Tuesday, 11 April 2006

St Mary of Egypt

Sunday was the traditional day in Lent that St Mary of Egypt (4th Century) is celebrated. Briefly, she was an Egyptian Christian who from an early age led a life of fornication—much like many people do todayonly to go on a whim to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, paying her way by prostitution. She was prevented by an invisible force from entering the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, and, brought to repentance by that experience, she promised to reform if she were to be allowed to venerate the Holy Cross. She venerated the Holy Cross and, making the Mother of God her patroness, she went out into the desert to practise asceticism.

St Mary of Egypt's life has some interesting information on asceticism, because it speaks of the temptations that St Mary experienced, and how she was purified. However, we are not able at the moment to go into details. What is important, however, and this is why St Mary is celebrated during Lent, is that St May is a type of the power of repentance. While St Mary was leading her profligate life she was already a baptized Orthodox Christian, so her repentance is similar to our repentance—that of the member of the Church.

The important thing about St Mary's purification is that it is not seen as the movement to a higher state of consciousness, as we discussed in our previous post, The Human Condition, but as repentance, as purification of the passions. That is not to say that St Mary did not attain to a rather high state of purity: that she obviously did is why St Zosima, when he finds her in the desert, wants to know who she is: she obviously had 'boldness' with God. So we can see here that the Christian movement of asceticism is purification so as to attain to bold familiarity with God, and that it is a movement of purification that can make sinners saints.

Moreover, we see another important aspect of Christian purification. St Mary did not receive communion all those years in the desert. But she did finally receive communion: communion is the centre of the Christian relation to God. 'He who eats my body and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.' With all the talk about secret versions of Christianity, secret doctrines and what-not, it is well to bear in mind that our primary means of knowing God is first in Baptism, then in Chrismation and then in Holy Communion. There is no other 'secret way to God'. It is in this context that we encounter both sin and repentance. Our repentance leads us to God not separately from the Church and its Mysteries but in harmony with them.

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