This newsletter was originally sent on April 5, 2020. It has minor changes to make it relevant for today.
We've been social distancing for over a year. Could you imagine 47 years?
Today is the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt in the Orthodox Church. We commemorate this saint at this time of year to inspire us to press on through the remainder of Lent. St. Mary fasted in the wilderness for 47 YEARS!
We’ve been under quarantine due to the coronavirus for more than a year. At times, people have said that they were going “stir-crazy,” and don’t get me wrong, I've had my moments, too. But could you imagine being in isolation for 47 YEARS?!? I think there’s a thing or two we could learn from St. Mary.
For those who don’t know, St. Mary was born in the fifth century and lived as a prostitute in Alexandria from the age of 12. One day, she followed a crowd heading to the port for the Holy Land. She paid her way by offering her body to the crew. When they arrived in the Holy City it was the day of the Exaltation of the Cross. St. Mary tried to enter the Church of the Resurrection but was physically unable to do so. She broke down and wept, realizing that her impurity was preventing her from approaching the Cross. She prayed that if she would be allowed to enter and venerate the Cross, she’d dedicate her life to holiness. And that’s what happened. St. Mary lived in seclusion in the Palestinian desert for the next 47 years.
Below are lessons I’ve taken from her time in seclusion that I think we all can try to apply to our ongoing situation in this pandemic...
- Have humility and repent. St. Mary came to the end of herself. She knew that her sinful life had kept her from God and that the Cross was the answer. In times of isolation, we can self-reflect and ask for forgiveness. In what ways have we fallen? What’s keeping us from the Lord? How can we grow?
- Trust God. After St. Mary venerated the Holy Cross at the Church of the Resurrection, she stood before the icon of the Mother of God, ready to follow the Lord. A voice from on high said to her: “If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest.” St. Mary left the church, bought three loves of bread, found the road that led to the Jordan and lived from that time on in the desert. These are uncertain times, as I’m sure they were for St. Mary. Just as St. Mary trusted God with her life, we must have faith and trust God with ours.
- Struggle. During the first 17 years of isolation, St. Mary was clothed in rags, she burned from the heat during the day and shivered from the cold at night, and she ate herbs and wild roots. In addition to the physical trials, she was also tormented by her past. Know that it’s okay to struggle. This pandemic has been intense. You are not alone if you’re stressed or afraid. People are continuing to simultaneously balance work, homeschooling children, taking care of themselves and their family, processing the news and more. This is on top of whatever personal struggles they were already facing. It’s a lot. St. Mary turned to God in her struggle. We must, too.
- Ask for help. Haunted by her past, St. Mary prayed to the Mother of God to come to her aid on multiple occasions. We’re living in extraordinary times and we shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help from God, the saints, our loved ones, our church families, nonprofit organizations, etc.
- Practice self-discipline. Through remarkable self-discipline, St. Mary renounced the world and her passions, cultivating a divine love that enabled her to endure a life in the desert with joy, peace and sanctity. The only person who knows us better than ourselves is God. We should let God guide us toward habits and routines we need in place to help us through this time.
- Pray fervently. St. Zosimas, a monk at the time, found St. Mary on his journey through the desert during Great Lent. He was impressed by how fervently she prayed. She also asked St. Zosimas to pray for her. We should fill every spare moment with a prayer — no matter how simple. God will hear us. And we should not be afraid to ask others for prayer. We are in this together.
- Receive Christ. After St. Mary recounted the story of her life and conversion to St. Zosimas, she begged him to come the following year to the bank of the Jordan with Holy Communion. She longed to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. After doing so, she said, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.” She then asked St. Zosimas to meet her the next year. Thank God we're able to receive Holy Communion now that churches have reopened. For those who are and those who aren't, we can meet with Christ in different ways — by reading scripture, praying, fasting, almsgiving and loving others as He did.
- Strive to be Holy. St. Mary had spiritual insight, calling St. Zosimas by name before they had ever met; she levitated as she prayed; and she walked on water as she went to meet St. Zosimas for Holy Communion. According to one version of the story, when St. Zosimas met St. Mary, he said, “It is clear that you live with God and are dead to this world.” St. Mary poured her heart and soul into her faith. There’s no better time for us to do the same. In a lot of ways, we're still cut off from the world. May we look to St. Mary as an example to turn away from our sin and move toward God wholeheartedly. For God has called us to “Be holy, for [He is] holy.” (1 Peter 1:16)
- Rest. Again, as St. Mary stood at the Church of the Resurrection, a voice from on high said: “If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest.” It was not an easy journey for St. Mary but it was one of faith — and one in which she entered eternal rest with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We must be kind to ourselves during this season and make time to rest. As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in You.”
For a more complete account of St. Mary’s life, click here.
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