St. John the Baptist Parish, A Parish of the Russian Orthodox Church, Canberra, Australia

Fifth Sunday of Lent – St Mary of Egypt

The fifth Sunday of Great Lent is always dedicated to the memory of St Mary of Egypt. The account of her life is usually recounted in the preceding week during the church service at which the great canon of St Andrew of Crete is read in its entirety.

The first part of St Mary’s life was completely mired in sin, but by chance she found herself in Jerusalem at a church on the feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life Giving Cross. Here, a sudden and complete transformation of her life came about after she prayed before an icon of the Mother of God. Until that moment, St Mary had been unable to enter into the church. After her plea to the Mother of God for help, she was able to do so. However, having received this help, St Mary did not, as one might have perhaps expected, remain in Jerusalem– the place where the Holy Sepulchre of Our Lord is located and where the Holy Mysteries are celebrated daily. Instead, St Mary departed Jerusalem and went into the desert beyond the Jordan river, far away from all other people. In other words, she self-isolated, a concept with which we have all unfortunately and unexpectedly recently become familiar.

St Mary’s solitary life in the desert lasted for decades. It was a life of extreme physical deprivation but it was at the same time a life of great spiritual growth and prayerful atonement for the mistakes of her youth. She had no church to attend, no spiritual counsellor to run to and no access to Holy Communion until the last year of her earthly life. And yet, alone in the desert, she achieved a closeness to the Heavenly Kingdom that very few share. In the account of her life, we read that Abba Zosimas, the priest-monk who found her in the desert, fell to the ground when he first encountered her and would not stand up until he had received her words of blessing. We read that when a year later at St Mary’s request Zosimas (later St Zosimas) brought Holy Communion to the Jordan river, St Mary came to receive it walking on the water. We read also that when Zosimas found the body of St Mary in the desert when she had departed her earthly life, he was aided by a lion who came and helped him to dig a grave for her burial.

This second half of St Mary’s life in the desert was one of complete physical isolation, and yet that did not prevent her from achieving a great spiritual height. Before her bowed St Zosimas and he dared not stand before receiving her blessing. The waters of the Jordan bore her up when she came to cross it to receive Communion and a desert lion accomplished her burial. St Mary possessed nothing and yet she achieved perfection.

St Mary’s self-isolation was voluntary. Today, ours is enforced - but that is not important. What is important is to understand that when the outward conditions of our life change radically and unexpectedly, our spiritual journey need not be halted. It can take on a new dimension, becoming for a time a journey into the depths of our soul until we can re-emerge and again join our fellow travellers visibly.

May the Lord God grant us the fortitude he granted St Mary to help us on our journey towards His Kingdom!

Father Alexander