Dear Parish Faithful,
I have an amusing anecdote to share with everyone from yesterday (some would even say “cute,” but as you may have surmised by now, such a description is not quite my style). Be that as it may, it was related to me yesterday that following the homily on St. Mary of Egypt – some of which touched on her struggles with the passion of lust – one of our church school age students was heard to say: “That was inappropriate!” Well, glad to hear that someone was listening. My aim, however, was “realism” and finally edification; to deal with the story of St. Mary’s life as it presented itself in its pre-conversion and post-conversion aspects. However, once you start talking about sex in Church …
What is quite amazing, is the level of “inappropriate” discourse in the actual narrative of The Life of St. Mary of Egypt, written by St. Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem. When the monk Zosimas begs St. Mary to openly reveal to him her life as it has unfolded – including its sinful beginning, we hear the following confession from the saint:
Already during the lifetime of my parents, when I was twelve years old, I renounced their love and went to Alexandria. I am ashamed to recall, how, while there, I at first ruined by maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to sensuality. It is more becoming to speak of this briefly, so that you may just know my passion and my lechery; for about seventeen years, forgive me, I lived like that. I was like a fire of public debauch. And it was not for the sake of gain – here I speak the pure truth. Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money. I acted in this way so as to make as many men as possible to try to obtain me, doing free of charge what gave me pleasure. Do not think that I was rich and that was the reason why I did not take money. I lived by begging, often by spinning flax, but I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.
After boarding a ship that was sailing to Jerusalem, carrying on board some pilgrims going to the holy city for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross (one of many fascinating pieces of liturgical history embedded in the Life), St. Mary continues her dreary history of a “life of a great sinner,” further embellished by some fine rhetorical flourishes:
How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ear can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage? And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits His return to Him. … I was not content with the youths I had seduced at sea and who had helped me get to Jerusalem; many others – citizens of the town and foreigners – I also seduced.
Considering that this Life is prescribed to be read aloud in its entirety in church on the fifth Thursday in Great Lent, this is fairly “racy” material! Perhaps an eyebrow was raised when we read this last week in church, especially for those who may have heard the actual text for the first time. Obviously, the listener is to be struck by the self-destructiveness of such behavior, rather than allowing his or her imagination to run wild with “filling in the details.”
However, if you want to avoid “inappropriate” material for the future, then you have to stop reading … the Bible! Or, at least certain episodes, which would include, but not be limited to: Ham “seeing the nakedness” of his father (Noah), an expression that some biblical scholars understand as a euphemism for copulation or possibly castration; Sodom and Gomorrah (GEN. 18); and David and Bathsheba (II SAM. 11). Yet, these unseemly episodes are so woven into the fabric of certain stories; or flesh out the full character of key biblical figures, that ignoring “sexually explicit material” only serves in truncating the text and losing its all-too-human quality, including the human propensity to sin.
Life can get messy and murky. Often enough, that murkiness is never better expressed than through human sexuality and its misuse and/or abuse. The Bible respects this aspect of human life, and thus it remains realistic, rather than project the unreality of a perfectly-formed philosophical system or structure onto life’s inherent messiness in a fallen world. Then, “we call it as we see it,” and hope that the ending is as powerful and inspiring as the repentance of St. Mary of Egypt, whose great sin was covered by a great repentance; one that to this day deeply moves our minds and hearts when we hear it yet again.
For the future, I am going to try and stick with more appropriate material!