This Sunday is the Lenten feast of Saint Mary of Egypt, while this past Wednesday we heard her life read in its entirety in conjunction with the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete. The life of St Mary illustrates well the saying of Fr Sophrony, one of the great holy elders of the modern world, "It is impossible to live as a Christian, you can only die as a Christian."
We might say, in fact, that St Mary's life is divided into two parts corresponding to, first, her living and, then, her dying. I don't mean, however, primarily her death near the end of the story when Fr Zosimas finds her incorrupt body in the desert. Rather, I mean her whole existence in the desert from the time she crossed the Jordan until her physical death. This, her asceticism, was her death before her death, while her entire existence prior to that in the world was her seeking to live, to find her life in the pleasures of the body and in this world. After all, what is all of this pleasure seeking and living according to the flesh except seeking after a certain immortality, living life on our terms, getting as much pleasure and enjoyment as we can while we can.
That asceticism is about death might have been obvious to people at one time but, if so, not any longer. Particularly in a culture like ours which is obsessed with the cult of self-help, self-improvement, and self-love, asceticism - if it is undertaken at all - takes on all the character of a “new and improved" way to a better life, or worse, a way to be “spiritual”. But asceticism is about death, about "dying before you die." It is, in the words of St Paul, to "put to death your members which are on the earth." (Col 3.5) Or, in the words of our Lord, it is to "take up your cross." Our work is to die. It is up to God to raise us.
Somehow, though, we get this most fundamental of Christian truths confused in our minds and we begin to think that resurrection is our job, that through more effort or a better technique we can improve our way to immortality. But resurrection is a work for which we are most definitely not qualified. We are not God. Eternal life is not in our hands. It is ours to die, to affix ourselves to the cross, to offer ourselves to God as a sacrifice. It is God's work to raise us.
As we rapidly approach the Holy Week of our Lord’s passion the Church gives us the example of St Mary to remind us what we are supposed to be doing in Great Lent, in the Church, and in our whole life in this world: dying before we die. This is our only entrance into the Paschal mystery which is at the heart of all things. Any so-called spirituality or asceticism that loses sight of this and seeks to attain to a self-made resurrection or immortality is a lie and a sham. Our hope is not in our selves, our ability, or our power, but in God who raises the dead. And thus the only true spirituality and asceticism is that by which we enter into the Paschal Mystery, dying with Christ so that we might be raised with Him in the power of God.
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
Between the cross and the commandments of the Gospel there is a wonderful relationship! The doing of the commandments draws the cross onto the shoulders of the doer, and the cross perfects and refines our action according to the law of Christ, explains this law to us, gives us a sense of spiritual freedom despite the nailing, and fills us with unutterable spiritual sweetness despite the bitterness of outward circumstances.
St Ignatius Brianchaninov
Saint Isaac the Syrian writes: “What is precious to God above all prayer and sacrifice are trials endured on His account and for His sake. And all misfortune which we accept without murmuring, with the same thought as the wise thief, i.e. that these trials, these misfortunes are sent for our sins, for salvation and a cleansing and consequently, ‘we justly according to our deeds…’” Every misfortune accepted with such an attitude is turned into a misfortune for the Lord's sake; our personal cross is transformed into the Cross of Christ, and through it we are saved. If we are crucified with Christ, we shall reign with Christ, says Saint Paul.
Abbot Nikon Vorobiev