The end is near! At the end of this coming week Great Lent will be over. But now, I would like to take a moment to look back at the beginning of Great Lent, and even the preparation for Great Lent. Every year at our monastery during the First Week of Lent, we read in our trapeza these words from the great instructor of the spiritual life, Abba Dorotheos:
We should probably pause,
and discover where we stand…
Have we yet left our
fallen city, have we so much
as exited the gate?
…Have you, like me,
advanced, say, several
miles, and then retraced
the same distance in reverse?
Have we come so far
as the Holy City itself,
The City of Peace?
Have we entered its open
gate, or do we stand
cowering outside, unable
to enter it?
Last Sunday we celebrated St. John of the Ladder. And now, on this fifth and final Sunday of Lent, the Church glorifies and celebrates one of her greatest saints, St. Mary of Egypt. In these last two weekends of Lent, following the mid-point of Lent – the Sunday of the Cross – we are given two great examples to follow in order to strengthen us in our spiritual struggle. I can speak from experience that as Lent goes on, the zeal that we felt at the beginning can begin to lag, our fasting becomes a bit more lax, perhaps, and our prayers a bit more tired, distracted and listless. And so the Church, in her wisdom, helps us in our struggle and is a lamp unto our path with these two true luminaries – St. John Climacus – the exemplar of asceticism – last Sunday, and St. Mary of Egypt – the exemplar of repentance – this Sunday. They give us encouragement in our struggle. They are examples and models to follow – both in St. John’s spiritual instructions and in St. Mary’s very life.
And I submit that, in a way, these two Sundays before Palm Sunday parallel two Sundays leading up to Lent – the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Except now we are not given parables. Now, after the Sunday of the Cross, we are give examples from the saints of the Church – those imitators of Christ. Or, as St. Justin Popivich has said, the saints are nothing less than “those through whom the holy Divine-human life of Christ is continued from generation to generation until the end of the world and of time.” In the Sundays of St. John Climacus and St. Mary of Egypt, Christ’s parables come to life in the flesh and blood saints of the Church.
But how is this so? Let us look, first, at the life of St. Mary of Egypt. By what we know of the early life of St. Mary of Egypt, she was, as we would say today, as Fr. Thomas Hopko succinctly put it – a nymphomaniac – a sex addict, quite simply. The whole of her life was to pursue one thing – sexual pleasure. As she points out in recalling her life, she didn’t do it for money or out of some economic necessity – she did it for free, just to try to satisfy her unquenchable desire. One day, seeing a ship of pilgrims about to depart to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross, she boarded the ship simply for the “opportunities” the voyage would give her to indulge in her passions. After spending days and weeks on this journey indulging in “disreputable activities,” she saw, on the day of the feast, all of the people in one accord going into the church. So she, also, went with them as one “flowing with the tide.” But as she came to the threshold of the church, some invisible power held her back and kept her from entering. Try as she might, she was not able to enter the church, while all the other people passed her by. As St. Mary recalls:
I retreated, and stood in a corner of the church courtyard, scarcely able to make any sense in my mind of why it was that I was prevented from seeing the life-giving cross, when a saving thought suddenly touched my mind and heart, and I recognized that it was all the squalid wickedness of my deeds that was preventing me from entering in. I was shaken to the core, and wept, and beat my breast, sighing deeply from the bottom of my heart.
It was this moment that her heart began to change. The grace of God was finally able to break through and soften the heart of this sinful woman. Christ says in the Book of Revelation: I stand at Thy door and knock… (Rev. 3:20) Christ was always here, waiting at the heart of this sex addict, yet she was too sunken in the mire of her own sins and passions to even notice. And because Mary completely lacked a contrite heart, by Divine power, she was held back from entering the church. The Publican had been able to stand in the church because his heart was broken, but Mary had no broken heart. And like a broken arm, sometimes the heart must be broken to be set back in its proper place in order to heal. And so, from this most lustful of sinners, we see a most beautiful repentance and tearful prayers from a heart touched by grace, as she cries on her knees: “Oh Lord, help me! Have mercy on me, a sinner!” It was this contrite humility that allowed her to finally enter into the church and into the presence of God.
As for St. John Climacus, I will simply say that when we decide to leave the pig pen of sin – prodigal sons that we are – and to repent, to “come back to our senses” and return to the Father’s house, then we will need a roadmap of how to get there. St. John Climacus’s instructions are exactly that map guiding our way. In that all of us sin, all of us are like the prodigal son, who rejects God in order to follow our own whims, lusts, desires and pleasures. We leave the spacious halls and scrumptious banquets of our Fathers house in order to dine with the pigs in the squalid stench of sin. And we do it every day. That’s why we must repent. That’s why we must go to confession. To partake in the sacraments. To fast. To make prostrations. To pray with tears. All of these things are meant as tools to help us, so that we might break our own wills, tire our bodies and wear out the “old man” – to soften our hardened hearts in order to let the grace of God in. We must turn away from our sins and turn back towards God if we wish to allow room in our heart for God and for His grace. “Let us cleanse our senses and we shall see God,” we sing in the Paschal Canon. For it is not in the doing of these things that makes us righteous. Otherwise, we could pray like the Pharisee: “I fast twice a week, I give alms, I do x, y, and z… So look what a good Christian I am!” No! This is wrong. This reminds me of my favorite story of from the Desert Fathers:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’
St. Seraphim of Sarov said that the goal of our spiritual struggle is to obtain the Holy Spirit. This is what all of our spiritual struggle is for. There is no secret formula for this – say this many prayers, do this many prostrations, and whola! You’re are a good Christian and God is happy with you. No! We do these things in order to kill the old man – the man of sin, of lusts, of forgetfulness of God and of love for neighbor – in order that we may make room for God and for the Holy Spirit in order to be wholly transfigured! In order to become a saint! In order to become all flame. In order to experience a foretaste of the Kingdom here in this life so that we may enter into it in the next.
One person who very clearly experienced a foretaste of the Kingdom in this life was another denizen from the deserts of Egypt – St. Anthony the Great. Abba Anthony once said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.'” In both St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent and the life of St. Mary, we see humility as the beginning, the bedrock and foundation, and the goal of our life in Christ. It was humility that softened the heart of the Prodigal Son. It was because of humility that the Publican’s prayer was heard, while the Pharisee was rejected by God. It was humility and a broken heart that lead St. Mary into the desert and repentance. And it is only humility, as the Lord revealed to St. Anthony of Egypt, that can safely guide us through the enemy’s snares in our spiritual struggle. And snares they indeed are! In step #22 of The Ladder, St. John Climacus relates the trickiness of vainglory – that antithesis of humility. St. John writes:
Like the sun, which shines on all alike, vainglory beams on every occupation. What I mean is this: I fast, and turn vainglorious. I stop fasting so that I will draw no attention to myself, and I become vainglorious over my prudence. I dress well or badly, and am vainglorious in either case. I talk or I remain silent, and each time I am defeated. No matter how I shed this prickly thing, a spike remains to stand up against me.
A vainglorious man is a believing idolater. Apparently honoring God, he actually is out to please not God but men. To be a showoff is to be vainglorious. The fast of such a man is unrewarded and his prayer futile, since he is practicing both to win praise. A vainglorious ascetic doubly cheats himself, wearying his body and getting no reward.…
Again, we return to the image of the supposedly righteous Pharisee praying in the temple. He is so proud of himself. He is proud of his fasting, of his self-denial and of his ascetical struggle. He may even be proud of his humility! But this is not the way to Christ. To ascend upwards, we must go downwards – in humility. St. John Climacus says elsewhere in The Ladder: “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” God doesn’t want our haughty righteousness, which He says in Isaiah “are as filthy rags” to Him. Instead, God wants a “broken and contrite heart, which God will not despise,” as the psalmist says. Fr. Stephen Freeman, in a recent blog post, writes:
We do not gradually improve and thereby leave our shame behind us. The way down is the way up. The ladder of divine ascent is actually a ladder of divine descent. The path to union with God is only found in making the descent with Him. “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8). St. Gregory the Theologian says, “If He descends into hell, go with Him” (Oration 45).
These words are reminiscent of the words revealed to St. Silouan of Mt. Athos to help him in his spiritual struggles: “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not!” Also, just last night I happened upon a wonderful quote which I feel fits in quite beautifully here. It is from Archpriest Nikolai Deputatov, who reposed in 1982, from his book, The Way of Christ. He writes:
Complacency and self-assurance are not indicative of holiness and perfections, but of pride, short sightedness, and spiritual limitations. Humility, in the words of the Saviour, which likens the believer to the Teacher [to Christ], is an endless source of the realization of the interrelationship of sin and suffering in this world. In one’s spiritual life, a Christian should be childlike, not wondering about his own growth; a lily of the field, not admiring its own beauty or a bird, not worrying about tomorrow.
Orthodox is paradox. Only when we submit to God do we find true freedom. Only when we descendin humility can we ascend to the Heavens. It’s only when we die to ourselves do we truly live. And we should not be afraid! Our spiritual life should not be wrought with anxiety, with fear and with doubt. After venerating the relic of the true cross, St. Mary of Egypt returned to the church to give thanks, and heard a voice telling her, “If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest.” And then, as St. Zosimas tells us, St. Mary spent 47 years in the desert alone, taking nothing with her but three loaves of bread, and once they were gone, she lived only on what she could find in the wilderness. We marvel at this, as we, I think, almost write this story of, thinking, “Oh, this was a great saint in the olden days. This is all beyond our capability.” But this is not true at all, and this is precisely why we hear the life of St. Mary of Egypt in church and on this week in Lent. Human nature has not changed in all the years from then until now. St. Mary was once an exceedingly sinful person and far from God. But she repented. She had a change of heart. She found humility, and in giving her whole life and her whole will entirely to God, she found the “glorious rest” to God promised her. Now we look to her – this former harlot and sex addict – as a great saint whom we must emulate, and to whom we pray so that she may intercede for us at the throne of God. And so, there is hope. There is hope for us, and we must not despair!
On this final Sunday of Great Lent, it would do well for us to take stock of where we are. Have weleft our fallen city? Have we exited the gate? Have we travelled for miles, only to retrace our steps? Have we followed the way of the Pharisee, relying on our own efforts and perceived righteousness? Or have we learned to follow the way of the Publican and St. Mary of Egypt, crying out with a contrite heart and humility: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Far too often we find ourselves at Holy Week, and even at the very night of Pascha, looking back to Lent wondering: “Where did Lent go? All this time… and I’ve wasted it!” All this time is given to us – is a gift to us – to use for our repentance, and don’t we so often squander it in anxieties, trivialities, bickering, distractions, sins and passions. And when the trumpet sounds and we find ourselves at the Dread Judgment, will we look back and ask, “Where did the time go? How have I wasted my life?” Yet it does not have to be this way. Let us heed the words of the St. Paul who said: ‘Awake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you light.’ See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil… be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.(Ephesians 14-16, 19)
Let us rejoice, then, in the Lord in these remaining days of Lent as we look towards Christ’s Holy Passion and glorious Resurrection, and let us never cease to have the words of St. Anthony the Great on our lips: “Today I will make a good beginning!” May God grant us strength and perseverance, not just to make a good beginning, but to finish the race set before us. Amen.