Conversion: it's not just for converts.
Mark 10:32-45 (for Sunday); Luke 7:36-50 (for St. Mary).
The Fifth Sunday of the Great Fast, in Memory of Our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt.
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12:31 PM 4/10/2011 — In the sixth century, near the monastery of Sauca in Egypt, pilgrims venerated the tomb of a holy woman named Mary, who had lived in the desert as a hermit and a penitent. In the seventh century, Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem wrote a biography of this woman which served as the basis for all the subsequent literature about her life generated over the next few hundred years; the stichera we sung last night at Vespers are based on that biography. It describes a woman who spent her youth as a prostitute, was converted to Christ, and spent the next forty-seven years living in the desert where she was routinely brought the sacraments and ministered to by some holy monks.
Scholars are quick to point out that there is no documentation to corroborate anything contained in the Patriarch’s biography of Mary of Egypt; to which I would respond by saying, Why would he make up such a story? That her tomb was a popular pilgrimage destination a hundred years earlier is certainly a historical fact. But by now I’m sure you know that, in the Eastern Churches, we are not so much concerned with scholarly exactitude as we are with spiritual realities. Regardless of what the details of her life may have been, certainly she existed, and certainly she was venerated by many people who, burdened with years of sin, sought to reproduce in themselves the kind of total conversion she accomplished in her life.
Recall that line I seem to keep repeating to you week after week, from that wonderful gospel passage that occurs just after our Lord raises Lazarus from the dead: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about many things. One thing only is necessary.” Martha was a longtime follower of Christ;—”Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died,” she told him—and yet, she still was in need of conversion, not to become a follower of Christ—she was already that—but to follow him more perfectly. She had already been converted in mind; what she lacked was conversion of heart. And conversion of heart is not a one-time thing. One cannot say, “I turned my heart to Christ on such-and-such a day at such-and-such an hour;” conversion of heart begins the day we become Christians, and ends the day we leave this world. There is no such thing as a Christian who is not in need of conversion of heart; because there is no such thing as a Christian who has reached his capacity for reproducing, in his own life, the life of Christ. Were it not so, there would be no need for the grace of the Holy Mysteries: We would have no need for things like Confession, or the Anointing of the Sick, or the grace of Matrimonial Crowning, or even Christ himself in the Blessed Eucharist. We have been given these things—and need these things—because we are in constant need of conversion; because we are constantly in the process, day by day, of refocusing or our lives ever more directly on that “one thing necessary”: the salvation of our souls.
Assuming the details of the life of Mary of Egypt, whom we commemorate on this last Sunday of the Great Fast, are correct—and only the most hardened of skeptics would deny that to us—we should notice that, following her conversion to Christ, she could have gone on to live a more conventional life: no one needs to retreat into the desert and live as a hermit in order to follow Christ more perfectly; but we must presume that her decision to do so was motivated by a personal relationship with Christ in light of which her decision to live in the desert seemed logical to her. That doesn’t mean that, if we choose to follow Christ more perfectly, we must end up in the desert. The fact that the desert was her calling doesn’t mean it’s ours; it does mean there is no limit to the capacity of a Christian to follow Christ better: to root out sin from his life;—even the most mundane and seemingly harmless little venial sins—to deal with those around him with greater charity and compassion; to seek each day an ever deepening personal relationship with his Lord through prayer and penance and works of mercy.
As the supreme symbol of conversion, Mary of Egypt expresses the last and most urgent call that the Church addresses to us before we enter the sacred days of our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection, as we pursue that “one thing necessary;” when we shall finally see clearly the true meaning of what our Lord has been telling us throughout the whole of this grace-filled season: “If you would be my disciple you must deny yourself, take up your cross every day, and following me.”
Father Michael Venditti