The suggestion has been made several times recently that my criticism of moral progress is not supported by the example of the saints. Surely, it is said, the transformations we read about in the lives of the saints are clear examples of moral progress. A noted such example, perhaps the greatest story of repentance and asceticism known in the Church, is that of St. Mary of Egypt. It is worth looking carefully at her life (for which we have a canonical narrative) and consider what it is, exactly, that we are seeing. She is, indeed, a proper example of the transformation of the Christian life – one that is extended to the entire Church on the 4th Sunday of Great Lent. But I will again suggest that moral progress is largely a modern notion (it is certainly rife with Modern assumptions), driven by modern psychological and therapeutic models. And although moral progress would seem to be a correct way (for some) to describe the Church’s theology of synergy (that we cooperate in our salvation), it is in fact a distortion of that teaching and a distraction from the true transformation that is ours in Christ. St. Mary provides excellent material for all of this.
St. Mary’s story relates her sudden conversion from drunkard and harlot to desert dweller.
The first thing we notice in St. Mary’s repentance is its suddenness. She had “worked” her way from Alexandria to Jerusalem by “corrupting” young men among the pilgrimage group. Everything was like a lark to her, until she couldn’t enter the Church of the Resurrection in order to venerate the Holy Cross.
The holy day of the Exaltation of the Cross dawned while I was still flying about — hunting for youths. At daybreak I saw that everyone was hurrying to the church, so I ran with the rest. When the hour for the holy elevation approached, I was trying to make my way in with the crowd which was struggling to get through the church doors. I ad at last squeezed through with great difficulty almost to the entrance of the temple, from which the lifegiving Tree of the Cross was being shown to the people. But when I trod on the doorstep which everyone passed, I was stopped by some force which prevented by entering. Meanwhile I was brushed aside by the crowd and found myself standing alone in the porch. Thinking that this had happened because of my woman’s weakness, I again began to work my way into the crowd, trying to elbow myself forward. But in vain I struggled. Again my feet trod on the doorstep over which others were entering the church without encountering any obstacle. I alone seemed to remain unaccepted by the church. It was as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance. Once again I was excluded by the same mighty force and again I stood in the porch.
Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be pushed, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart. And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the ikon of the most holy Mother of God.
And there she prayed and offered her repentance. She made the promise:
Be my faithful witness before thy Son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou wilt lead me.’
And she was as good as her word. Praying again after leaving the Church she heard a voice say, “Cross the Jordan and you will find glorious rest.”
She then managed to buy three loaves of bread. She washed in the Jordan, made her communion the next day at the Monastery of St. John on the banks of the Jordan, and then entered the desert.
And there she struggled:
“Believe me, Abba, seventeen years I passed in this desert fighting wild beasts — mad desires and passions. When I was about to partake of food, I used to begin to regret the meat and fish which of which I had so much in Egypt. I regretted also not having wine which I loved so much. for I drank a lot of wine when I lived in the world, while here I had not even water. I used to burn and succumb with thirst. The mad desire for profligate songs also entered me and confused me greatly, edging me on to sing satanic songs which I had learned once. But when such desires entered me I struck myself on the breast and reminded myself of the vow which I had made, when going into the desert. In my thoughts I returned to the ikon of the Mother of God which had received me and to her I cried in prayer. I implored her to chase away the thoughts to which my miserable soul was succumbing. And after weeping for long and beating my breast I used to see light at last which seemed to shine on me from everywhere. And after the violent storm, lasting calm descended.
And how can I tell you about the thoughts which urged me on to fornication, how can I express them to you, Abba? A fire was kindled in my miserable heart which seemed to burn me up completely and to awake in me a thirst for embraces. As soon as this craving came to me, I flung myself on the earth and watered it with my tears, as if I saw before me my witness, who had appeared to me in my disobedience, and who seemed to threaten punishment for the crime. And I did not rise from the ground (sometimes I lay thus prostrate for a day and a night) until a calm and sweet light descended and enlightened me and chased away the thoughts that possessed me. But always I turned to the eyes of my mind to my Protectress, asking her to extend help to one who was sinking fast in the waves of the desert. And I always had her as my Helper and the Accepter of my repentance. And thus I lived for seventeen years amid constant dangers. And since then even till now the Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by the hand.”
Her repentance came in a sudden manner. God alone could have known that preventing her entrance into the Church would provoke such a reaction. God alone could have known that within this drunken harlot was hidden the greatest of desert Mothers.
The long struggle in the desert – she described 17 years (out of 47) during which she “struggled with wild beasts, desires and passions.” Obviously, the struggle was engaged through prayer. Her fasting was beyond comprehension. And she describes simply lying on the ground for days at a time, weeping and beating her breast. But then: “a calm and sweet light descended and enlightened me and chased away the thoughts that possessed me.”
And of the 30 years after this great struggle she affirms: “I always had her [the Mother of God] as my Helper and Accepter of my repentance…even till now the Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by the hand.”
There is a moral struggle; she battles the passions (with such ferocity!). But she describes her victory in terms of pure gift: a calm and sweet light. In all things she credits her victory to the help of the Mother of God. And she maintains the same testimony for the 30 years subsequent to her struggles. The fasting and the prayers continued.
But for all of that victory, she still recognizes her weakness. When the Priest Zosimas questions her about her life she says: “You remind me, Zosimas, of what I dare not speak of. For when I recall all the dangers which I overcame, and all the violent thoughts which confused me, I am again afraid that they will take possession of me.”
Should we think of her as making “moral progress?” Were that the case, she would have no fear of the “dangers” and “violent thoughts.” She would have laid them to rest. What we see is repentance. Her repentance is not of the moral sort, a mere sorrow for deeds that have been done. Her repentance is an effort of self-emptying that is greeted by a Divine-filling. She becomes a vessel of grace in the manner described by St. Paul:
For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2Co 4:6-7)
It is, of course, possible to describe the changes that occur in the state of repentance as “progress,” but this distorts the work that is taking place. In the words of the Elder Sophrony, “The way down is the way up.” The self-emptying of repentance is not the work of gradual improvement, a work of “getting better and better.” It is a work of becoming “lesser and lesser.” We are not saved by moral progress, transformed by our efforts. It is not self-improvement.
Because of the metaphors and images that dominate our culture, we quickly assume that change (for the good) is an improvement. But included within the progressive metaphor is an assumption of stability and a self-contained quality of goodness (improvement). Thus, if I buy a piece of property and make “improvements,” it is no longer the same. The streets and sewers that have been installed are now part of the property. In human terms, we presume that “progress” gained in the battle with the passions results in an improved self, a self that is less a prisoner to those same passions.
The human life is a dynamic relationship. We are not streets and sewers and electrical gridwork. What is “acquired” by grace in the work of repentance is a different dynamic, one in which our life is centered in the life of God. Repentance is never a one-time event – it is a mode of existence.
The modern laboratory of experience that is the Recovery Movement (AA and the like), provides interesting contemporary examples of this same principle. No recovered alcoholic ever says that he is no longer an alcoholic. He will say that he is “a grateful recovering alcoholic.” For he knows that the life of repentance that is described in the 12 steps, is a life that, once ended, will quickly return him not to a new beginning, to a state of non-alcoholism. He quickly returns to where he stopped and will in a short time drink as though he had never known a day of sobriety. St. Mary of Egypt did well to fear all the “dangers” that she overcame. They have not disappeared.
Our “progress” is a road into the life of God – one that is better described as repentance, the word by which we were first invited to the journey.