Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 10:32-45
Today we commemorate Saint Mary of Egypt, a person whose remarkable path to spiritual health resonates with our struggles during this most unusual Lent. She spent almost fifty years in complete isolation in the desert as she embraced Christ’s healing of her soul from the ravages of sin that had beset her as a sex addict. She obviously did not attend church services during that time of repentance, nor did she receive the Eucharist again until right before the end of her earthly life. She struggled mightily with passions and memories of her former depravity for seventeen years, and continued for decades longer in prayer and the most severe asceticism imaginable. By the time Father Zosima encountered her, she shared so fully in the life of Christ that she walked on water, rose above the ground in prayer, was clairvoyant, and knew the Scriptures, even though she had never read them.
Saint Mary is a sign of hope that the challenges and disruptions that we face from the pandemic do not cut us off from the healing of our souls, which is what Lent is all about. We are now in the desert of social isolation, including separation from the services of the Church and the frequent reception of the Eucharist to which most of us are accustomed. We must learn to accept these painful deprivations as pointers along our difficult path to growth in holiness. Remember that Father Zosima found Mary because it was the practice in his monastery for the monks to spend all of Lent in isolation in the desert, during which time they did not attend services or receive the Eucharist. He is also recognized as a saint, which is a reminder that most of the saints lived in periods in which infrequent reception of Communion was the norm.
We must view our current circumstances as an indication that God is calling us this Lent to a humble, demanding piety in some ways similar to that of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Unlike them, we still live in our homes and have physical comforts. Even people who are quarantined today can easily stay in touch with others electronically. The focus of our spiritual life, however, must become more inward and more intense. Instead of relying on the beauty and structure of church services, we must intentionally invest our time and energy in focused prayer in the quiet of our own homes each day. Is that not exactly what the Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount? “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:6)
Our fasting this year is not simply from indulging ourselves in the richest and most satisfying foods, but from our usual dependence upon social interactions. Fasting is practice in saying “no” to gratifying our desires for pleasure so that we will grow in our ability to say “yes” to God. It is a tool for healing our self-centeredness as we redirect our desires for fulfillment to the Lord. Even as most of us have disordered desires in relation to the pleasures of eating food, we have similar struggles in our relationships with other people. We often use social contact as a distraction from recognizing and addressing our greatest spiritual weaknesses. Some are dependent on the praise of others, on bossing people around, or simply on the consolation provided by belonging to a group. People can relate to one another in many spiritually unhealthy ways. This season of social isolation provides us with the opportunity to confront the truth about ourselves before God in solitude. We may not like what we see, but such recognition will make it possible to open previously ignored areas of weakness to Christ’s healing strength.
The same is true in terms of our schedules. Many of us take comfort in doing our best to control, or at least to know, how we will use our time and energy each day. We have routines for work, leisure, social interaction, and just about everything else. Perhaps part of the reason that many of us like set schedules is that they give us the illusion of power or of at least usually knowing what to expect. An over reliance on them, however, makes it easy to trust in ourselves and not in God. When routines fall apart as they have for so many today, we gain a reminder that, no, we are not as powerful as we thought we were and that our will does not have to be done for life to go on. We should embrace the disruption of our usual schedules as a form of fasting from the illusion of power over our own lives.
When we are caught up in pleasing ourselves and maintaining life as usual, we easily become blind to more important things. In our gospel reading, James and John were somehow able to tune out the Savior’s prediction of His death and resurrection by focusing on their desire for the most exalted positions in His Kingdom. Like the other apostles, they would have to go through a very bitter desert before their eyes would be opened to what kind of Savior He is and who they are called to be as His disciples. Our present challenges are less severe, but still capable of shocking us out of a conventional religiosity in which Lent and Pascha may have become simply expected periods of our annual routine. Perhaps we had thought that we earned privileged religious status because of our spiritual disciplines or participation in the right set of rituals. Maybe we had thought that the Lord required from us only a certain kind of external behavior that had become little more than a collection of springtime customs. Being in the desert challenges us to see ourselves, and what it means to follow Christ to His Cross, more clearly than we had before. These matters are never merely part of the routine of this world.
Today’s epistle reading refers to Christ as the “High Priest” Who “entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” As the Lord said, “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” If we are to unite ourselves to our Great High Priest Who offered up Himself for the salvation of the world, then we must be shocked out of our complacency. Conventional religiosity simply does not suffice. Saint Mary of Egypt needed the rigors of exile in the desert for the healing of her soul, and we do too. Ours is in many ways a different desert, but it presents fundamentally the same challenge of opening our hearts in humility to the healing strength of the Savior through repentance.
This is not the Lent that we had expected or hoped for. It is not part of our routine. I am sure that none of us especially likes it. Because it is the reality that we face, however, we must embrace it as our path to the Kingdom. It is not a journey of religious self-glorification, but of spiritual humiliation in which most of us are told for the first time in our lives not to come to church. It does not feel right in so many ways. Nonetheless, it is the desert that we must endure for our salvation out of love for our neighbors. We must accept that the Lord remains with us in our spiritual wilderness and, in ways that we cannot fully understand, is granting precisely what we need for the healing of our souls through this period of deprivation. The One Who trampled down death by death purely out of love for His suffering children will never abandon us. If He can make someone like St. Mary of Egypt radiant with the divine glory through the desert, then there is hope for us all.