Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, April 21, 2013
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today we remember a woman who walked out into the desert and repented there for more than forty years. On this fifth Sunday of the Great Fast, the Church celebrates St. Mary of Egypt.
Born in the mid-4th century, Mary was a woman dedicated to pleasure. She is sometimes called a prostitute, but that term is not really accurate, because she would not take money in exchange for her wantonness. She was offered it many times, but she would usually refuse it, and sustained herself primarily by begging. And so she lived this way, constantly seeking out new men to engage in fornication. Being beautiful, she was desired by many, and so she lived an “active” lifestyle. She began this way of life when she was twelve years old, having run away from home to the city of Alexandria.
After seventeen years of what became a more and more tortured way of life, she decided to make a pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in September. But she did not go to celebrate the feast. She was instead hoping to find crowds of pilgrims with whom she could satiate her lust, her constant, overwhelming desire. She paid for her travel by prostitution, and when she arrived in Jerusalem, she continued in her manner of life, having found new people to lead into her desperation for physical satisfaction.
She eventually was led to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which includes Golgotha, the place of the crucifixion, within its walls, the holiest place to celebrate the feast of Christ’s Cross. But as she began to enter the doors of that blessed church, she was suddenly stopped by an unseen force. The crowds around her entered, but it was almost as if a great hand was holding her back.
At that moment, something began which the world tells us is really not possible. At that moment, something began which for the world is not in any way desirable. Mary began to repent. And she walked beyond the Jordan River and kept repenting for more than forty years.
When we hear this word repentance, it is likely that we do not hear it as anything positive. It may stir up feelings about guilt. It may sound like judgmentalism or condemnation. It may conjure images in our brains of overbearing, bombastic preachers hurling down sermons on hellfire and brimstone like lightning bolts from angry gods. So why do we talk about repentance so often in the Orthodox Church?
Well, it should probably first be said that there are many so-called churches that have stopped talking about repentance or have tried to massage it out of their message because it is unappealing to their customers—or, I mean, their congregants. And certainly one does not hear about repentance in the public square much any more. It is long since any president declared a day of national fasting and prayer as Abraham Lincoln did in 1863. I daresay there are some things done by those in the public square that need some repentance.
I think there are probably two reasons why repentance is unfashionable. The first is that, as we said earlier, most people have a harsh and painful image of what it means to repent. It is demeaning. It is hard. It is annoying. The second reason is just that we like sin—another word that doesn’t get used too much in public any more.
But since we are Orthodox Christians, we recognize that we need to repent. And since the public proclamation of the Gospel has always begun with the exhortation “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” first in the mouth of John the Baptist and then from his cousin the Lord Jesus Christ, we should ask what repentance really is. And then we should ask why we should not flee from repentance but should actually want it. And this will tell us how someone like St. Mary of Egypt could keep repenting for so very long.
The word for “repentance” in Greek is metanoia, and it consists of two different Greek words—meta and nous, with the latter word being changed by the compound. Meta can mean many things, but here it means “change” or “turning.” And the nous is the innermost sense of human beings, the faculty with which we apprehend divine, mystical reality. It is the “heart” or the “eye of the soul.” So metanoia—repentance—is the turning of the eye of the soul, the changing of the heart. It is to direct our innermost gaze away from what is sinful, what separates us from God’s life, and toward what is good, what connects us with the life of our Maker.
That is the etymological and theological description of what repentance means. But for us to understand repentance, I think we may need some illustrative imagery. The place where Mary of Egypt went to engage in her repentance was the desert beyond the Jordan River. There it is said that she watered the place with her tears, the tears she shed over her many years of evil and self-destruction.
And that is what sin does. It is not just a transgression against some cosmic law. It is self-destruction and nothing less. Sometimes the destruction is sudden and devastating, but other times it is the slow dehydration that turns what is fertile into the barrenness of the desert. That is what happened to much of the Middle East, by the way—so much of it was fertile, but through gradual overuse and misuse of the land, it became desert. So it is with human persons. What is beautiful and fertile and full of possibility becomes, over time, bit by bit, dry and thirsty.
Yet repentance is possible. When a soul repents, the rain begins to fall. Sometimes the rain may bounce off the hard ground because it is so unused to receiving it, and so it may seem to do nothing or even to hurt. But over time, the rain begins to soak the land. And where there may at first be mud and erosion, there eventually comes to be fertility and growth.
Repentance is the springtime of the soul, and is it any wonder that we are now in this Lenten season of repentance, right now, at springtime? Even the very word Lent itself actually means “springtime.” We pour repentance into our souls by shedding those things that weigh us down, those useless burdens of sin that look and feel so good but actually are deeply dangerous to us. And when that repentance comes pouring in, all the many virtues of our souls, like flowers in a garden, begin to awaken, to bud and to bloom. They have been sleeping during the long winter of sin, but now they can grow.
To repent is not to feel guilty. Guilt may encourage us to repent, but it doesn’t always. Guilt is just the pain at recognizing the desert that our souls have become. But pain isn’t repentance. To repent is to turn, to change, to come back to life. We have to see that we have a desert in our souls, and sometimes it takes the upheaval of disaster, depression, divorce, drugs or death to see it. But it doesn’t have to take that. Seeing the desert within may also be inspired by contact with true beauty. Seeing the beauty of Eden, the beauty of Paradise, in the love of our Lord, we realize that we live in the desert. And we want Eden.
And so we repent. We turn back to Eden. We turn to the divine life of Christ, the life of the Holy Trinity granted in communion with the Son of God. This is what it means to repent! It means that we who are dead can be made alive, that we who are dry and thirsty may become fertile and full, that we who are addicted might be set free.
And that is how Mary of Egypt could live in that desert for decades. She was not out there moping around feeling guilty. She was watering her garden. She was tending to the flowers of virtue in her soul. She was walking with God in Eden, just as Adam and Eve had once done. She who had been a desert in the midst of fertility became a walking Paradise in the midst of the desert.
Has this Great Lent been the springtime of your soul? Even if it has not yet been, it still may be. There always is hope. There always is mercy. There always is possibility. Let us repent with joy, brothers and sisters, and so pour the grace of God like long-awaited rain into the desert of our souls.
To our life-giving God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Like most of the rest of the Orthodox Christian presbytery this time of year, I am currently in post-Paschal recovery mode. Lent, Holy Week and Pascha always take a lot out of us Orthodox Christians, and the clergy stand at the center of the liturgical, spiritual and emotional maelstrom that this season swirls us through. But I quote a certain theologian and philosopher when I say: “I’m still standing.” That is, of course, the answer to the question I have gotten the most over the past week, usually asked with some slight concern in the voice and in the eye: “How are you doing, Father?”
Bright Week is normally a week when no one calls the priest, when he tries to leave little for himself to do, except perhaps for a couple of extra Paschaltide services. I wish I could say that this Bright Week has been no exception to that rule, but for various reasons (some of which are my own fault) it hasn’t, so perhaps recovery will have to wait until next week. In any event, it’s understandably been a few weeks since I posted anything here, so I thought I might catch up on a few brief pieces of news and such.
Concerning Lent, Holy Week and Pascha, I felt that things went quite well at St. Paul’s here in Emmaus. Musically and liturgically, things came together quite well, and that is the basis for everything else. The rhythm of Christian life is ultimately liturgical so (if I may paraphrase some wise person whose name now escapes me), when liturgy is good, everything is good. I continually find that the people who are best able to say “it is well with my soul” are those for whom corporate worship is not just a Sunday-only affair. So by any real measure, this past season has been quite good. I have also noticed that there have been more people who have begun to embrace this truth, and we have seen some fruit borne out of this cultivation of souls.
It was wonderful to have a chrismation on Holy Saturday this year, and those who remember my interview with actor and musician Jonathan Jackson should be glad to hear that he and his family were all baptized into the Orthodox Church on the same day at their parish in California.
This week (Thursday, in fact) also featured a similar event for me: fourteen years since I was received into Orthodoxy at All Saints Orthodox Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Every time I mark this anniversary, it seems like such a long time ago and also a short time ago. This next week, my wife and I will mark ten years since we first met each other. Again, a long time and a short time.
It was also good this week to celebrate some Bright Week services with my friend and neighbor Fr. Noah, who is pastor of St. Philip’s in Souderton, Pennsylvania. We both took the opportunity to function as chanters at our respective churches while the other filled in at the altar. I very rarely get to serve as a chanter at liturgy, so the one we did here in Emmaus was a rare treat for me.
This week, I also delivered a lecture at a class on Orthodox Christianity at Muhlenberg College, entitled “A Divine Ecology: An Orthodox Christian Vision for the Environment,” courtesy of the inestimable Dr. Tighe, an Eastern Catholic professor of history who is quite kind to the Orthodox and well known in small-C-catholic Internet worlds. You may also have seen his work in Touchstone or First Things.
On a more familial note, we are now only a few weeks away from the birth of our third child, a boy, to be named Raphael Joseph Caedmon. His coming is welcome, mainly of course because my wife is rather tired and would like to get about the business of raising him. This being our third child, we will be crossing a new threshold of parenting. It seems daunting, of course, but we have multiple friends and relations who have raised far more than three (and both of us come from sets of siblings of at least three), so we do have some examples to draw on. Still, it will be a new level.
Speaking of babies, my Red Spot Nyassae Cichlid recently gave birth to about forty or so little fry. I have no idea who the father might be, but it’s probably one of the other Aulonocara cichlids in my ninety gallon aquarium. On that same note, my post-Paschal gift to myself is another aquarium (yes, I have four now), a fifty-five gallon one for my office at the church. I’m decorating this one far more cheaply (and, I think, effectively) than I have my others (having learned a few things), mostly with rocks in a kind of neolithic ruins look. Think “Stonehenge with caves around it,” and you’ll be in the right mindset. I plan to feature some New World cichlids therein.
Now that the great whirlwind of Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha is behind me for the year, I’m looking forward to getting back to work on the new book.
In my previous post, a comment from a Protestant challenged me to argue for Lent purely from Scripture, also saying that his own experience of Lent, like Mark Galli’s, was pretty miserable. That led me to consider that I actually had left several important things out in the previous post, most especially touching upon the question of the dualism of Evangelicals and what that might do to their appropriation of Lent. Following is my response to that comment, which I thought merited a post of its own:
If you want for me to reconstruct Lent using only a sort of “raw” reading of the Scriptures (i.e., without reference to any interpretive tradition), of course that is impossible. But then again, so are things like having an annual festal celebration of the Resurrection (Easter) or Christ’s birth (Christmas), weekly worship services on Sunday morning, and Sunday School.
But that takes us rather to a more basic question, which is on what authority any Christian does anything at all. You want me to show you everything from the Scriptures, but that begs a deeper question—Whose interpretation of them should we use? There is no such thing as a truly raw reading of the Bible. Every text has a context, and major element of the context of reading a text is the tradition in which one is reading it, even if that tradition is something as elementary as what language one happens to know. But of course Biblical interpretation involves a whole lot more than that, and the historic fact that Church tradition actually preceded, generated and defined the Scripture complicates matters even further.
But anyway, probably the deeper issue here is that the “Lent” you as a Protestant have experienced is quite different from the experience I as an Orthodox Christian also call “Lent.” Whatever combination of fasting, abstinence, church services, devotions and confession you may be doing is not the same as what I’m doing. We are using the same word to refer to two different things. You don’t mention what kind of Protestant you are, but there really is no parallel between anything in Protestantism and the Orthodox Christian experience of this season. Even fasting alone—though it could theoretically involve the exact same prescriptions in terms of types and amounts of food eaten—is a totally different experience.
Why is this? It is because of the dualism of Protestantism, its inner feeling that physical matter has nothing really to do with holiness or the spiritual life at all. So physical practices can never really be more than self-discipline or pure memorial. It can only be about thinking and feeling, because Protestants see no link between the body’s efforts and the soul’s salvation.
But for the Orthodox Christian, physical matter is precisely the stuff by which our salvation was accomplished, because God became man, and He really suffered in the flesh, and He really says we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, or else we have no life in us. And of course the Bible itself is filled with all sorts of spiritual significance for physical matter, not just for healing of death and disease, but also for the engendering of faith and holiness. So it makes sense to us that asceticism and sacrament should be a normal part of our lives.
In short, an “argument” for Lent to a dualistic Christian from a non-dualistic Christian will never make sense. There are no shared assumptions. Lent for the Orthodox is something we do within and guided by the Orthodox Church. It is not a set of autonomously operating spiritual disciplines that will operate outside of the actual community of the Church that was founded by the Apostles. Protestants don’t have that, and they generally don’t want it, so it makes little sense for them to want to appropriate something that comes from within that context. (Mind you, I would argue that it therefore also makes little sense that they would accept the Scriptures, since they were written, compiled and canonized in an ecclesial context they would reject—bishops, sacraments, asceticism, etc.)
As for fasting and other ascetical practices in the New Testament, I’m afraid that you’re not seeing them because your tradition has conditioned you not to see them. But they’re really everywhere. I again recommend this article for a detailed, book-by-book examination of asceticism in the New Testament.
Having said all that, though, I honestly think that if you’ve chosen your spiritual tradition, then trying to add Lent into it where it does not already exist is rather futile. Grafting an oak onto a willow is just not going to work, and trying to incorporate even a little of the ancient Christian traditions of Lent—which presuppose a non-dualistic understanding of spirituality—will only frustrate you. The context is wrong, and so the results will be distorted.
If, however, your spiritual tradition is something you can highly customize and alter as you go (rather than something to which you are called to be faithful), adding or subtracting spiritual practices as you like, then I don’t see why you’d need any authoritative argument at all—even from Scripture. Pick what you like.
Update: This post is now available as an audio recording at Ancient Faith Radio.
Mark Galli recently posted an article entitled Giving Up Self-Discipline for Lent which is actually a fairly fascinating look into what Lenten ascetical effort looks like from within a Pietist tradition. Pietism is, in brief, the belief that the private relationship with God is paramount and that doctrine and shared tradition in community are relatively unimportant. (For more on this, see Pietism as an ecclesiological heresy by Christos Yannaras.)
That such a piece would be posted on the Christianity Today site is certainly a sign of the times. Lent itself has been religio non grata for Evangelicals’ low-church Protestantism descended from the Radical Reformation for quite a long time. I’ve been surprised in recent years to hear of Evangelicals recovering the idea of Lent, and here we have an example of someone from that tradition reflecting critically on that appropriation.
Or do we? CT is certainly an Evangelical publication, but who is Mark Galli, and why does he construct his argument in the way he does? We’ll get to that, but let’s first look at the argument itself and how I as an Orthodox Christian would evaluate it.
The narrative here has a classic rhetorical shape: Appear to be criticizing or dismissing something, then reveal how you’re not really criticizing it, but instead revealing its true message contra the popular impression of that thing. Thus, Galli seems to be dismissing Lent (“the Grinch that stole Lent”) initially, but he eventually says that its true value is something else.
How does this actually work out in the article? What he is indeed criticizing is that Lent really is about self-discipline. Self-discipline as an inherent good is part of the Pietist package, and it makes sense to approach Lent from that angle (if one approaches it at all) from within Evangelicalism. Modern Evangelicalism is so steeped in the culture of self-improvement and self-help (not to mention, self-service) that Lent actually starts looking pretty good, so long as it’s understood in this Pietist manner.
And why shouldn’t it be understood this way? Evangelicals’ main cultural contact for Lent is American Roman Catholics, whose Lenten asceticism no longer even necessarily includes actual fasting on Fridays—to say nothing of every day during the season, which is Roman Catholics’ ancient tradition, giving up even dairy, which is why there are Shrove Tuesday pancakes and (around these parts), Fastnacht Day. Rather, what they see is “giving something up for Lent.” Picking something to give up for Lent is a perfectly Pietistic thing to do. (Pietism has, alas, affected not only the churches of the Reformation.)
Because there is no doctrine of theosis (divinization/deification, the process of becoming united with God in His divine energies) in the world of Pietism—nor really in any of the Reformation churches—asceticism has nothing to do with uniting with God. For us who believe in theosis, asceticism’s very purpose is the retraining of the will, not for the sake of mere self-discipline, but rather because the will has to become receptive to divine grace in order to receive it. But that doesn’t exist outside of theosis, so fasting or giving up anything at all for Lent will not, as Galli says, actually lead to more self-discipline. That wasn’t its purpose when it was commanded by Christ, so attempting to use it for that won’t actually accomplish it. Asceticism’s purpose is the retraining of the will, not the self-improvement of the body. Fasting is not a diet to help us lose weight or to become more “responsible.” It is the ongoing struggle against the passions.
What’s also missing from Pietistic asceticism is the guidance of tradition and community. Remember that Pietism’s concern is the private relationship with God, so there is little room for the idea that one should have a father-confessor guiding one’s asceticism, who is himself guided by centuries of Church tradition and experience. It’s something you do on your own and for yourself. So why shouldn’t you just pick and choose for yourself how you’re going to do it?
Galli essentially shares some of these same criticisms that Orthodoxy has of this Pietistic approach to Lent, though certainly he doesn’t make his criticisms from within Orthodox tradition, so there is no theosis here to reveal asceticism’s traditional Christian purpose. He also does not seem to have any problem with the individualized approach to Lent, so he’s keeping at least that bit of Pietism intact. This leads us to ask just how it is he has determined what he calls “the real point of Lent”:
Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.
To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.
What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march.
So here we have to figure out exactly from where within the Reformation Galli is making his criticisms of the Pietistic approach to Lent. To figure that out, I had to do a little digging.
Galli is of course one of the editors at CT, but some Googling reveals that he is also a member of the Church of the Resurrection in the Wheaton, Illinois, area. And to whom do they belong? That also took some digging. (What is it with churches that don’t tell you up front which denomination they’re part of?) They belong to the Anglican Mission in America, a conservative breakaway from the Episcopal Church USA (which has as a body gone quite off the deep end in recent decades). So Galli is coming from that interesting, multifarious and confusing world of Anglican traditions (note well the plural).
But he is essentially using a Lutheran argument, which is not surprising coming from a conservative Anglican. They’ve always had a certain affection for Lutheranism. Martin Luther, as you remember, identified good works as being opposed to faith—which was not St. Paul’s argument at all; Paul was instead concerned to contrast grace with the works of the Law of Moses, not with good works in general (Luther’s error was to conflate “the [Mosaic] law” with “good works”). (For more on this, see the rather bountiful references to the inherent close connection between faith and good works in the entire Epistle of James, which Luther was none too fond of.)
So the best that good works can offer—and of course asceticism was very much on Luther’s mind as a “good work,” seeing he was an Augustinian monk—is the same that the Mosaic Law can offer. It is a tutor to show you what a rotten sinner you are. That’s what Paul says about the Mosaic Law, but he doesn’t say it about asceticism. (Instead, the whole New Testament actually speaks quite highly of asceticism and its place in making the will receptive to grace. But never mind that.)
So what we really have here in Galli’s article is essentially a less Pietistic sector of the Reformation criticizing a more Pietistic one.
For Orthodox Christians, Lent and all of our ascetical effort (which includes fasting around half the days of the year, not just Lent, as well as other ascetical practices, none of which include picking something to give up) are about neither the Pietistic emphasis on self-discipline and individual piety and belief nor in the more Lutheran concern of revealing us to be sinners (thus representing the continuum between the Radical and Magisterial Reformations, respectively). There is nothing wrong with either goal, of course, but that is not the point of asceticism.
And I have to say that asceticism is rather a silly method of showing yourself to be a sinner. Wouldn’t it be easier just to take a long, hard look at yourself? And what about the Pharisees who “succeed” in their asceticism? It would seem to have the opposite effect on them. Centuries upon centuries of Christian tradition is finally about “play acting”? Yeah, that does sound pretty “miserable” and “onerous” to me, but that’s because you’re doing it wrong.
It actually doesn’t particularly matter if we succeed in “self-improvement” by means of asceticism. If we do, great, but if not, what we are actually trying to achieve is something different. It is becoming more receptive to the free gift of divine grace, so that we can become by grace what Christ is by nature, so that we can be united to God in His energies, becoming partakers of the divine nature.
It also doesn’t matter if we reveal ourselves to be sinners or not in practicing asceticism. To be honest, if you’re not aware that you’re a sinner simply by being in the presence of the beauty and glory of Orthodox Christian worship, then I’m not sure what will reveal it to you. But I suppose if you belong to a religion that does not know about that beauty, it may well take something else to reveal this to you, because you’re cut off from the true revelation of that glory.
Because he is probably far from experiencing the amazingly heartrending beauty that we Orthodox experience in Lent, I can see why someone like Galli might find Lent to be “a miserable way to live” and why he’d never want to “turn Lent into a lifestyle.” But if you’re Orthodox, Lent is very much “a lifestyle”! We’re always in the process of struggling against the passions of our will, and asceticism is our constant companion—Lent is only one season in which it is intensified. And if we do it the right way—as part of the Orthodox Christian community—it is rather far from being a miserable life. Indeed, the true ascetics always have a curiously indomitable joy.
For the Orthodox, Great Lent’s purpose is possible and revealed only within the actual community of faith, both within space (including all those currently in the Church) and time (including all those who have come before). It is not an individual achievement. It is something that is done within the Eucharistic, liturgical community, which is why Great Lent so radically transforms our daily liturgical life. It is also perhaps why so many people who may not otherwise make confession a frequent practice often find it within themselves to come to confession during the Lenten springtime (and “spring” is what Lent actually means, by the way)—they feel something awakening, and they know that the only possibility for its coming to full alertness is to reconcile and renew with the community with the guidance of their father-confessor.
What is missing both from the Pietism that Galli criticizes and the Reformation opposition between faith and works that he endorses is the doctrine of theosis, which is communion with the Holy Trinity. That communion between us men and women and the Divine Community Himself (for He is three Persons!) is what drives our asceticism and is the inner meaning of Great Lent.
For a great deal more on what asceticism actually means and how it’s everywhere in the New Testament, contra what the Reformation says about such things, I very much recommend a piece by Fr. Georges Florovsky to which I linked above, The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament: Reflections on the Critique of the Theology of the Reformation. In English, at least, you can hardly do any better.