St. Mary of Egypt & the Spirit of Holy Repentance

Our holy mother Mary of Egypt is a glorious example of repentance, and she shows for us, I think, the deep connection that exists between Holy Repentance and Holy Communion.

In her youth, Mary was brazenly impenitent. She was nymphomaniacal, jaded, and profane. For seventeen years in Alexandria, she lived a dissolute and promiscuous life. It is not known how she began to suffer from this “insatiable desire and… irrepressible passion” but I suspect that she had suffered from the sins of others. It is hurt people who hurt people.

Anyway, upon hearing of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to Jerusalem from her home in Alexandria, Mary resolved to accompany the pilgrims, not as a pilgrim but rather to use them to satisfy her lusts.

By choosing young pilgrims to the Holy Land to be her sexual partners and conquests, Mary heaped evil upon evil. These were people who were trying to repent and experience God and Mary resolves to do her best to distract them from that purpose and to seduce them. She is successful, too, and by prostitution, she pays for her passage to Jerusalem. Beyond even this, she “frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will [into every] mentionable or unmentionable depravity.” So her sins here are manifold and one sin begets another, just as it does in our own lives.

But the grace of God is all-powerful and God’s love for us is not diminished by any of our sins. Mary pays for her passage to Jerusalem with sin, and yet in Jerusalem, despite her own impure intentions, she experiences God. She was “hunting for youths,” but God was hunting for her and “seeking [her] repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner.” God brings good out of evil. He does it all the time. Listen to what happens next.

Mary is so jaded and free of compunction for her sins, she is so impenitent about what she has done and is doing that, following everyone else, she marches right up to the doors of the Church of the Anastasis – the place of Christ’s resurrection – the Holy Sepulchre – and intends to go in among the pilgrims as if she is one of them – though in her heart there is no piety or fear of God – she is following the crowds for her usual reasons.

God sees through our masks – straight into our hearts. There is nothing Jesus hates more than our hypocrisy. He condemns it again and again with vivid language. We are whitewashed tombs (cf. Matt 23:27). Don’t say, “Oh, he’s only talking about the Pharisees, not me.” Don’t look at Mary’s sins and say, “Thank God I am not like her.” Let us remember our own sins and repent of them like the publican (cf. Luke 18:11).

God – who is not mocked and is not fooled by our pretensions – sees Mary coming (cf. Gal 6:7). And, out of love for her, does not let her in. She finds that she cannot walk into the holy place. She tried three or four times to enter but each time was repelled by a mighty force. This is a great mercy from the Lord because this spiritual force opens her eyes to her own sin and brings her to repentance in which is her one hope for salvation – without which we cannot be saved. Take this seriously: St. Mark the Ascetic says, “There is a sin which is always ‘unto death’ (1 Jn. 5:16): the sin for which we do not repent. For this sin, even a saint’s prayers will not be heard,” (No Righteousness by Works 41, The Philokalia, London, 1979, v. 1, p. 129).

Mary is a creature of extremes. She had sinned boldly and now she begins her repentance with an even greater zeal. After she repents before an icon of the Theotokos and promises to “never again defile [herself] by… fornication,” she is able to enter the holy place. Mary experienced the great mercy of a physical manifestation of the spiritual reality. None of us who are impenitent are welcome in the holy place. Spiritually, we are not in the holy place.

If we are impenitent for our sins, especially if we do not love one another – if we are resentful and unforgiving of those who have wronged us, how can we approach Holy Communion in the body and the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ? Communion in the Lord is also communion with the whole Church. And who’s in and who’s out of the Church is not a judgment we’re competent to make. When we invite the people of God to Holy Communion in the Lord, we proclaim, “Approach with fear of God and with faith.” If you do not fear God or if you have no faith, do not approach! If you do, you will eat and drink condemnation upon yourself because you are not truly discerning the body (1 Cor 11:29). As I say, the force that prevented Mary’s approach was a great mercy.

After she did repent, Mary was able to enter the holy place — the Church of the Resurrection — and there venerate the holy cross and she then went the Church of the Forerunner and received the holy mysteries of the Church. Holy Repentance leads to Holy Communion. You can’t really have one without the other.

So clearly and emphatically did our holy mother Mary of Egypt understand this, that she then began a life of severe repentance for many years. For seventeen years, she battled the wild beasts in the desert – that is, her own mad desires and passions. When you go to a place of isolation and quiet, you will see more clearly the battle being waged over your own heart.

St. Mary was not a frequent communicant. Only after more than seventeen years of repentance in the desert with severe fasting, ceaseless prayer, and self-discipline did Mary finally again receive Holy Communion from the priest Zosimas.

I’m not going to recommend this degree of severity to anyone. I believe a more frequent nourishment from the body and blood of Christ is helpful and even necessary for most of us as we seek and strive by the grace of God for ever greater union with God.

However, I am going to insist that for the most part, we Catholics have been taking Holy Communion far too lightly for many years – and we do so to our peril. Frequent reception of Holy Communion without holy repentance – will not save us. You can’t have one without the other. The first word Jesus preaches to us is, “Repent” (Matt 4:17).

An essential – that is to say, not an optional – part of repentance is the holy mystery of repentance, which our holy mother Mary received in the Church of the Forerunner the evening she began to repent. Whatever you want to call it – going to confession, the sacrament of penance, reconciliation – we can’t skip over this entirely and remain in good with the Church. This must be a part of our lives as Orthodox Catholic Christians. This doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from the Holy Spirit through the Church and through the Scripture. We can’t live without it. I’m serious – there is no life without it.

How often you need to go personally is a discussion that you need to have with your spiritual father or mother. A good general guide is to go four times a year – once during each of the four fasts. If you haven’t been to confession in a long long time, please make a point of going before the Great Fast ends. It’s not going to hurt you. It’s only going to help you. It’s sin that hurts us, not repentance. As St. John Chrysostom says, “Sin is a wound; repentance is a medicine.” Do not be ashamed to repent. Be ashamed to sin (cf John Chrystotom, Homily 8, On Repentance and Almsgiving)

Do not utterly neglect to confess. Do not fail to repent. Let us be inspired by the example of our holy mother Mary of Egypt – by her fervor and zeal for repentance – and let us not take too lightly the discipline of God (cf. Heb 12:5). Let us repent and approach with fear of God and with faith.

***

image: By ГП (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Fr. John R.P. Russell

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Fr. John R.P. Russell is a husband, a father of four, a priest for the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Parma, and a painter particularly influenced by abstract expressionism and iconography. He has an M.Div. from the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Ss. Cyril and Methodius and a B.A. in art with a minor in religion from Wabash College. He blogs here: http://holydormition.blogspot.com/. Some of his paintings can be seen here: https://paintingprosopa.blogspot.com/

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  • JMC

    What are the Four Fasts? I imagine the Great Fast is Lent, and I’m guessing one of the others is Advent, but I’m a Latin Rite Catholic and have never heard of these.

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