Mary of Egypt Shows Us How to Repent
How to Cultivate a Repentant Spirit

Sunday of St Mary of Egypt. Fifth Sunday of Great Lent



In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

St. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. From the iconostasis of the side-church of St. Mary of Egypt, Sretensky Monastery, Moscow
St. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. From the iconostasis of the side-church of St. Mary of Egypt, Sretensky Monastery, Moscow
This Sunday, the Fifth of Great Lent, we celebrate Saint Mary of Egypt, and she perhaps is the quintessential example of repentance. We read her life this week, a truly, a magnificent and wonderful life. It is so wonderful that Saint Sophronius actually comments, parenthetically, that there will be those who cannot believe that this really happened because of the weakness of their flesh[1].

What was St. Mary’s repentance? What did it consist of? It is the same for us as for her. It is when our conscience changes, when our conscience convicts of us something.


Now in her case, of course, it was a great shift. She had gone from leading an incredibly heedless life to recognizing her impurity and going deeply into the desert. She made a complete shift in her life. We make little micro shifts and we go back and forth.

Let us see what the Church says about her repentance. Let us feel it in our heart. We just sang it in the Vespers.


“The pollution of past sins prevented thee from entering the church to see the elevation of the Holy Cross, but then thy conscience and the awareness of thine actions turned thee, 0 wise in God, to a better way of life, and having looked upon the icon of the blessed Maid of God, thou has condemned all thy previous transgressions, 0 Mother worthy of all praise, and so has gone with boldness to venerate the Precious Cross.”

So it says that “thy conscience and the awareness of thine actions turned thee.”


Now of course she was venerating the Most Holy Cross, the Precious Cross that was in Jerusalem. It was in a larger piece at that time. And she was changed. But it wasn’t the Cross that changed her. It wasn’t the Mother of God that changed her. It was her repentance and her turning to God that changed her.

And this change actually took a long time. If you read her life carefully, it took 17 years[2] from the time of her repentance for her to no longer be plagued with carnal thoughts and imaginings and drinking songs and desire for wine and for meat and for all of the things that she had before. It took her 17 years to be cleansed of those desires, and she wasn’t indulging in any of them; she was in the desert and seeing no people whatsoever, eating almost nothing, being burned by the sun and frozen by the frost. And yet it took 17 years, which included such things as: lying on the ground for a day and a night, begging the Lord to remove from her these thoughts of songs and these desires and these carnal imaginings and, as the life says, a desire for embraces.

But the pivotal thing was her conscience turned. And after her repentance she still thought of herself as dust and ashes and as sinful Mary.

So this gives us an indication, brothers and sisters, of how we should live.


What we have to do is this: We have to cultivate in ourselves the knowledge of what’s wrong with us, that there are things that we just don’t do right, and there are things we do that are wrong. We must cultivate this idea in ourselves. The world doesn’t like us to do this because it’s just too hard to do, so the world labels it as sometimes poor self-esteem or as not having faith.

Saint Mary had great faith such that when she prayed she was above the ground a forearm’s length. But she also was well aware of her sinful life and never forgot it, not a day, not a moment.

It’s said of Saint Peter the Apostle that he desired, when he was going to be crucified he asked to be crucified upside down because he didn’t feel he was worthy to be crucified in the same way that his Lord was crucified. This is the same Peter, of course, who denied the Lord three times before His
crucifixion during His trial. He never forgot that. Even though the Lord cleansed him of that sin and restored him and told him to “feed My lambs, feed My sheep”[3]. And Peter of course did all those things, fed the lambs and fed the sheep and became a great apostle. But he never forgot that sin.

Jude, one of the sons of Joseph the Betrothed, and an apostle, never forgot that he sinned against the Lord when Joseph wanted to divide up his inheritance and divide it four ways for four sons, Ruben and Jude and James and Jesus; and Jude didn’t want to do it. He said our Lord was not Joseph’s son. So he wanted to divide it three ways. So James (he was one of the seventy Apostles, and the first bishop of Jerusalem) offered to have his portion be given to the Lord. Jude repented of that sin many times over, and never forgot it. He referred to himself as Jude the brother of James[4], even though he was one of the twelve apostles, and his brother was not.


This is the kind of feeling we should have to cultivate about ourselves, brothers and sisters: Humility,  so that our conscience can turn.

Now in our case our conscience is going to have to turn every day, so we must cultivate it with silence, with prayer, with fasting, with reading of the Holy Scriptures and holy things, with long services.


Short services don’t cut it, really. Oh, they’re helpful, but long services really help. And if you don’t know this, take me on my word and try it. It will be hard. Sometimes it will be boring. Sometimes you will think, ‘Wow, I’m just thinking about everything but the services.’ But if you go to long services for a long time, it really changes you, it kind of warms you, and it shapes you.

What things are there that kill our conscience? Well, how about responding to five hundred text messages a day on your smart phone? I think we should call them stupid phones. I’m not so sure this technology is good for our souls. Oh, yes, it can be used in a good way. But now we are flooded by stuff all the time. How about watching a lot of TV? How about reading magazines that are frivolous or even sinful? How about gossip, pride and indulgence of our desires? The list is very long, actually, of the things that kill the conscience, compared to the list of things that enable the conscience to turn. It’s really a very small list of things that enables the conscience to be changed and a long list that can kill the conscience.

We must cultivate in ourselves, brothers and sisters, all things that can turn our conscience and make us aware.

Saint Mary of Egypt lived 17 years of heedless sin. It never crossed her mind during that time that she was sinning. She just did it. She did terrible things. She edited her story, she told Abba Zosimas, because she just couldn’t bear to tell him all the things that she had done. But she was not ashamed of any of them until her time of repentance, and then she had changed so magnificently.

Let me read you one thing also that applies to this from matins. I read things from matins as often as possible in this sermon[5] because, to be honest, the majority of my flock never hears matins, and I think that it’s the most important service that you can attend in the week. Part of that is because it comes in our usage after Vespers so that there is a time, of softening, getting you ready for deeper prayer[6]. It is very hard to pray walking through the door. Also, the content of matins is so beautifully, intricately theological. But it’s not just theological; there’s a warmth to the prayers of Matins that is truly amazing. Whether it is said in the morning (unless it is abbreviated almost beyond recognition) or in the evening, it does not matter. Truly, this is a service that I lament that so much of my flock does not experience. It’s very, very important.

The following is from one of the sessional hymns during the canon, after the third ode.


“I am held fast in the mire of sin, and there is no strength or courage in me; the tempest of my trespasses has overwhelmed me. Look upon me, 0 Virgin, I entreat Thee, for thou has borne the Word Who alone loves mankind. Deliver me from every sin, from all the passions that destroy my soul, and from every ill inflicted by the enemy, that I may sing with joy. Intercede with thy Son and God, 0 Undefiled, that remission of transgressions may been given to those who in faith take refuge beneath thy protection.”

“I am held fast in the mire of sin.” That’s what Saint Mary tells about herself when she repented. And for those 17 years that she was held fast in that mire, she felt it deeply. And after she was delivered from it and lived more like an angel than a human being, she still remembered.

We must cultivate in ourselves this feeling. Ask yourself, do you feel this about yourself? Do you really feel deeply that you are held fast in the mire of sin, that there is no strength in you, or courage in you? This is not to feel absolutely defeated, this is not to say I can’t accomplish anything. This is to say I can’t accomplish anything without help. We must have this humility about ourselves.

If we consider ourselves to be held fast in the mire of  sin - it’s true whether you believe it or not - then we will make progress, because we will beg the Lord for help. We will beg the most Holy Theotokos to pray for us. We will beg our Guardian Angel to guard and keep us and the saints to intercede for us, and we will change. And when God whispers to us in those words that cannot be uttered from the Holy Spirit[7], we will react to them, we will understand and then and we will change.


But we must have the right disposition. And the right disposition is to say I am a terrible sinners, the worst of all sinners and yet God will save me by His mercy. We must cultivate this feeling. Saint Mary had it, and we should be in awe of her repentance. But not believe for a moment that her repentance is only a unique experience, a unique event not to be repeated. No, it should be repeated every day, with us too. God calls us to this level of repentance also.

So cultivate this idea in your heart, brothers and sisters.


It’s not easy to do. Like I said, there are things you can do. Prayer and fasting, giving yourself more time for prayer, the Jesus prayer, is pretty much essential. Things you shouldn’t do: Watching television and foolish books and gossip and all the rest.

But primarily, with all these things that you should do and shouldn’t do, you must put your trust in God completely, and that’s what Saint Mary did and that’s what all the saints did. And the reason we are mediocre is because we don’t do this completely.


So may God help us to completely trust in God.

“The blessing of the Lord be upon you through His grace and love for mankind, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”[8]



Priest Seraphim Holland 2011.    


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[1]And let no one think (continues St. Sophronius) that I have had the audacity to write untruth or doubt this great marvel --may I never lie about holy things! If there do happen to be people who, after reading this record, do not believe it, may the Lord have mercy on them because, reflecting on the weakness of human nature, they consider impossible these wonderful things accomplished by holy people.” (From the Life of St Mary of Egypt, read on the fifth Thursday of Great Lent - )


[3] John 21:15-17 “So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I have affection for thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.  (16)  He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I have affection for thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.  (17)  He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, hast thou affection for me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, hast thou affection for me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I have affection for thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.



[4] For example: “Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called:  (2)  Mercy unto you, and peace, and love, be multiplied.” (Jude 1:1-2 KJV)

[5] It is our custom at St Nicholas, as often as possible to give a short homily between Vespers and Matins, during our vigil service for Saturday night. Some people leave after Vespers and never hear the matins service.

[6] Matins is just as effective is served IN ITS ENTIRETY in the morning, before liturgy. Morning is a wonderful time to pray, when our thoughts are more collected. A very short matins, with much of the “meat” taken out of it, served in the morning, is not so useful. We would prosper much more as a people if this unfortunate practice, of serving services that have the name, but not the content that is so beneficial to the soul.

[7] Romans 8:26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

[8] This is the last blessing said by the priest at the end of Vespers, just prior to the beginning of the Six Psalms of Matins.