We have spoken about repentance as a hallmark of genuine spiritual struggle and growth. Today we are given an example of repentance to follow. St Mary of Egypt was a woman who was enslaved by sin and only by a whole hearted commitment to repentance was this enslavement broken and she was freed. This example attests the awesome power of repentance and the grace of God which accompanies it. Therefore let us look a little closer at St Mary’s example.
Too often when we think of repentance, we think of simply being sorry for our sins. We often view repentance in this way: I am sorry that I lied or stole, or offended someone; or maybe: I regret that I acted in a prideful/rude/improper manner and wish that I hadn’t done so. And then having made this admission, we go away thinking that we have repented of our sins. But this is not repentance – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, it is only the very beginning of repentance. When St Mary came to a realization that she had sinned – when she was not able to enter the Church of the Resurrection to view the Cross of our Lord – she did indeed regret her life of sin and she was indeed sorry. But her repentance had only begun. Finding herself before the icon of the Mother of God, she promised that if she could but enter the Church and venerate the true Cross, that she would mend her ways. This is the next step – not only do we acknowledge that we have sinned and regret that we have done these things, we must also resolve to amend our lives so as not to return to our sin. This is a good step for repentance involves a turning away from sin. It implies not only that we are sorry that we have done something, but it also indicates that we want do make a change. But even this stops short of real repentance.
What follows in the life of St Mary is very instructive and it is to this that we must pay close attention. Having made her vow of changing her life to the Mother of God, she was able to enter the Church with no problem. Exiting the Church, she then returned to the spot where she began her repentance, before the icon of the Virgin. She then presented herself again to the Mother of God asking for guidance. Hearing a voice instructing her to “Cross the Jordan and there you will find peace”, she immediately set out for the Jordan. By sunset, she arrived at the Jordan River, at the place where our Lord was baptized. There she received the Holy Mysteries at the monastery of St John the Baptist and sleeping in the open, and on the next day she found a boat and crossed the river. From that time on, she lived alone in the wilderness for 47 years, spending all her time and energy in prayer.
This is where St Mary took the step where many of us often hesitate. She acted on her repentance, she fled every circumstance and opportunity for sin. She completely changed her way of life, for nothing less would suffice to disconnect her from the power of her sins. When we repent, we usually have little difficulty admitting our sins and regretting them, we may even easily resolve to change our ways and to leave our sins behind. But in actual practice, we return to the very place where we fell – the very situation where temptation is the strongest and where we will again be immersed in the allure of the sin which seeks to hold us captive – and so we fall again and again. As the prophet Jeremiah puts it, we are like a dog returning to its vomit. Even though our sin might be repugnant to us, we return to it again and again, and foul ourselves over and over again with the same sin. If we were to follow the example of St Mary, we would flee the environment of our sin. We would turn and run from the situations where we know we will be tempted. Regardless of the cost, we would flee the situations where we might be exposed again to those conditions which lead us to sin. We would give up and avoid all the things which are associated with sin, change friends, change jobs, change where we live. If we would follow St Mary, we would flee into the desert where the allure and opportunity to sin cannot follow us. We would purge our lives of everything that is conducive to sin and which would lead us back into our sinful life. But often, too often, we don’t do this. We love our lives too much; we love the world too much; we aren’t horrified by our own sins enough – whatever the reason, we just don’t separate ourselves from sin.
Sometimes, it is not possible to physically flee as St Mary did, but still we can avoid the conditions leading to sin. We can put up barriers to sin. The demons often take advantage of our weaknesses and do not miss an opportunity to present us with temptation, when we are at our weakest. And so we must prepare for this, first by avoiding those conditions that weaken us and second by adding an element to our lives that will make sin harder. Perhaps this means avoiding being alone and so inviting our spiritual brothers and sisters to be with us or making arrangements to be elsewhere when we know that temptation will present itself. Reminding ourselves of the sacrament of confession is another help, because then we remember that we will have to admit to our spiritual father that we have sinned again and the anticipated shame of that admission can be an effective deterrent. Another consistent reality is that boredom leads to sin. When we find ourselves with “nothing to do” or searching for some kind of distraction – the demons will present us with those very distractions that will lead us back into sin, such as social media, which is way too easy to look at. To avoid this we must make sure that the hours of the day are filled with purposeful, Godly, and beneficial activity.
The monastic life is divided into times for prayer, for work and for spiritual reading. This is a good model to follow, especially in times of temptation. We should all have a routine in our lives, such that every moment is a time for prayer, a time for work or a time for spiritual enrichment, whether that is reading Scripture, Lives of the Saints, or listening to a spiritual talk or the music of the Church, or perhaps it is having a spiritual conversation with an Orthodox friend in Christ. Fill the idle moments with the Jesus Prayer or some other short prayer that you have memorized.
Sin can overtake us at any time and so we have to be on our guard, attentiveness. St Mary of Egypt, by her life shows us the power of complete and unlimited repentance. We all should find a way to follow her example in our own lives. While we may not be able to “cross the Jordan” and live out our lives in an uninhabited wilderness – still we can structure our lives to avoid the opportunities that lead to sin and abandon those activities, behaviors, jobs, social media, and even acquaintances that consistently lead us into sin. For St Mary, her repentance was worth giving up everything in her former life. For us we have to take this same value, recognizing that our eternal salvation is worth giving up any comfort, convenience or other offering of this world.
Brothers and sisters, repentance – true, heartfelt and unrestrained repentance – is the hallmark of the spiritual life. Let us each follow the example of our holy Mother Mary of Egypt, and leave behind our lives of sin and embrace the lifelong labor of repentance. In this way, we will, like her, be able to acquire the fullness of the Holy Spirit and so enter into the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the Sinner!! Amen.