One of the most prominent figures we find in Great Lentis a woman whose very life epitomizes the most important theme during this period of time, and her name is St. Maryof Egypt. She is an icon or repentance, a depositor of hope, and an evangelist like few others because, after fleeing into the desert, she hardly spoke at all, and to only one person at that! Nevertheless, though she had renounced the world, and detached herself from living among people, her love for God and her silent yet harsh ascetic struggle in the desert became the catalyst for many people since her time to bear her name and strive to follow her example of repentance.
St. Mary of Egypt’s life story, as recorded by St. Sophronius, is one of the most profound and inspirational stories one will ever hear. It is impossible to begin reading about her journey and not yearn to know the end. The very first words you read when you encounter her story speak to the timeless value and absolute need to pass down the events about her life from one generation to the next.
It is good to hide the secret of a king, but it is glorious to reveal and preach the works of God” (Tobit 12:7), so said the Archangel Raphael to Tobit when he performed the wonderful healing of his blindness. Actually, not to keep the secret of a king is perilous and a terrible risk, but to be silent about the works of God is a great loss for the soul. And I (says St.Sophronius), in writing the life of St. Mary of Egypt, am afraid to hide the works of God by silence.
Indeed, it would be wrong to hide under a bushel such a life, such a work of God’s hands as the life of St. Mary of Egypt. While there are literally hundreds of stories of various Saints in the Church, I cannot think of one that has had such an impact on the lives of others, outside of the life and trials of Job. If St. Mary’s life were not of such noteworthiness, then why would the Church appoint her as the person to emulate, giving her the distinction of occupying the 5th Sunday of Great Lent? Not only this, but the Church believed her life to be of such significance to the faithful, who are collectively called to deepen their own life of repentance, that the reading of her entire life was assigned during the service of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.
The greatest takeaway from her life is that salvation is possible for anyone who truly repents. This may not sound like a profound statement, until you realize that her adult life was spent as a prostitute. We do not know her upbringing, her family of origin, what she had encountered by way of abuse, neglect or abandonment. But we could surmise that her upbringing was not ideal, otherwise, why would she “choose” such a path as prostitution? This is not for us to know, at least at this time. If this information were important she would have revealed these details. What is of importance are the details of her life that she gave to Zosimos the priest, information that she dreaded sharing. What courage it took for her to expose the depth of her sin and the shame that accompanied her actions to the priest Zosimos.
I am ashamed, Abba, to speak to you of my disgraceful life, forgive me for God’s sake! But as you have already seen my naked body I shall likewise lay bare before you my work, so that you may know with what shame and obscenity my soul is filled. I was not running away out of vanity, as you thought, for what have I to be proud of–I who was the chosen vessel ofthe devil? But when I start my story you will run from me, as from a snake, for your ears will not be able to bear the vileness of my actions. But I shall tell you all without hiding anything, only imploring you first of all to pray incessantly for me, so that I may find mercy on the day of Judgment.
Through these words, St. Mary was exhibiting some very powerful feelings and emotions: shame, fear and also courage. St. Mary had never shared her story prior to the day she met Zosimos the priest and thus we take the narrative she shared as her confession to this man of God. Here too lies a very important lesson for all of us, and that is, do not allow shame to stand in the way of courage when it comes to approaching our Lord Jesus Christ in the mystery of Holy Confession. Well-known researcher, speaker and author, Brene Brown defines shame as, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that weare flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging–something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Shame is a very powerful thing and can prevent us from connecting with others, including God. Shame is also painful. We are all flawed and we do things we are not proud of, and yet, we are loved and we do belong to the One Who has given us life. Being flawless or sinless has never been a prerequisite for being loved by God for “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). God’s love for us in not “contingent” on anything because God is Love (cf. I Jn.4:8), and He cannot “not” love us, no matter what we do.
God loved Mary of Egypt even when she was a prostitute, and His love for her was perfect and complete. He loved her just the same as He loved Peter, John the Baptist and His own mother. This is difficult for us to comprehend because our experience of “being loved” has been tainted by our relational experience with others, mostly our primary caregivers. Our experience of love, therefore, says that when we mess up we’re not lovable at that moment. When we do something that upsets someone, and they get angry or are disappointed, our sense of shame leads us to feel unworthy of love and we feel a sense of dis-connection. It’s not hard to see how we will take these experiences and project them on to God as a God who can be mad at us or who withdraws from us when we mess up. Yet this is not the case at all. God never leaves us, for this is impossible. He is in us, around us, present in all places at all times. It is the experiences that we’ve had in life that gives us the sense, the idea, and the belief that this happens. This is how our learned history distorts reality and that what we “believe” is not what actually “is”.
Through her deep repentance, bearing the shame of her deeds, and turning her life toward God, St. Mary of Egypt experienced the love of God in a most transformative way. Though she bore the scars of her transgressions, and painfully related them to Zosimos the priest, she knew she was forgiven and loved by God. The combination of her repentance and God’s forgiveness and seeing the scars ofher sins held her in a place of deep humility, and this is what moved Zosimos to tears and great reverence for this woman of God. May we all carry with us the life of St. Mary of Egypt all the days of our life and hold it up as an example of what is possible for those who love God.