|St. Zosimas giving the Eucharist to St. Mary of Egypt before her repose|
Reading the Life of St. Mary, either alone or with others in the Church, is a bit of a struggle. It is not a story one would expect to hear in a church especially if there were children present. Also, it's just not an easy story to read as there is narrative and some dialogue and written in a language (even in translation) that is just hard for many to grasp. However, for those who manage to get through the whole thing, the story is supposed to turn us to one more shot at repentance before Lent ends and Holy Week begins.
But the sad truth is that many Orthodox, if not MOST Orthodox Christians, have NEVER heard the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. They may know that the fifth Sunday of Lent commemorates her, but they don't actually take the time to read it themselves or go to Church to hear its reading liturgically. I have any number of theories as to why this is so: Many people consider repentance to be nothing more than self-improvement and so the repentance that demands sacrifice and even denial of self is considered way off the deep end; there are others who believe that her repentance was sincere but it didn't need to go to such lengths as what she did; there are those who think that her repentance is exceedingly self-centered because what she "should" have done instead was helped others; more, still, think that the story is a complete fiction and should be disregarded simply because there's no proof as the written version did not come around until 100 years after she died. Whatever the reason for Orthodox Christians staying away from this story, a lot of work needs to be done in Catechesis.
But let's consider the objections to the Life of St. Mary. If you want to get a list of all possible objections, read no further than the comments left on Rod Dreher's post on the American Conservative. St. Mary is actually denounced by many commentators who think that she is crazy, a lunatic, self-centered, etc. Even when she was not called one of those derogatory terms, she was still labeled as someone who went too far, as someone who didn't need to do all of that. It is absolutely infuriating that Christianity for many if not most Christians has been redesigned to be only a moral or ethical code. And, what's more, that moral and ethical code needs to be updated to "get with the times." I think it's a good time to point out just how Christianity and philosophy differ. When you consider that the bulk of Christianity is what has been revealed by God to man, then to change Christianity into only a philosophy or ethical code is to strip it of any of that revelation and the residue will then form the foundation. And that residue will be morality with a small tincture of theism. God would be all but removed. And if God is renewed, then the central tenet of Christianity would also have to be removed--The Resurrection! St. Paul reminds us in his epistle to the Romans that without the Resurrection, our faith is in vain! And what is required for Resurrection? Death and then rebirth.
The Christian life was never meant to be a passive one. It is not cheap psychological therapy. It is active. And it is self-denial which is a death of self, a death of ego, a death of "I." For all the complaints about St. Mary of Egypt, we cannot and we should not dismiss her actions in the desert as something only a self-centered person would do. A self-centered person does not deny himself and does not rid himself of the temptations of this world. A self-centered person calls all those things to him. A self-centered person wants to be recognized and admired and adored. St. Mary wanted no such thing, hence why she ran away from St. Zosimas. A self-centered person does not give himself to prayer unceasingly. A self-centered person prays only to himself and thinks of himself as God. To rid ourselves of "I" we must rid ourselves of the world and embrace God. Each person has a different path in his self-denial. For St. Mary of Egypt it was to rid herself of the world; for someone like Mother Theresa it was to give of her self so that others could have a life in this world. But for both women, their path was to deny self, not embrace it. St. Mary embraced God by forsaking others; Mother Theresa embraced God by giving to others. Who is to say which one is better?
Does repentance really need to go that far? The only people who complain about this are people who rarely, if ever, even go to confession. These are the Orthodox Christians who believe, like Protestants, that the only person you need to confess to is God. But that's laziness. You don't think God already knows? I think that the reason many Orthodox do not go to confession is simply because they don't want a punishment. A penance is NOT punishment. It may require work, but if you were actually punished in accord with the sins that you confess, what you got was NO punishment but a slap on the wrist at best or a talking-to at worst. Now, THAT is self-centered! I remember once that I was given a penance to say the Jesus Prayer ten times with prostrations. I thought, "That's it?" My priest thought it was sufficient so I did it and added 10 more for good measure. I probably didn't go far enough. To be honest, I think confessing the sin is much harder and much more humbling than the repentance that follows. Who is to say that St. Mary's repentance was "too much." If we are going by a strict measure of meeting out punishment for crime, maybe it was. But approaching it in such a juridical way undermines what repentance is supposed to be--a change of self. For St. Mary, this rigid self-denial changed her from the person she was into the person she hoped to be. Death to the person she was and reborn as the person she wanted to be. Who is to say to what degree repentance should take?
Can this type of repentance lead to vainglory and boasting? Sure, but so can anything. Anything can be abused. Liturgy can be abused; sermons can be abused; doing charitable works can be abused. Should we do away with everything lest it not be abused? Maybe we should just kill ourselves so that we don't have the temptation to sin any more! Of course, that's ludicrous. I got into an argument with a pastor of the LCMS who is a friend of mine about how he made his congregation wipe off the ashes after Ash Wednesday services lest any of them be tempted to boast. I objected in the strongest terms. Rather than let the parishioners decide for themselves, he decided for them. Part of the spiritual life is screwing up. One of the things that we, as a society, have really done as a disservice to our kids is making sure that they cannot screw up, especially in school. We can't let them receive failing grades so we give them retakes; we can't let them get a 0, so we give them more time to do the project; we can't let them have 10 times to make up a quiz, so we give them 20! We cannot learn, if we do not fail. And yes, even in repentance, there is the possibility of failing. We are to get back up and try again. I doubt all of St. Mary's repentance in the desert was perfect. Though the text doesn't mention it, I'm sure there were times she threw up her arms and said "What's the point?" Failure must accompany the spiritual life. Vainglory and boasting are undesired but often do happen in the midst of the repentance. But that should not mean that we rid ourselves of good works to prevent those. Faith without good works is a DEAD faith, says St. James.
Let's also consider briefly about whether this story took place. So what if it didn't? I ask my students if the story of the Trojan War as told in the Iliad would be a better story or a worst story if the Trojan War actually happened. Most of them respond that it doesn't really matter. And it shouldn't. Just because Star Wars never actually happened (remember, it takes place in the past) does not make it a better or a worse trilogy. If St. Mary of Egypt never lived, the TRUTH of the story should not be obscured just because it never factually occurred.
The ambivalence of many towards the reading of the Life of St. Mary and even towards St.Mary of Egypt herself reveals a lot about how Christianity is practiced today. It reveals that too many self-professed Christians see it as too hard and too serious and too burdensome so its requirements have to be lessened and made less than encompassing of our whole life. Repentance is a necessary component of the Christian life. Both Jesus and St. John the Baptist begin their ministries with that one word: "Repent!" Thank God, in the end, that our repentance is not dependent on salvation. But that does not mean we rid ourselves of it.