March 25 (O.S., March 12), 2018: Fifth Sunday of the Great Lent; Venerable Mary of Egypt.
St. Theophanes the Confessor of Sigriane (818). Righteous Phineas, grandson of Aaron (1500 B.C.). St. Gregory the Dialogist, pope of Rome (604). St. Symeon the New Theologian (1021).
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Today the Church commemorates our mother among the saints, Mary of Egypt.
Thinking this week about St Mary’s life, I found myself wondering what I would have said to her if after her baptism she came to me asking for advice. What, I wondered, would I say to a newly illumined Christian who said to me that as penance for her sins, she was going and to live by herself in the desert for the next 50 years or so?
To be honest, I would in likelihood have discouraged Mary. I would have told her that in baptism her sins had been forgiven and there was no need for her to do penance.
If she persisted, I might have suggested she involve herself in the parish for a few years to become settled in the faith. I might say that if in a few years she still wants to leave the world, she should consider entering a monastery.
And hopefully, after giving me a respectful hearing, Mary would dismiss everything I said and walk right out into the desert. Yes, the right thing for the newly illumined Mary to do would be to ignore me.
She should ignore me not because what I told her was wrong theologically but because my advice was imprudent. Prudence is a virtue we often ignore because we mistakenly identify it with caution or timidity.
Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth!
Prudence is another word of “wisdom” or “discernment.” It is the virtue that looks at all the options in front of me and helps me discern what God is asking of me. Then, having determined my destination, prudence is the virtue that helps me discern the steps along the way to fulfilling God will for my life.
My advice to the newly illumine Mary of Egypt would be wrong because it wasn’t discerning. I didn’t ask the most important question: What is God calling to this woman to do? What is her vocation?
Instead, my words reflect what is an all too often occurrence in parishes. We don’t ask the vocational question–what is God calling this person to do. Instead, we ask the very narrow administrative question: How does this person fit into my plans for the parish?
This isn’t to denigrate administration which St Paul lists among the various gifts God gives us for building up the Church (see, 1 Corinthians 12:28). But the first question we must ask is what does God want from us, personally? What, in other words, is our personal and unique vocation?
Many Orthodox Christians reject the idea that we have personal vocations as “Protestant.” And yet, our Lord is clear: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you” (John 15:16, NKJV).
Many people are spiritually adrift because they have no sense of their vocation, of what it is God has chosen and appointed them to do in this life. So without a sense of their own calling, the life of the Church becomes a series of distractions.
They might become focused on attending services, evangelizing, or debating the fine points of theology. Or, just as likely, they might be swept away by fundraising, ecclesiastical gossip, or the moral failings of others.
Without a sense of my own vocation, of what God has called me to do, the richness of Holy Tradition overwhelms me even as the behavior of others becomes for me a constant source of distraction.
What I don’t have is what we see in the life of St Mary of Egypt: Peace.
Read Mary’s vita and it becomes clear that for all the deprivations and hardships she suffers in the desert, she is at peace. Think, for example, of the lion that anoints the saint’s feet after her death.
At peace with God, Mary is at peace with the creation. Not only that she is a source of peace for others. The lion who guards her body doesn’t attack Abba Zosimas but helps him dig the saint’s grave. And when they are done? “Then each went his own way. The lion went into the desert, and Abba Zosimas returned to the monastery, blessing and praising Christ our God.”
St Mary is at peace with God, at peace with creation, at peace with others and, by the end of her life, at peace with herself.
God in numerous ways had guarded my sinful soul and my humble body. When I only reflect on the evils from which Our Lord has delivered me I have imperishable food for hope of salvation. I am fed and clothed by the all-powerful Word of God, the Lord of all. For it is not by bread alone that man lives. And those who have stripped off the rags of sin have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rocks.
So what does this mean for us?
Simply this, the first task of the spiritual life is to discern God’s will for us. What, in a concrete sense, has God called me to do? What life has He called me to live?
Holy Tradition–the Scriptures, the fathers, the teachings and services of the Church, the life of personal prayer–all of this helps guide us as we discern our vocation.
Here I think it is worth saying a brief word about the place of the parish priest. Basically, what’s my job?
The priest isn’t called to tell us what God wants from us but to help us discern for ourselves our vocation. In my own experience as a priest, this has largely turned out to be a “negative” task. What I mean by this, is that it usually means reminding people of the limits of the Christian life.
As a practical matter, this means telling people what we can’t do if we wish to be faithful to Christ and the Gospel. As for what they should, I’ve found it best to remain silent.
The reason for my silence is straightforward. In any given situations, there are myriad good things a person can do. While we have very clear guidance about what we shouldn’t do, we have great liberty in deciding which of the many good possible deeds we will do.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has given each of us a great freedom to create from our lives something beautiful for Him! What this will look like is different for each person. Indeed, it will look different for each person as he or she moves through life.
But as long as we remain faithful to Christ and the Gospel, we can be certain that God will reveal Himself to us and the life to which He has called us.
May God through the prayers of St Mary of Egypt reveal our vocations to each of us and grant us the grace to be, like our holy mather, faithful to the work He gives each of us to do!