This Sunday, the fifth Sunday of the Great Fast, is the Sunday of St Mary of Egypt. During the service of the Great Canon in the fifth week her Life is read in its entirety. A person could delve into the Life of St Mary of Egypt time and time again and come out with clear and clean, pristine new treasures. It is that way with the saints because it is that way with God who, in St Augustine’s famous phrase, is “ever ancient, ever new.” Or, as St Nicholai of Zica puts it, “Thou art as fresh in wisdom and goodness today as on the first day of the creation, and tomorrow Thou wilt be as today.” This quality of freshness, of never becoming stale but of always being new - which describes God’s eternity - this quality, too, the saints take on in their charismatic participation in the Holy Spirit.
It is this charismatic reality that I want to highlight in the Life of St Mary, particularly as it stands in contrast with the works of Abba Zosimas. It is a worthwhile exercise to read carefully through the Life of St Mary and then to return again to the start and read slowly the second paragraph which details the backstory of Abba Zosimas. When we do this a distinct and clear contrast emerges.
Zosimas is described as having “from childhood...been brought up in monastic ways and customs. He had been through the whole course of the ascetic life and in everything he adhered to the rule once given to him by his tutors as regards spiritual labors.” On top of his ascetic training he added his own labors until he became “so renowned for his spiritual life that many came to him from neighboring monasteries and some even from afar.” To this picture of ascetical success can be added a thorough knowledge of the scriptures, meticulous fasting, and what seemed a truly monastic simplicity as he sought one thing: “always to sing of God, and to practice the teaching of the Divine Scriptures.” Zosimas, at the age of 53, having been reared in the monastic life from boyhood, was a model monk.
And it was then, half a century into his life and after five decades of ascetical striving, that the battle began. For it was then that he began to be tormented with this thought: “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?”
And here, in the mercy of God, Zosimas begins to discover what he does not know. Here Zosimas the Master - the Abba - becomes again Zosimas the disciple, the student, the child. For in His infinite compassion God sends Zosimas on the journey to find the “monk” he had sought and the “man” who had surpassed him. Only, of course, it was no monk (at least not in any way that Zosimas would have understood it) and it was no man. It was Mary, the converted prostitute. Mary who, from adolescence, had given herself up to sex, wine, and “devilish” songs only, in a great repentance, to abandon herself wholly to God. Illiterate Mary who had never read or heard anyone read the scriptures but on whose heart the Spirit had now inscribed the living Word of God. It was Mary, whose charismatic repentance had transformed a seemingly all-consuming desire for sex into a truly all-consuming desire for God.
Zosimas, in the middle of his life, was tempted to think himself great: “Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?” God, in His mercy, guided him to her whom Zosimas would call, thereafter, “The Great One.” His earlier thought of self-satisfaction gave way to the petition, "Show me, O Lord, Thy pure treasure, which You have concealed in the desert. Show me, I pray You, the angel in the flesh, of which the world is not worthy.”
We may not be tempted with the same thought as Zosimas - that we are near perfect in our asceticism, that there is no one our equal - but we are surely tempted with the same pride. We might not believe that we are the best but we pretty sure we are not the worst, either, and likely as not are tempted to complacency in our spiritual mediocrity.
And so we, too, along with Zosimas, need the example of Mary. We need it because we need to put to death our smugness and our spiritual lethargy and see with fresh eyes the possibilities that are open to a human being if only they will put away from them their self-righteous contentment and embrace the path of charismatic repentance.
This is a great act of faith because through it we abandon our hope in ourselves and our illusion of what we can make of our lives and cast ourselves completely and wholly on the mercy of God. Through Mary we see that the question is not whether God can or will save even the greatest of sinners but only whether the sinner has the courage and the faith to entrust himself fully to God.
May the life and example of St Mary of Egypt encourage us, brothers and sisters, and may it lead us to charismatic repentance, awakening within us an all-consuming desire for our merciful God.
With love in Christ,