HOME

Fifth Sunday in Great Lent. Saint Mary of Egypt.

Epistles

Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews 9:11-14

11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come,[a] then through the greater and perfect[b] tabernacle (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit[d] offered himself without blemish to God, purify our[e] conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians 3:23-4:5

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,[a] heirs according to the promise.

My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits[b] of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

 

Gospels

Mark 10:32-45

A Third Time Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

The Request of James and John

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

 

Luke 7: 36-50

A Sinful Woman Forgiven

36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus[a] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[b] and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” And Jesus[c] said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

 

The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt

 

Mary’s life, itself, follows the accustomed pattern of a life turned away from God, from childhood, or, equally, turned to God, from childhood, either condition being in effect the same condition as neither bears significant resemblance to real ambivalence of feeling and behaviour. There follows the customary shock of repentance through miraculous intervention, and then a life of penance, and saintly manifestations. And, a death accompanied by the unmistakable signs of a saint. Most lives of the saints, on this level, are alike, and,  in one way this stylised unreality already gives the reality of continuity. In this context, the actual facts of the life are irrelevant. It is the eternal value which is in question, and the eternal value need not be proved. The personal details, which would confirm the truth or the life, are the every-day details which drop away in death. They are of this world. The stylisation, ignoring temporal veracity, suggests the value of the immortal soul and, as it were, the abiding kinship between saint and saint. The conventional stylisation, and ironing out of personal details into the well-known framework, can be seen as the image of the Communion of Saints, as one.

But, more than one level is involved. Eternity is not the only dimension. We would soon perish in idealism if this were so. History must also have its dimension. The balance is kept and, as in the (Orthodox) Canon, this balance comes through the personal reality of the men and women of the Old Testament, so in the Life of the Saint, once again there is a strong reality of personal detail. The two levels are retained throughout. The lion, who helped to bury the body of the Saint, is both stylised, the image of redeemed nature, and real, with his busy paws. The crowd and the young men mocking on the quay-side are very real young men, as is the sudden vision of the one who gave St. Mary a piece of money as she left the Church. The jostling crowd in the Church is undoubtedly authentic, and so is the corruption in the highly respectable Monastery. Is there not perhaps an element of dry humour in St. Mary’s even referring to this corruption? And, St. Mary herself—what could be more real than her poor scorched skin and white hair’?—and her "modesty" and shame at her nakedness?—or her delicacy in soothing Zossima’s shock by asking polite questions about the state of the world? St Mary is not the representation of a Saint, but she is a person to the finest detail of sensitiveness and awareness of another’s needs. And Zossima is also a person, above all in the enthusiasm of his love for her, an energy and impetus of love which was almost beyond his capacity to understand or fulfil. The story of his search for her, his eagerness, his despair, his yearning, is immeasurably real inside the un-emphatic frame-work of stylised expression of the story-teller. Thus, the stylisation and the personal reality go together, both in the language and in the content, hinting thereby at the Mystery of the ever-present double movement in our lives, always the no-time and no-place of Eternity to which we can not attain, and always the time and the place of daily living. Following on the first level, of the unreal and the real within the stylised medium, comes the second level, the immediate and evident theme of the foundation attitude of theological spirituality. The Life of Saint Mary, in common with all hagiography, has both implicit and explicit, within the particular story, the day-to-day practical tenets of faith. They are the constant throb of the machinery concerned in the effort of realising the Spirit and refuting any form of ideology. The Incarnation was a real Incarnation and, so, in our lives our faith must be made real, given a body, a daily place in the workshop of the Spirit. Spirituality and Practice must be two, and must be one.

The tools are common to all Christians, but, perhaps, the emphasis we lay on certain of them, the prominence which we afford them, is peculiarly Orthodox. Or, at least, so we have often been told. One evident aspect is that of the integration of the monastic aim into the every-day life of every one of the Faithful, the denial, at any rate in theory, of the split between what may be regarded as the totally dedicated and the partially dedicated.

The Church and Monastic Services are identical, and the discipline demands on the laity are no different in principle from that on the monks. Prayers and fasting are common, only more emphatic and less disturbed in the monastic life. So, Saint Mary cast away her distaff before embarking for Jerusalem. A significant act of poverty, as yet unconscious, for the life of monastic austerity which was to come. In her was the creative obedience, demanded of all, towards Christ Saviour and Judge, towards His Mother, who intercedes for us, and guides us. It was at her command that Saint Mary went into the desert, never again to leave nakedness and hunger, thirst and heat. Amid a life of unceasing prayer. Unceasing prayer: the Prayer of the Heart. The Prayer which is both Prayer and stillness, expression and attitude. Again, the poverty. The Jesus Prayer leads nowhere except into the greater knowledge of not knowing. So much of the Orthodox daily faith lies in the simple story of St. Mary that it would need not only volumes to write about it, but years to live and experience it. But, perhaps a few hints would be of interest: St. Mary prayed to the Ikon of the Mother of God. She went into the desert, she fasted. She listened day and night. She took the first opportunity to confess to a Priest of the Church and she made her Communion. She bowed before the Priest in all humility. The lion helped to bury her. Christ, the Judge, before whom she repented, whom she would meet at the dread Judgment, and Christ, her Saviour, on whom she kept her eyes fixed in torment and he held her up and the waves could not drown her.

We look at the Life of St. Mary, from the point of view of three levels.  We have seen the first level, the stylisation of eternity running parallel with the personal reality. Then the second level gives us the clue to our every-day practising faith. But on what are these two levels founded? Where are the roots—the basis? So, it seems that there is yet a third level, our Orthodox attitude of faith which permeates every tiny branch, every leaf, every bud, of the tree which has sprung from this root, which is planted deep within the Gospel.

The essential message of the Life would, therefore, seem to be the message of the Gospel as interpreted in our theology, that is, the abiding conviction that we do not know, nor are we meant to know, into the Mind of God and, hence, we can not judge His values. We are ever pursued by the Parables which deny our capacity of judgment. We are accompanied by the thief on the cross and the washing of her Lord’s feet by the sinner. Such not-knowing must find its outlet and expression in the one repentance common to the Canon (of St. Andrew ) and to the Life  (of the Saint ).

It is the repentance of attitude which no good works can abates no fasting, no austerity, no work, nor faith, can relieve this undeflected assurance that we do not know how we stand and how we shall stand before Christ Judge. Christ, Judge and Saviour. And, the confession of not knowing, finds, as it were, an image, in the obvious contradiction of the vis-à-vis lives of Father Zossima and St. Mary. How should we be able to deny that he was good and that she was bad? Yet, the whole crux of the story hangs on this one point of seeming-vice and seeming-virtue and the mercy of God who allowed the two parallel lines to meet before it was too late : too late for Father Zossima, not for St. Mary. Father Zossima was on the road of lovelessness and death. St. Mary, from the beginning, was on the road of love and life. And, in his awakened love for her, for her as a person, not an ideal, Father Zossima was roused to the clarity of vision which can only come from love and be directed to Love. The nonsense of human judgment is yet again illustrated in this story of the Saint and of the holy man. We do not know the value of any thought or of any action. And, so, we repent from day to day and from year to year and from minute to minute. And, repenting, we keep our eyes fixed on the Mother of God, in her tender solicitude for us, and we walk towards Christ, Judge and Saviour. We walk, but we remain, for we will be with Him and we are with Him.

The point of meeting between St Mary and Father Zossima embodies in itself, in its finest crystallisation, our theology which, ever directed towards the Eternal Word of no-time and no-place, directs any form of immanent truth towards the One Truth, in the unending striving towards the goal which is unsearchable and unattainable. Our joy lies in the Mystery that we can not know. Five talents or one, thrifty or prodigal, sinner or righteous:

 

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

(Matt. 7, 1)

October 1973

Mother  Thekla