Saint Mary of Egypt departed this life on April 1, 522 A.D., at about the age of 77, having spent her final 48 years living alone in the wilderness east of the Jordan River. Her life of former depravity, conversion, and subsequent victory over the passions was revealed by her to Abba Zosimas, an accomplished monastic who was himself struggling with the temptation of spiritual pride. In His providence, God so arranged the meeting of Zosimas and Mary not only to demonstrate the grace of repentance by which even the most wicked of sinners can be saved, but also to provide various spiritual laws according to which any person pursuing salvation should operate in concert with the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The story of St. Mary of Egypt related by the Abba Zosimas (abba means "father", referring to a monastic elder) was recorded by St. Sophronius, the Archbishop of Jerusalem (+644), and presents these truths which is why we commemorate St. Mary every Fifth Sunday of Lent. The following passages in quotations are taken from the Life of St. Mary by St. Sophronius.
- (1) Abba Zosimas was told: "Before you lie unknown struggles greater than those you have accomplished." As with St. Mary, a life of genuine conversion and repentance is not done for personal recognition and exceeds any kind of mechanical performance of ascetical disciplines, such as fasting, vigil, and prayer. Genuine repentance is the hidden conversion of the heart manifested by humility and separation from familiar society.
- (2) Abba Zosimas said: "Grace is recognized not by one's orders (e.g., the ordained Priesthood), but by the gifts of the Spirit," to which Mary answered, "the grace of the Holy Spirit has brought you to render me a service in time," referring to her receiving Holy Communion from Abba Zosimas before her bodily death. St. Mary's spiritual renovation brought the gift of clairvoyance as proof of her sanctity, yet her spiritual awareness always acknowledged the precedence of the Mysteries of Christ in the Church - Baptism and Holy Communion - as the foundation of life for all the faithful.
Likewise, St. Mary displayed other proofs of holiness confirming that her path to spiritual heights was based on the depth of her profound unworthiness and abiding repentance. She levitated about a foot and a half above the ground when praying. She walked across the surface of the Jordan River to receive Holy Communion from Abba Zosimas and returned to the wilderness the same way. After receiving Communion she was transported a 20-day walking distance in one hour where she "at once surrendered her soul to God." She knew the Scriptures without having ever studied them; "But the Word of God which is alive and active, by itself teaches a man knowledge."
- (3) Availing herself of greater opportunity to commit fornication, St. Mary traveled unknowingly to Jerusalem during the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (Sept. 14) where by unseen force God prevented her from entering the Church. Only after coming to a sorrowful realization of her own sinfulness and the resulting vow never to practice such sin again was she allowed into the Church to see the Cross and observe the Liturgy. Her enlightenment happened before the icon of the Theotokos Virgin Mary; exiting the main part of the Church and kneeling before the icon expressing her vow of repentance in prayer to the Virgin Mother of God, she "heard a voice from on high: 'If you cross the Jordan you will find rest.'"
God is ever awaiting our conversion. He provides the opportunity for repentance even in the midst of our lives given over to sin. God allows us to pursue our own path, but He also prevents us from satisfying our own desires, nudging us in certain ways, awakening us to the need to change our ways to have peace with God. Our Lord wants our resolve to turn from sin and practice righteousness, and to this end He shows us especially the Virgin Mary (and, all the saints) as a fervent helper and intercessor directing us on the way to achieve the goal of life with God.
- (4) St. Mary simply obeyed the direction she was given. She received Communion and crossed the Jordan River to live in the wilderness for 48 years. Yet, to "find rest" she had to overcome her deep-seated, habitual passions. "Believe me, Abba, seventeen years I passed in this desert fighting wild beasts – mad desires and passions." She countered her memories and desires for sin with the thought of her conversion before the icon of the Theotokos, and turning "the eyes of my mind to my Protectress…the Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by the hand." Eating only the herbs she found, her clothes worn out leaving her naked, St. Mary learned by experience that "I have imperishable food for hope of salvation. I am fed and clothed by the all-powerful Word of God, the Lord of all."
- (5) Finally, having heard her story, Abba Zosimas exclaimed: "Blessed is God who creates the great and wondrous, the glorious and marvelous without end. Blessed is God who has shown me how He rewards those who fear Him. Truly, O Lord, Thou dost not forsake those who seek Thee!"
Every person's path of salvation through repentance may not be the same as St. Mary's, but every path is defined by repentance. St. Mary's life demonstrates how fundamental and powerful repentance is for our salvation in Christ.
Repentance leads us in faith, obedience, and humility to do whatever it takes to be rid of our sinful passions, which necessarily includes relying on the assistance of the saints, the foremost being the Mother of God, who are both examples of repentance and living advocates before our Creator. Repentance also brings us to knowledge of God in Jesus Christ who gave Himself for us that we might have forgiveness in His Church and the grace of the Holy Spirit to progress in the Kingdom of God.