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Saint Mary of Egypt

Learning from St Mary of Egypt

Fifth Sunday of Lent: St. Mary of Egypt; Apostle Herodion and company / Heb. 9.11-14; Mark 10.32-45

F/S/HS.  Brothers and sisters, the fifth week of Lent.  Hard to believe that next Saturday is Lazarus Saturday, and the following day Palm Sunday.  Then seven days later the Feast of all Feasts—Holy Pascha!

Our beloved St. John Maximovich makes a telling if not ominous comment about the latter half of Great Lent, beginning with the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, two weeks ago.  St. John states that, beginning with that Sunday, our Gospel and Epistle readings, and our hymnology, time and again narrate the tragic and sad tendency of we humans to live by our own will, to walk our own path, rather than take time to stop and prayerfully ask whether our life, our choices, are governed by a prayerful desire to truly follow God’s will. 

God’s will, God’s desire, is that we abide by His Commandments and His will, that we seek His loving Face, that we strive to follow the way of a holy life that time and again He has set before us. 

From the beginning, with our first parents in the Garden of Paradise, says St. John, we instead display the tendency to sojourn the path we want to take.  The path of self-will.  Which is why our church fathers and mothers refer to the sin of self-will, like that of self-justification, as one of the most destructive of all sins.

Archetypal examples of self-will abound.  Told not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we instead chose to eat of that fruit.  Told to love our neighbor and pray for our enemies—who, like we, are made in the image of God—we often do not intend their well-being, and even injure or kill them. Told to honor our father and mother, we instead covet our inheritance and go our own prodigal way. Told to give hospitality to the stranger, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, cloth the naked, and to set aside certain earthly cares, we instead shun strangers, binge and consume and hoard.

Back in the late 1990s, when I took my first Inquirer’s Class, Fr. Seraphim used a few sentences that were lightning bolts … that pieced: Acquire the mind of our church fathers and mothers, the mind of the saints.  Why?  Because our mind is often bent far from their mind.  Our task is to bend our mind towards theirs, bend it to the true north of Christian Orthodoxy.  Why, I wondered, do I find these words both so very compelling and so very convicting?

And the answer: Orthodoxy, was teaching me that my mind, my will, is often bent far away from the mind and the will of God, from the mind and the will of the saints whom I was growing to love. 

Hearing Fr. Seraphim’s advocacy, something deep in my soul began to yearn to strive for that bending; to bend myself to that true north.  

Which is why I so remember the first time that I heard, here in this church, the reading of the life of St. Mary during the fifth week of Great Lent; a life read this past Thursday evening by Johanna and Juliana; a life reflected upon through those nine amazing canticles offered by St. Andrew of Crete. 

How is it, I asked myself back then, and every year since; how is it that this young Mary, whose entire mind and will was bent in a certain direction, 180 degrees antithetical to the will of God—bent in the direction of unabashed indulgence in her carnal sensual passions—how is it that she was able to achieve that true north; that she completely aligned her will with the will of God, the spirit of the living God living down in her heart? 

How is it that Mary went from proudly self-willed to become instead full of contrition and humility, who daily cried out in prayer for God to have mercy on her?  Where she became nearly one with the Lord that she had come to know and so love?

And so it became that this Orthodox church of ours, the more I lived in its ethos, its phronema, taught me about the undulating cycles of our life. Where, from time to time, we tend to go our own way, guided by our own will and desires, rather than God’s will and way.  At which time God patiently awaits our repentance, to return to Him with the contrition and humility that enveloped Mary; the contrition and humility that took root in the Prodigal Son’s heart the day that he came to his “senses” and returned back home to his father’s house—Father, I have sinned against you and against God.

Our beloved St. John Maximovich reminds us that every Great Lent, beginning especially with the service of the Cross, mother church gives us all kinds of Gospel and Epistle readings, all kinds of hymnology, which narrate our human and sinful propensity towards self-will.  We do not understand God in Christ; we do not understand His ways with us; and so out of ignorance or fear or rebellion or whatever, we adopt our own way by way of asserting our own will.

Even our most beloved Orthodox holy elders occasionally succumb.  Elder Thaddeus, for example.  I love Elder’s Thaddeus’ honesty regarding the deception of his own self-will.  For years, for decades, he dreamed of living on Orthodoxy’s most revered place—Mount Athos.  He was utterly convinced that it was God’s will for him.  And so at nearly every juncture of his life and his monastic journey, he sought to bend daily reality towards Mount Athos. 

Finally, he achieved his goal, his will.  Only to find out, after only a few months on Mount Athos, that he was not welcome there, that Mount Athos was not the place for him.  Thus came the crashing and crushing realization that He had, for years, tried to form God to His own will, and not the other way around—form his will to God’s will.  His way, his thoughts, had determined his life!

And so he returned to his native Vitovnica in Serbia.  And once there, submitting fully to the will of God, he blossomed into the saint that one of these years he will most surely become.

So it is in this morning’s Gospel narrative with our Lord’s Disciples, especially with James and John, the sons of Zebedee.  Jesus tells His Disciples that they are going to Jerusalem; that the Son of Man will be betrayed; that He will be condemned to death, mocked, scourged, spat upon, and killed.  And that He will rise again, on the third day.

To which James and John nearly instantly zero in on one thing and one thing only: That Jesus will rise again.  And so they ask their Master: Can one of us be granted to sit on Your right hand, and the other Your left hand, when you O Lord achieve Your Glory?

Like us dear ones—archetypal of us—James and John do not get it.  Had not Jesus, midway through Great Lent, told His Disciples that Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up His Cross, and follow Me; that whoever desires to save his life will lose it (Mark 8.34-35).  Yet here are James and John—who knew Jesus personally!—seeking one path only, the path of glory.

And I ask myself: Why such self-will on their part?  Perhaps there is an answer, from a few minutes earlier.  Near the beginning of our Gospel reading, it says that as they were walking with Jesus and hearing from Him about His suffering, they became afraid (v.32). 

Fear, dear ones, fear causes us to cave in on ourselves, to no longer trust in God’s will and ways with us.  Fearing the path ahead, James and John construct their own path: The path of glory and honor.  We wonder if this is why the beloved Disciple John the Evangelist would eventually pen: Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4.18)?  Now wracked by fear, James and John’s own will bent far from Jesus, they could not love nor be loved as Jesus had intended the nature of love to be. 

In that moment, Jesus then doubles down with James and John, asking them, telling them: Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say that they are. 

Still, they do not get it!  They do not get that their Lord does not promise a visible kingdom on earth, or an immediate, victorious and glorious consummation, but rather that toils and struggles, conflict and affliction, are going to accompany the path that they are called to journey.  Suffering love will have to overwhelm them in order to bend their mind and heart back to the mind and heart of their Master.

And so Jesus concludes: Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.  And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and go give His life as a ransom for many.

How ominous to ponder sisters and brothers, that James and John live within me; that I too don’t get the ways of our Lord; that I too embark on my own journey guided by my own will—all the while thinking that I am seeking the will and ways of God with me.

Which is why the very best posture that we can assume during the final days of Great Lent—assume all of our lives—is to cry out to God that He have mercy on us, as we did while chanting the Great Canon of St. Andrew this past Thursday evening; cry out as did the Publican, cry out with the Jesus Prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner!  Because we cannot get to the glory without embracing our cross.  F/S/HS