Glory to Jesus Christ!
Please make use of this. Now more than ever is the time for prayer.
Today, and again on Wednesday, as it so happens, we remember our venerable mother Mary of Egypt.
Before her repentance, she was, as Simon the Pharisee observed today about the woman of the city, “a sinner” (Luke 7:39) Though she is often thought of as a prostitute, her sin was not so much prostitution as fornication. Saint Sophronios says that she would not charge her many sexual partners, but survived instead by begging and spinning flax. She was, like so many of us in this hypersexualized culture, consumed and driven “by an insatiable and an irrepressible passion” of lust.
She went to Jerusalem among the pilgrims, but her reason for going was not pilgrimage. Rather, she went in a large group for the purpose of seducing many partners. Some might question how such a sinner could even think to enter the holy city and its holy places.
But remember the woman of the city in Simon’s house today. She goes right up to Jesus himself and, weeping, wets his feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair and kisses his feet and anoints them (Luke 7:37-38). Though she is a sinner, she touches Jesus. And Jesus, who is more than a prophet, knows that she is a sinner, yet allows her to touch him.
On the other hand, when Mary of Egypt, who is also a sinner, tries to enter the house of Jesus – that is his Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of the Anastasis – of the Resurrection – she is prevented by an invisible spiritual force from entering the church.
Why? What’s the difference between these two sinful women? Why does Jesus allow one to touch him while the other is prevented from even entering his house? There is only one difference between them – repentance. The woman of the city in the Pharisee’s house was penitent. She was weeping. And she was loving. She did not cease to kiss Jesus’s feet. So all her many sins were forgiven because she loved much.
Meanwhile, Mary of Egypt tries to enter the holy place of the Lord while yet impenitent. She goes to that holy tomb not seeking to anoint the body of the Lord, but rather seeking more partners for her lust. The invisible blockade that she experiences is in fact a strong medicine. It’s not meant, I don’t think, simply to keep the holy separated from the unholy – the clean from the unclean, but it is meant, I think, to reveal her situation to her and to bring her to repentance.
And, gracefully, it has this effect. Seeing outside the church an icon of another Mary – that is, of the most pure Theotokos – she does repent. She weeps and laments, like the woman of the city in the Pharisee’s house. And she learns that true love for the Lord surpasses any self-satisfaction gained by indulging in the passion of lust. Trying again, in her new state of penitence, to enter the Church of the Resurrection, she finds no force keeping her out. And she does enter and there she kisses the Holy Cross, just as the woman of the city kissed the feet of Jesus. She who is forgiven much loves much.
Now what might her fellow pilgrims have thought of her at this moment? Seeing this woman who they knew to be among their number expressly for the seduction of their members, now entering the Holy Sepulchre weeping and kissing the Holy Cross, what might they have thought? When Simon saw the sinful woman enter his house and kiss the feet of Jesus, he thought, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). If Mary’s fellow pilgrims were true followers of Christ, then they rejoiced at her repentance. But if they were like some of us, then they probably had thoughts rather similar to Simon’s. They may have thought “Who is this woman to kiss the Holy Cross? She has not embraced the cross by her dissolute living.” They may have judged her and thought her presence among them in this place at this time inappropriate.
I hope not. But if they did, the only true judge knew their thoughts. And if we have thoughts like this about others, he knows this as well, and we will hear about it. Let’s rather keep our thoughts on our own sins rather than on the sins of those around us.
For things are often not what they seem. A person who seems to us to be a great sinner may, in fact, be awash in the holy grace of forgiveness through repentance.
This was the case with Mary of Egypt. She seemed to be still a great sinner, but in truth, her glorification by grace, by the life of God, had already begun. She went immediately after her eyes were opened to the holy mystery of repentance, was absolved of her sins, and received holy communion. This is the proper, ordinary, and churchly way to begin again the life in Christ after we have sinned. When we fall, we get up again. When we sin, we repent and enter again into the communion with the Lord through the mysteries of the Church.
But then Mary did something less ordinary, less usual, and even less churchly by some standards. The next morning, she crossed the river Jordan and then lived the rest of her life – 47 years – in the desert as a hermit.
I say this is a less churchly way of life because, for one thing, it is extremely peculiar for a person to be called directly into the life of a hermit – without first having lived a long time in community. (Though, there are other examples of this – particularly in early monasticism – such as St. Antony the Great.) And then, even among hermits, it is peculiar to live most of life deprived of the holy mysteries, especially the Eucharist. Yet this is what Saint Mary of Egypt did. After that first holy repentance and communion, she went into the desert and never communed again, until the day that she died many years later.
We who are now deprived of church services because of the coronavirus are experiencing a relatively brief taste of the life that St. Mary lived for 47 years. If we use this time like she did – for repentance – we will come out on the other side of it not deprived of grace but still more illumined by grace.
A year before St. Mary died, St. Zosima, a priest, came upon her in the desert. Her hair was so long and she was so rough from her many years of ascetic practice, that from a distance he did not at first know for sure whether she was human. She told him her life story and she asked him to bring her holy communion the following year on Holy Thursday, which he did, on the banks of the Jordan – the same place she had received communion the last time. When she came to receive communion from him, for the second and last time of her life, she walked on the water of the Jordan to meet him.
Seeing this miracle, Zosimus began to prostrate himself, but she cried out to him and stopped him, “What are you doing Abba! You are carrying the divine Gifts!” Behold her reverence for the Eucharist, despite her forty-seven years of abstinence from it. When we carry the Divine Gifts – our Lord’s own body and blood, we do not kneel or prostrate, as if to make the Lord bow before his creatures. We do not kneel after holy communion, while we carry our Lord within our very bodies. To make a gesture of penance while communing with the Lord expresses – falsely – that the holy communion has failed in its purpose, which is to unite us to the Lord, in whom death has been vanquished. We stand for communion in expression of this resurrectional faith. Resurrection, anastasis, means “to stand again.” St. Mary understood this.
St Mary of Egypt understood much, despite the fact that she never went to church again after her illumination. When she did receive the Eucharist that second and last time, it was brought to her by the priest. She did not go to church. This might astound us. We humans have a rule book and a script that we think must be followed in order to grow in union with God. But God doesn’t follow the script. He who can raise up children of Abraham out of the stones can make us saints even if we are distanced from the liturgy. And St Mary knew how to worship the Lord in the Eucharist better than the priest who brought him to her! This woman who didn’t go to church for 47 years understood the Eucharist better than the priest! Frequent communion is a good thing, but it is not the only way to holiness.
Here is a woman who defies all of our expectations. Living apart from church services, even apart from frequent reception of holy communion, and yet living a life filled with grace and faith. Mary demonstrates that God can and does act as he will. He is not confined by us or by our expectations. We do not limit his grace.
Jesus drew great crowds of people (e.g. Matt 4:25; 5:1) and those who were “afflicted with various diseases and pains,” he healed (4:24).
In these times, we are avoiding such crowds so as to avoid the spread of disease. Our way of life has been disrupted by this coronavirus epidemic. Yet still, Jesus Christ is our healer also in times like these.
Most of us have been forced by these circumstances into varying degrees of solitude. And there are some who find such solitude itself to be a kind of plague from which they seek deliverance. Some of us are more introverted and don’t mind being alone, but some of us are extroverted and draw our life’s energy from our relationships with others. For these people, these times are especially psychologically trying.
One of the most extroverted people I know lived for many years as a monk. Some people find this quite surprising. And they say to him, “Surely you know how to deal with the situation like this? You were a monk in a monastery for many years! You of all people should be prepared for this.” But he does not find himself at ease with this situation. He makes the excellent point that a monk lives in community with other monks. The word “monk” does come from the Greek word monos, which means “alone,” but only a hermit is truly alone. A hermit is a monk, but a monk is not necessarily or usually a hermit.
Every once in a great while a person will come to me, usually a young person, with the desire to be a hermit. This is usually a negative reaction to life in the world – primarily a desire to cut themselves off from the world that has given them so many problems, rather than a desire to unite more perfectly with God. They think, “If only I could be alone and away from other people, then I could grow in holiness.” I always observe to these young people that the vocation of a hermit is the rarest of vocations.
Hermits usually spend many years in a monastery before becoming hermits. It is usually only out of a monastery that one is called to radical solitude. Usually the monks that are called to it are quite elderly, with much experience of monasticism already. St. Basil the great even cautioned about the dangers of such solitude saying, “If you live alone, whose feet will you wash?” The new commandment of our Lord is to love one another as he loves us (John 13:34). And he washes feet (John 13:1-17). He serves others and is present to others – at least a good amount of time.
But he does also withdraw frequently into the wilderness in solitude for prayer (Luke 5:16). And he does also teach us not to pray on the street corners where we can be seen, but to go into our closets and close the door and pray in secret where only our Father can see us (Matt 6:5-6). To pray alone. To spend time alone with God. Perpetual solitude is the rarest vocation, but occasional solitude is a universal vocation – even if you don’t like it.
I do not believe that God is the author of any of evil. He does not make death he does not want us to suffer (Wisdom 1:13; 1 Thess 5:9). However, neither does he hesitate, when suffering comes into the world, to use it to bring about a greater good. I believe that a good he may be using this evil pandemic for, is to teach us all of our need for solitude with God.
There is of course no such thing as solitude without God. God is everywhere present and fills all things. So solitude is always really alone time with God. It can get quite uncomfortable without all of our comforting distractions. But this discomfort can teach us where we need to grow.
Now, for hopefully a short time, the whole world is experiencing what is ordinarily the rarest of vocation – just a taste of it, but this could be a significant experience for us
Today is the Sunday of St John Climacus. He is the author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent – a book traditionally read every year during the Great Fast. That fact alone shows us how significant it is to our spirituality. It is a convicting book, with much to teach us about where we need to grow and how to do it. It is also a monastic book. This causes some to find it unhelpful. And, indeed, it would be unhelpful to apply all of it unthinkingly or too literally to our non-monastic lives. Very few of us are monks. And even fewer of us are hermits. But we are all one in the body of Christ, and we all have something to learn from the monks and from the hermits.
St John Climacus was a hermit for many years. While we’re getting a little taste of what it’s like to be a hermit, maybe we can learn something from a hermit. This would be a good time to read the Ladder. Even though we are not monks, maybe we can recognize that monasticism has something to teach the whole world.
One piece of practical wisdom we keep hearing during this time of staying at home, or at least I do, is that it is important to maintain a schedule even while we are in this radically disrupted way of life. It’s important for our psychological health. This is something the monks know very well – the importance of a schedule, especially for those living alone. Without any external worldly pressures to put life in order, we need the self-discipline of a schedule if we are to continue to flourish. First and foremost, this includes a schedule of prayer.
Each of us can have a simple rule of prayer we keep in our homes at all time. Too many of us have relegated Church to something we do at church, but not so much at home. This epidemic is an opportunity for us to give new life to our prayer corners in our homes, or to start to build a prayer corner if we don’t have one. Now is the time for the rebirth of the domestic Church.
Saturday evening at 5:00pm
Sunday morning at 8:00am & 10:00am
Wednesday & Friday evening at 7:00pm
Saturday morning at 10:00am
All Services are in English.
for Feasts & other service times, please see the calendar.
4141 Laurence Avenue
Allen Park, Michigan