What is it about a sixth-century saint that makes her so relevant to our lives today? How is it that an illiterate woman who lived most of her life in total obscurity in the Egyptian desert is celebrated around the world?
If you’ve never heard of St. Mary of Egypt, you can read the account penned by St. Sophronios over 1300 years ago. But if you have heard the story and want to know why it still resonates, you may want to talk to one of the women, like me, who is proud to call her their patron saint.
We tend to be a little vocal. This year, I compared notes with two of my “Mary-sisters,” – Bonnie and Yumi from St. Barnabas Church in Costa Mesa, CA — and found that we had some very similar feelings about this cherished saint.
Barred from the church door
I heard the story of St. Mary more than 25 years ago … I think. Like my fellow “Mary-sister” Bonnie, I’m not exactly sure. “I just remember she was one of the first saints I learned about in the Orthodox Church and she represents the quintessential sinner,” Bonnie told me. “Her story of repentance is so beautiful and so appropriate for the Lenten season.”
That’s definitely how I feel as well. I was instantly convicted by the humility of this saint. But it’s her moment of crisis that made the biggest impact on me – St. Mary is straightforward in telling Abba Zossima that she lived a thoroughly dissolute life until one day she was trying to join a crowd of people going into the church to see the Holy Cross.
But when I trod on the doorstep which everyone passed, I was stopped by some force which prevented my entering. Meanwhile I was brushed aside by the crowd and found myself standing alone in the porch. … It was as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance. …
Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be punched, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch.
And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart 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. And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the icon of the most holy Mother of God.
My friend Yumi said, “Her conversion story at the Feast in Jerusalem is what struck me and still sticks with me today — especially when she pleads with the Most Holy Theotokos for her aid when she realizes her unworthiness.” It’s hard to fathom the power of that moment of conversion and the power that it had to sustain this blessed woman for the next forty years in the remote and searing desert. But it’s the recognition, by her own telling, that this was nothing that she did, but the very grace and mercy of God! For me, it is always uplifting to consider that I have a woman like this as a friend and spiritual helper. And just as she was bold enough to call on the Theotokos, I can be bold enough to ask Mother Mary again and again for her prayers on my behalf.
‘Thy spirit, St. Mary, rejoices with the angels …’
Maybe that’s what we spiritual daughters can add to the songs and hymns that are sung on her nameday (April 1), and again on every fifth Sunday of Lent. She wasn’t just an inspiring person who lived centuries ago. She is alive in the living memory of the Church, and she feels more and more every year like someone I know and – more importantly – who knows me for all that I am, and has pity on me all the same. Yumi told me that “I always ask for her intercessions to help me see my heart without my ‘filters’ in place which prevent me in giving a good, honest and true confession.”
And yet, how much more we would like to know her. Both Bonnie and Yumi told me the same thing: They wish they knew her better – “in a deeper way,” as Bonnie put it. So do I. I have had opportunities to retell her story, and every time I do, I wish I had taken a refresher course so that I could get every detail right. More to the point, I wish that I had been doing the work of purification enough that I could do the story justice, could tell it properly.
It’s a story that is worth telling. My Mary-sisters and I agree on that point as well. Just as we were moved decades ago and continue to feel moved today to struggle more, to take heart in the victories of the saints, I know that there are young women and men who can benefit from getting to know Mother Mary. God willing, as the Church sings her praises this year, there will be some new sons and daughters brought into the family. You can never have too many Mary-siblings.
God is wondrous in His saints,
The God of Israel shall give power and strength to His people.
Blessed is God. (Ps. 67:36)