her sins—of the rich food and alcohol she consumed, of the trashy songs she used to sing, and especially of the lustful deeds she used to commit. And she says these lustful memories and temptations were like a fire raging within her. The Church Fathers even say that when we die, our soul will remember every sinful deed it ever committed. This is a heavy teaching, a hard saying. The thought of this is simply terrifying. If we really, truly believed this and had this in our heart, then it would be very hard to transgress again. And this is why the Church teaches us to remember our sins and remember death.
The memory of our sins will stay with us, but we don’t have to let them defeat us. They don’t have to drive us to despair. We can actually use this memory to our advantage. We can turn it around and make the memory of our sins into a spiritual weapon against the temptations that will come to us. Memory of sins and the memory of death are closely connected. These memories are not despair, but rather they are charismatic gifts from God. This is not some morbid obsession with suffering and death. It’s nothing creepy. You don’t have to start dressing all in black and hanging out in funeral homes. But, when we remember our transgressions we think about and meditate upon the shame that we felt afterwards, about the separation from God that we felt. We think about how our sins hurt us and those we love. St. Isaac the Syrian says that if we remember our faults in this way, and truly feel spiritual pain in the depths of our heart we will be greatly benefited- it will be hard to sin when we are tempted again. If we remember our pain we will make a great effort to avoid that pain again. Likewise, St. John Climacus teaches us that when we acquire the remembrance of death—which is to meditate upon the hour of death and the fearful judgment which is to follow, and the general awareness and deep understanding that everything in the world is fallen and that all things head for death—we will never sin again.
Of course we are not speaking about mere head knowledge here. Any of us can mentally acknowledge what the Church teaches about sin and death, but this is not enough to guide us to salvation. It is when we experientially know and feel the corruption of sin and death that infects us that we will turn away from them with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and turn towards Christ with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Every time that we resist temptation we gain some measure of spiritual strength and it becomes easier to resist iniquity again. Whenever we make a slight turn towards Christ in repentance He comes to us with His grace and gives us the strength to turn from vice and towards virtue. Over time our spiritual strength grows and there’s nothing stopping us from becoming saints. Satan thinks he can drag us down with the memory of our sins but he only has as much power as we give him. We can rob this tool from him and use it to our own advantage to unite ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.
But the life of St. Mary of Egypt teaches us an important caveat that must be mentioned. Fr. Sergius, the abbot of St. Tikhon’s, told me that although it is good to remember our sins, when it comes to sexual sins and passions we absolutely must not remember them. We must immediately force from our mind even the slightest thought or hint of such a memory. Fr. Sergius even taught his novices that in this regard we must be brutal with ourselves—we must cut off all impure lustful thoughts immediately. Of course I am not condemning relations within a marriage blessed by the Church, but sexual sins wage a heavy war against us. As St. Mary says—such memories were a fire burning within her. The memory of sexual transgressions easily inflames such passions within us again. They are a consuming fire that we must flee from. Flee to Christ Who grants us His favor when we make this effort. The demon of lust is perhaps the most powerful. St. Paul teaches this distinction of sexual sins in the sixth chapter of 1 Corinthians. He says: Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. But purity is so dear to Christ and to His most pure Mother, and purity begins with our thoughts.
St. Mary of Egypt has attained salvation and resides in Paradise with God. She is indeed one of the greatest saints of the Church. Because of her sincere faith in Christ and her ardent desire to repent, her sins did not weigh her down. For her, the memory of her falls was not a victory for Satan, but it took part in the ultimate victory in Christ. I encourage you to take heart from her example. Our sins may have long-term consequences but even this can be reoriented to Christ. If we remember our sins and the spiritual pain they cause, and we remember the coming hour of death and judgment, and these memories take deep root in our hearts, then vice will be far from us and Christ will be near to us. Remember sins but despair not, because Christ has overcome the world. Flee from the memory of lust and attain purity. By the prayers of St Mary of Egypt may we too give our lives to Christ and overcome sin and death by His Resurrection, towards which we are eagerly heading.