Henry David Thoreau & Mary of Egypt

Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, April 14, 2019
Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 10:32-45

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau went out into the woods near Walden Pond in Massachusetts and later wrote this about his adventure in independent living, which lasted two years, two months and two days:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

He decided, in other words, that he was going to discover what it was that life was really all about by trying to eliminate everything that, in his words, “was not life.” So he set about to strip down only to “the essential facts of life,” which meant living alone and practicing a life largely about daily subsistence and not much else. He built his own cabin, grew his own food, etc.

And why did he decide to embark on this quest? He wrote:

For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” (emphasis in original)

In other words, he thought that the idea that man’s purpose being to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” (which is a famous quote from a Presbyterian catechism) had not really been established, so he was going to take a couple of years off from civilization to find this out for himself. After his experiment was over, he published his impressions in 1854 under the title Walden, a book which at least when I was a teenager was pretty standard reading in American high schools.

I thought about Thoreau when I was considering this week the tale of another person who went out from civilization, though into the desert beyond the Jordan River, not into the Massachusetts woods. And this person also did not go out for a little over two years but rather for 48, at which point she died there.

And while Thoreau was not actually that isolated nor self-sufficient, living on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson and eating dinner at his house, while getting a lot of help with both food and laundry from his mom(!), our desert dweller did not see another human being for 47 years, when she encountered a priest who was traveling in the desert.

I am speaking of course of St. Mary of Egypt, who it might be said also went into the wilderness “to live deliberately,” though some 1400 years before Thoreau. And the priest she met there in the desert was St. Zosimas, whom God sent there to meet her and to learn her life so that it might be recorded for the generations to come.

If you read Thoreau’s Walden, you will see that what it means for him to “suck out all the marrow of life” had a great deal to do with trying to make a living in the woods. We can of course criticize him for how serious he was about it—I mean, how dedicated are you to self-sufficiency if your mother is still doing your laundry? But it is clear that he at least made a go at leaving behind all the abstractions of civilization to focus on the bare facts of living. His life, in other words, became mainly about three things: food, shelter and clothing.

And if you read the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, you will see that it is precisely these three things that she lacked most. In the desert, she ate only what small plants she could find. She had no shelter at all and often suffered because of both the cold and the heat. And when Zosimas found her, she was in fact utterly naked and had to be covered with his own cloak so that she might not be shamed before him.

The contrast between Henry David Thoreau and St. Mary of Egypt is striking in many ways, but perhaps most striking is the difference between why the two went into their respective wildernesses. Thoreau said that he was going to find out for himself by this means of life whether it really were the case that man’s chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Mary went to the desert for another reason. Listen to this excerpt from her Life, which happens after she had long lived in a deeply immoral way and then encountered the presence of God in Jerusalem through the prayers of the Virgin Mary. This is Mary of Egypt herself speaking:

And bending my knees before the Virgin Mother of God, I addressed to her such words as these: “O loving Lady, thou hast shown me thy great love for all men. Glory to God Who receives the repentance of sinners through thee. What more can I recollect or say, I who am so sinful? It is time for me, O Lady, to fulfill my vow, according to thy witness. Now lead me by the hand along the path of repentance!” And at these words I heard a voice from on high: “If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.”

So Mary did not go into the desert to figure out what life was really about, focusing on the bare physical necessities of daily subsistence. Instead, she chose a way of life in which daily subsistence was constantly at risk, and it was for the purpose of finding “glorious rest”!

Now, if you had to choose between these two ways of living alone, which do you think you would choose to find “glorious rest”: Thoreau’s way or Mary’s way?

It is clear that the difference between these two ways is about what is being hoped for. Thoreau questions the Christian hope, at least as he understands it, while Mary goes to find it fulfilled. Thoreau believes that he can figure out the meaning of life by making his life about subsistence, but Mary’s quest is undertaken by reaching beyond subsistence.

When Zosimas encounters her in the desert, he says this to her:

“O mother, filled with the Spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent—for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.”

As he said, Mary had “died to the world,” by setting aside what was earthly, not by making it her sole occupation. And because she had done this, she was given gifts of the Spirit, grace that enabled her to live in a hope that was apparent to her and because of which she, as Zosimas said, “[lived] with God.”

The Christian hope is not about making our earthly lives better nor even about trying to strip things down to the most necessary earthly things. If it were, then our hope would be limited by what is in this world, and our circumstances would have full power over us.

But the Christian hope is about resurrection, about the recreation of life itself, and that hope comes from beyond this world. And like the stars that remain above all our wars and our horrors and our personal traumas, hope shines on us in purity and perfection no matter what happens to us.

And even though the starlight of hope breaks through to our earthly lives and affects them in powerful, beautiful and delightful ways, hope is not bound by the circumstances of this world. And once in a while, the Lord allows a star like the life of St. Mary of Egypt to shine on us, to show us what is possible even in the most extreme circumstances.

Our hope is for a world and for a humanity that will be remade, and the only One Who can do that is the One from beyond this world Who Himself stepped into it, suffered for it and conquered death in it. And if we will commit ourselves to following Him in whatever circumstance in which we find ourselves, in us also death will be conquered. And at the remaking of the world, and in some small measure even now, we, too will be remade.

To the God Who is our hope, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

5 comments:

  1. I have often thought that, in addition to his stated purpose to explore self-sufficiency (while metaphorically living in his parents’ basement!) Thoreau might have been the first example of a peculiarly American form of narcissism. I did not encounter Thoreau until later in adulthood, but there was a rather obvious “look at me” component to what he wrote. Another great American “spiritual pioneer” also had a pretty good dose of it: https://harpers.org/archive/2019/04/on-thomas-merton-mary-gordon-review/.

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