Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Saint a symbol of penitence

found online at http://www.charleston.net/stories/default_pf.aspx?newsID=77694

By Fr. John Parker
Editors' Note: This is the first in a series of guest columns leading up to Easter.

A prostitute she was not, since she didn't accept payment for her sexual services. She chose to seduce and please her men at no cost for two apparent reasons: the hunt and the pleasure. She rejected payment not on any moral ground (what morality?) nor because she was rich (in fact she lived by begging). She "contrived this so that [she] could seduce many more men, thus turning [her] lust into a free gift."

Her "greatest" exploit was also to become her downfall - or rather her salvation. One summer day, she witnessed a crowd of men running toward the port, where they were to board a ship heading on a pilgrimage, of all places, to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This feast - still celebrated around the world to this day - is second in solemnity only to Good Friday and is the commemoration of when St. Helena, in the fourth century, found the cross on which Jesus was crucified at Golgotha.

Our protagonist saw this trip not as an opportunity for a holy moment, but as a chance to wallow further in filth and uncontrollable lust. She was able to board the ship, though she mostly was rejected in her efforts once aboard. She made up for missed opportunity when they reached Jerusalem, though. In her own words, "... During the days that I stayed in the city before the feast, I engaged in the same practices or even worse. For I was not contented with the young men who were at my service at sea and on the road, but I also corrupted many other men, both citizens and foreigners, whom I picked up for this purpose."

Something miraculous then happened to her. Picture it! As she joined the crowds in an effort to enter the church for the festal celebration, some divine power, as she describes it, repelled her from entering. She made many attempts to cross the threshold of the door, and four times she was met with the same force resisting her entrance. As she stood in the courtyard trying to make sense of it all, she was struck to the core with the realization that she was not able to enter and to gaze upon the true cross because of her licentious behavior and the filth of her existence.

Just then, she noticed an icon of the mother of God and was reduced to sobs, wailing and deep conviction of sin by Mary's most pure example. After a conversation and confession of sorts, our traveler was able to gain entrance into the church. Once inside, she gazed upon the life-giving cross, fell to the floor in worship and kissed the holy ground. Thus St. Mary of Egypt, as she is known, repented and devoted her life entirely to renunciation of "this world," exchanging her former life for one of ongoing prayer, repentance and union with God.

On that day, St. Mary moved to the desert, where she battled against her sins. Despite her magnificent conversion, her trials were far from over, as is the case also for us today.

One account says: "For forty-eight years she dwelt in the desert beyond the Jordan, and when temptations befell her and memories of her former sinful life ... beckoned her to leave her voluntary sojourn in the desert, she lay on the ground, cried to God for help and did not get up until her heart was humbled. The first years were hard; she sometimes had to lie this way for many days; but after seventeen years came the time of rest."

Seventeen years! St. Mary learned what many of us miss: that true return to Christ can take a long time. More often than not, repentance doesn't end simply with "naming it" and moving on. Often the full return takes longer than it took to make the sinful mess in the first place. Temptations, memories of impassioned failures and fatigue from the battle against sin fill our minds and souls constantly as the devil attempts to lure us away from the only One in whom there is salvation. Sometimes we, like St. Mary, will need to lie face down on the ground for days at a time to fight the temptation to return to our former delusion.

But St. Mary realized the promise of God: salvation. He gave her the strength to find him and to be healed. What can we learn from her? At least we can see what she gleaned from Ezekiel 18:32: God has "no pleasure in the death of any one ... so turn, and live." Like Moses the murderer, Saul (later Paul) the chief persecutor of Christians, like the repentant thief on the cross who said, "Remember me ... ," like St. Mary of Egypt, the repentant prostitute, like you and I: No one is beyond redemption.

St. Mary of Egypt is commemorated on the fifth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox churches for her supreme example of true repentance.

Fr. John Parker is the priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. He can be reached at 881-5010 or by e-mail at frjohn@ocacharleston.org.

This article was printed via the web on 3/26/2006 5:15:35 PM . This articleappeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at Charleston.net on Sunday, March 26, 2006.

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