In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the fifth Sunday of Great Lent is devoted to the memory of a woman who stands as an example, not just of what it means to be a Christian, but what it means to be a human being.
She is known to us only as Mary. Born and raised in Egypt in the fifth century, she ran away at the age of 12 to the big city of Alexandria, where she lived on the street, begging or spinning flax for a living while she engaged in a life of sexual debauchery. As Mary makes clear in the account of her life, it was not as if she was living a life of prostitution in order to survive. “It was not for the sake of gain…” she says. “Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money. I acted in this way so as to make as many men as possible to try to obtain me, doing free of charge what gave me pleasure.”
These details alone are disturbing. Consider the horrific realities of child prostitution, then take away the external forces of oppression and exploitation, and imagine a child so emotionally and psychologically damaged that she would willingly allow herself to be abused by whoever wished it. It hardly bears thinking about...
According to her own testimony—witnessed by a priest named Zosimas and later recorded by Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem—Mary lived in this manner for seventeen years. Then, one summer’s day, she was seized by a whim to follow a group of pilgrims who were traveling to the Holy Land. When they arrived in Jerusalem and entered a local church, Mary attempted to follow, but found herself physically unable to do so, “as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance.”
After trying several times to enter and failing, Mary had an epiphany. “The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart,” she says, “and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart.”
Following this revelation, Mary experienced a conversion and devoted her life to Christ. She departed from Alexandria, crossed the Jordan River, and spent the next 47 years living in the wilderness. Only then did the priest Zosimas discovered her, now in her seventies and completely naked, her clothes having rotted off her body.
The account relates miracles associated with Mary. According to Zosimas’ witness, she knew his name without being introduced to him; when she prayed, she levitated off the ground; she walked on the water to cross the Jordan River and receive the Eucharist from him; she was miraculously transported to the place where she died; and a lion came out of the desert, tame as a pet dog, to dig her grave.
All of this is to say that after a lifetime of struggle, Saint Mary of Egypt found freedom from the horrific psychological and spiritual forces that sought to destroy her, attaining the ultimate destiny of a human being, which is to become a partaker of divine nature. (see 2 Peter 1:4). From unfathomable depths of abasement, she rose to immense heights of faith. The readings prescribed for her in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church compare her to the woman who wept at Jesus’ feet, about whom He says, “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47)
What does the life of this obscure Egyptian woman in the fifth century have to say to us?
So often we are told that God loves and favours us more the more righteous we become. Saint Mary’s story reminds us that there are no depths to which we can descend where God will not meet and embrace us. Indeed, I would suggest that the more debased we are, the greater is God’s rejoicing when we turn to Him in faith. While God does love everyone equally, He surely has a special place for the weakest and most miserable members of the human race who seek His help. I am convinced His love is somehow more intense, more urgent, the closer to the bottom He finds us when we turn to Him.
But what if we are not one of those “fortunate unfortunates”? What if we have not hit a bottom anywhere near as low Saint Mary’s?
For us ordinary sinners, our task lies in realizing the abyss of our indifference and cold-heartedness, the expanse of our wilful ignorance to God’s goodness and generosity, the height of our hubris and self-deceit. Our real challenge consists in honesty, pushing hard to see the truth of our lives, just as St. Mary pushed to get into the church.
If we push hard enough and long enough, the answers will come. They may not be answers we like; the vision of our brokenness is likely to be as horrific for us as it was for Saint Mary. Still, if we can bear the face that truth, as she was willing to do, we will discover just how much we have been forgiven. And when that happens, we will finally learn just how much God loves us, despite ourselves, and just how high our calling is to be His beloved children, partakers of His divine nature and heirs of His Kingdom.