Life and Death with St. Mary of Egypt

MaryEgyptTShirtFlyerSometimes I think I have a lot to live for. There are lots of things in my life that outwardly seem to be going great. I will have a book out this year, plus several articles, and at least two more books in the pipeline. My wife and I hope to move, the Institute seems on track, and my department is doing well. I could go through a whole litany of things that seem great with friends and family. There are certainly things of tragic moment that I don’t want to minimize, and indeed there are some truly crushing matters that could easily overcome me at anytime. Such matters make my above happiness prove shallow. For indeed the only thing that can really give my life purpose and beatitude, in the end, is something to die for, something greater than my own wretched designs and desires that points to that which is greater than my own petty expectations. It’s not that I think my scholarship, my marriage, the Institute, inter alia, inconsequential ephemera. No, the question, in short is, am I a disciple?

This morning’s homily focused on the question of evangelism (as all the homilies for the past several weeks have done) with special reference to St. Mary of Egypt, her conversion on the Sunday of the Cross, and her life of repentance as a hermit in the same wilderness where St. John the Baptist had also spent his adult life. My priest, Fr. Andrew Damick, touched on the life of St. Mary as following Christ on the way to the cross, denying herself (she had spent the last seventeen years of her life pursuing sexual pleasures) and taking up her true life, the life of the world to come, in contemplation of God.

A friend once remarked that his wife had found his devotion to St. Mary of Egypt bracing, for in almost all icons of her, she is an old woman, but clothed only by the vestment of St. Zosimus, whom the Lord had brought to her, and she by the Lord to him, (you can read all of this in St. Mary of Egypt’s life as recounted by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem). A devotion to St. Mary of Egypt thus is not something that draws on the demons of our nature, but propels us both to denounce them, and to seek for something greater than the mere animalistic of our existence. She sits, does our saint, with great art, literature, music, and indeed all the beautiful in pointing us to something beyond ourselves and the merely sensuous and the baser sensual. She does this by being first and foremost a true disciple.

For years I had called myself a disciple of Christ, I was a Christian. I hoped I meant it as something other than “I am not a Muslim,” or “I am not an atheist,” but in the last twenty plus years I can see that this was not the case. Twenty years ago we seldom heard of Christian martyrdom, as with the fall of the Soviet nightmare this came to an end in the West. It still occurs in the East in China and North Korea, but in China it was largely attenuated by that country’s desire to attract Western capital. Sadly, China now realizes that most in the West don’t give a damn about China’s Christians, and while martyrdom on the scale of Diocletian or Decius does not occur, persecution is a reality in China, and can be brutal. In the years leading up to 1989 I seldom gave martyrdom too much of a thought except as something that happened in the past, or else very far away. There was no cost to discipleship, and that was fine by me.

But also about twenty years ago I began rethinking certain matters, and indeed this was all part of a trajectory begun in college when I walked away from many of the peculiar aspects of my parents form of Christianity, reading myself into Calvinism, and eventually being “ordained” in the Presbyterian Church in America (this was in 1990). The PCA has certainly taken a correct stand on many of the issues of our day, including the persecution of Christians, and this blog is not about my differences with Calvinism. The fault was with me in that I was too fat-and-happy in Zion. This all changed about 1995 when I realized that my convictions, those things that I held to be inescapably true and could not deny, were making demands on me, very uncomfortable demands, ones that would affect almost every aspect of my life.

Suddenly, discipleship meant a lot more: it meant that my life was not mine at all, and I could either follow what I was convinced was true, or play me conscience false and stay where I securely was. In a sense, I had to die to what I thought was comfortable, and what would make life easy.

This is pretty shabby martyrdom to say the least, in fact, it is water to good single malt in comparison. And then I started meeting them. People who knew and had witnessed and had been themselves the objects of our world’s hatred of Christ, people such as Fr. Roman Braga and Bishop Basil Rodzianko. And now, while not always meeting them or their friends and family personally, I meet many through the internet, e.g., people who post to us about Syria and Egypt, the Chaldean Church. I had a fellow email me from Syria in my capacity with the Institute for Orthodox Thought and Culture, begging me to get him out of Syria. There are people who attend my parish who have family in Syria and Lebanon.

Which brings me back to St. Mary of Egypt. In today’s Gospel we have Sts. James and John asking our Lord if they can sit the one at His right, the other at His left when he returned in glory. Our lord responded “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” He was speaking, of course, about martyrdom. Could they abandon any thought of their own life? Could they take up their cross and follow him? This is what St. Mary of Egypt did. She spent years wrestling with her passions, trying to drive out the lewd songs, the vile memories, all that had been her life. We do know that Sts. James and John did drink of that cup that our Lord did. And now we know that many are also drinking this cup. When Fr. Andrew read the part of St. Mark’s Gospel, “Ye will indeed drink that cup,” my voice caught in my throat (I was attempting an ison) as I thought of those twenty-one Coptic Christians recently martyred in Libya. On the way home from Church I had to catch myself in my anger over certain people (my scholarly friends will know of whom I speak) who want to argue that there was no substantial or even sustained persecution of Christians in the ancient world, and there is none now. Christian deaths at the hands of Rome were turned into martyriologies to bolster the Christians; the Romans weren’t really that maleficent. No one hates Christ, and no one hates Christians. Christian deaths don’t fit into their risible world of the beneficent state. It is an inconvenient fact, something that does not fit their politics, so it is incorrect.

But martyrdom is always a part of the Christian life, and if we are Christians then it is not merely a matter that we must be willing to die at any time, as our life is no longer ours, it belongs to Christ; but that we must think ourselves already dead, and that our life is in the hands of God already. I could read about so many who were faithful unto death, St. Paul, St. Ignatius, St. Polycarp, and the list goes on right down to our own day, of those who gave themselves to Christ our God, no longer counting their own lives dear. Yes I could read about them, but somehow never really entered into their minds, never really saw myself as the “martyr type.” But if I am Christ’s disciple, then I am de facto a martyr type, for that is what I have signed up for.

And this St. Mary of Egypt asks of us, indeed demands of us. She is a contradiction to our perversely twisted world which would consider her demented. Why, she’s not self-actualizing herself? She’s surrendering her identity to follow some cult! {In our modern pornocracy, identity always means whatever I hanker to copulate with.} Why renounce the pleasures of this life to take up what would seem a mere existence in a desolation? What kind of God does she think she is serving? The person who wrote the short blurb on the St. Pachomius website speaking about St. Mary of Egypt notes that some people question the story’s veracity, since it shares a number of elements with other stories. But, he adds, is it not the nature of verifiable science that experiments are repeatable? Should not then St. Mary share many traits with other ascetics, since such lives were legion in the ancient world? Isn’t repeatability the sign of veracity, he asks? Let us all aspire to be like St. Mary of Egypt, let us repeat her story. Let us all seek no longer to hold our lives dear, but be ready when and if it should come always to die to ourselves, that we might live to God.

Which brings me to my conclusion: marriage is a form of martyrdom, in that my life is no longer my own, but exists for the sanctification of my family; my vocation is a form of martyrdom, in that I don’t exist as a scholar and teacher for my own glory, but for the betterment of my students, the expansion of knowledge, and ultimately, for the Kingdom of God; and even my friendships and all I do for my various enterprises, partake of martyrdom, in that they all should resolve themselves in Christ and not in me. Even Cicero saw that friendship was not a means to better oneself. In saying this, I am not turning my back on what I perceive to be the good things of life that Christ has created for our enjoyment – – family, friendship, hearth and home – – He has given us all good things to enjoy. The world, as Fr. Schmemann first told me in For the Life of the World, is a sacrament, and exists to give life, or better put, Life. We cannot see things as ends in themselves, this Adam did. Thus, death to myself in friendship, in marriage, in the academy, should be life to those around me, and ultimately, life to God.

About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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