Sunday, April 6, 2014

Written on the palms

Mary of Egypt, yes, this is her Sunday, and her feast-day was just a few days ago, on April 1st. I always thought it was appropriate that her feast was the same as our ‘feast of fools’ or April Fools Day, though her life story puts almost every other fool on the planet to shame. She gave up a life of self-indulgence and entered what to most of us would be a life of hell on earth. No clothes, no house, no food, no friends, no entertainment, not even church!

As a Sunday School teacher, it was always a challenge for me, how to explain her story to my group of sixth grade students, most of whom were from faithfully correct and affluent families. One or two of the boys were working class and probably had different experiences than the others of what ‘real life’ is like. But most of my students were both young and inexperienced, well, so I thought. It was still the early 90’s and all the girls, anyway, were still virgins.

Since the Church has made the story of Mary of Egypt as visible as possible, giving her not one but two commemorations, and one of them a Sunday during Lent, she has become an important if misunderstood symbol of personal self-denial, an historical example of one woman living out the precious words of Christ, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24).

And could anyone’s life be more extreme? The excitement of the story, both when it first appeared centuries ago in her very generation, and now, seems to stem from the theme of ‘filthy prostitute becomes holy saint,’ it centers on the subject of sex, first its abject misuse, then its complete disuse. There is simply no in-between. Mary’s conscience could not find a way to cleanse herself of her past except by becoming an altogether new creature.

And what a creature! After hearing the story year after year, my memory sees nothing much but the bright white naked female ascetic lying dead face down in the sand, waiting for burial. Of course, I know the whole story more or less by heart. I always wondered, when she entered the life of a prostitute, how it wasn’t noticed that she was probably forced into it, or even sold into it, by poverty. Or how it went without remark that she was a Christian, even if in name only.

Or does sexual immorality in a Christian make one a non-Christian? I don’t know, but if it does, then a large part of the high profile ‘Christian’ world is probably not what they say they are. I also asked myself, who were these men taking ship to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem who would offer a berth to an obvious harlot, so that she could see the Holy City too? The story implies they didn’t just give her clean passage, but made use of her along the way, yet they, not she, were able to enter the church.

There, she was stopped from entering by an invisible force, while her generous clients went in. That always baffled me. Perhaps they didn’t belong to Christ and the Theotokos, so they could go in and venerate the Holy Cross, as religious tourists, but not as Christians, surely? But Mary, because of her unblameless life, was stopped and denied entry, until she should be made blameless. How is it that she, a prostitute of Egypt, must be purified before kissing the Cross, when her clients went right in?

For me this story is not about sexual sin being cleansed by lifelong self-denial, but about how God works, how He selects those who are His, befriends and leads them, even before they are worthy, sometimes even before they recognize who it is that has chosen them. Nobody knows what happened to those pilgrim men who had their way with Mary on the ship. They probably venerated the relics and attended the services and returned home to their wives and families, unchanged.

But we do know what happened to Mary. At least we know a very little part of what happened to her, all that she was able to tell us. The most important and edifying part is her testimony of what is possible with God. What she tells us seems miraculous to us. Before leaving for the desert beyond the Jordan she bought a couple of loaves of bread. That’s what sustained her, along with wild plants, for fifty years. This reminds us of Christ’s words that ‘man does not live by bread alone…’

She wandered, yes, for ‘all who wander are not lost’ as the saying goes, in the wilderness in places where there was nobody to see her, and naked, for the clothing she left with had worn out and fallen off her frame. This reminds us of the apostle’s words that ‘all who have been baptized have been clothed in Christ…’ and also reflects upon Mary’s reality: Like Adam and Eve before the fall, Paradise had been opened to her, to whom clothing was wholly unnecessary.

Yes, her story is another glimpse into the reality of the earthly Paradise, which we know, or at least believe, has not disappeared from the earth, but which is invisible to us because of our transgressions and our willfulness to sin. Mary is the real Psyche whose palace and kingdom we cannot see, just as the mythical Psyche’s sisters could not see her sky palace on the holy mountain.

But her life has also, like Paradise, not disappeared from the earth. She is still with us, yes, still here with us. What to us would be unendurable ascetic suffering is to her walking in the Light of the Lord. Though her body now rests in an unmarked grave, her soul was not abandoned to Hades, but with the saints continues to sojourn in the heavenly Paradise of which our earthly one, even while invisible to most of us, is the dim reflection despite its glory. How can we join her?

For now, she is no longer a prostitute nor, in the regeneration of Christ, has she ever been, for He that makes all things new has already trampled death by death, and she who once had a beginning and now is without end, partakes also of the Divine Nature, and has neither beginning nor end. So it is with us, who following Christ, allowing Him to do in us what He did in her, and forever, will find ourselves hidden in the cleft of the Rock, and our names written on the palms of the Lord of Life.

1 comment:

Jacob said...

I'll need to look this up, but I distinctly recall a version of the story that indicates Mary was not merely a prostitute, but bragged about her exploits. She insisted that she would be able to enter the church, despite her sinfulness - and it was her pride in believing she could openly defy the sanctity of the church and seduce the clergy that caused the spirit of God to block her.