A Life of Repentance
The Story of St. Mary of Egypt
by Rev. Father Simon Thomas
The story of Saint Mary of Egypt, as handed down to us by Saint Sophronios, is an incredible story of endurance, survival and dedication. The remarkable account of how she lived after her repentance only indicates the level of the extreme sinfulness of her previous way of life. Yet, her immoral lifestyle pales in comparison to the modern day celebrities we read about in the supermarket tabloids — the same celebrities many of our children aspire to be (and in fact, as studies show, it is not just our children, but many adults as well!). Yet, how many stories of repentance, on the level of St. Mary’s repentance, do we hear about today? Let us ponder the repentance of St. Mary, reflecting upon our own lives, and contemplating the things we need to bring before God in repentance.
St. Mary was born in Egypt, but left home for Alexandria at the age of 12. For the next seventeen years, she lived her life consumed by the passions – drinking, partying, and engaging in sexual activity. None of this she did for money, since she had a job spinning flax. In modern terms, her lifestyle would rival even the most rebellious Hollywood actress! Yet, she was an Orthodox Christian living in the Byzantine Empire. She was surrounded by the life of the Church, but made no attempt to make the Church a part of her life.
One year, desiring to join a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, she secured passage on a boat by selling her body to the sailors. Day and night she reveled in wicked activities while traveling to the Holy Land. Once there, she continued to pursue the young men of the city in order to satisfy her lusts. On the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14th, she followed the crowds to the church, attempting to enter to venerate the Holy Cross of the Lord. However, an invisible force prevented her from crossing the threshold. Realizing that her sinfulness was what was preventing her from entering, she prayed to the holy Theotokos to entreat her Son to forgive her, promising to change her way of life. When she once more attempted to gain entrance to the church, she was allowed to enter unabated. Kneeling in thanksgiving and repentance before the icon of the Theotokos, St. Mary fulfilled her promise by retreating to the wilderness beyond the Jordan River for the remainder of her life.
About 47 years later, the monk Zosima came across St. Mary living in the desert. She had lived that entire time having never encountered another human being, living off the land, without even clothes to cover her. She spent her time in prayer, being supported by God alone. After detailing her life to Fr. Zosima, she requested that he bring her the Holy Body and Blood of Christ on Holy Thursday that year, which he did. One year later, he returned to the place he had first met St. Mary, only to find that she had passed from this life to the next on the same day she had received the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Her body was buried by a lion, and remains in the desert to this day.
The repentance of St. Mary — the repentance God asks of us — was not simply an apology for offenses committed, or an accounting of sins. St. Mary changed her entire way of living! The Greek word for repentance is “metanoeite” which means “to change one’s mind” or “to change one’s way of thinking.” If St. Mary had gone to confession with a priest, and even received forgiveness, but then continued in her sinful ways, she would not be an example of repentance. In fact, she would not have repented at all!
It is the common belief amongst Orthodox Christians — even though it is not taught by the Church — that God will forgive us just the way we are. “After all, I am who I am,” one might say. At most, some believe we only need to ask God for forgiveness in our own personal prayers. In truth, God requires much more than this. The Sacrament of Holy Confession is the means by which God has provided for His children to receive forgiveness — but Holy Confession is not even enough! God actually wants us to truly repent — to change our way of thinking — to change our way of living!
The Sacrament of Holy Confession is a time to bring before God all our sins, our burdens, our anxieties, our troubles. But if we are to truly be repentant, then we must be able to identify the things in our lives that cause us to sin — the things that drive us away from God — and change them. This is the meaning of fasting, the services, almsgiving, and prayer — all the practices that the Church asks us to undertake. These practices are intended to change our way of living, to focus our attention back onto God, Who created us to be in communion with Him.
St. Mary of Egypt transformed her entire life, because there was nothing about her previous lifestyle that could have been considered good or holy. Hopefully, the same is not necessary for us, but there is always something about each of us that cause us to “fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Let us continually keep in mind the example of St. Mary. What will we change in our lives to prepare us for the coming of the “King of Glory?” How will we repent, so that the door of our heart is not blocked off by an invisible force, preventing us from entering the Kingdom of God?