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The Path to Theosis

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

Hesychia.HealingMany people nowadays, because of various unstable circumstances in their lives, are tormented by states of guilt, which inevitably lead to existential suffering, depression and despair. The Church, however, offers us consolation by showing us ways to escape from disillusionment, the devil’s strongest weapon for man’s destruction, and making us aware of the fact that we have enormous potential for transformation through the energy of divine grace. However bad the state in which we find ourselves, we can attain to deification. We can become by grace what God is by nature.

The whole of ecclesiastical life is focused on this goal, because without this perspective the Church becomes secularised. The theology of [theosis] deification is evident in every part of the Church’s life: in the definitions and canons of the Ecumenical and Local Councils; in patristic teaching; in the sacramental prayers of the Church, particularly those of the great Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist; and in the ecclesiastical arts, such as hymnography and iconography.

The Church is not content, however, just to teach about theosis, but presents us with specific examples to demonstrate how a person in the most wretched condition can experience blessed deification [theosis]. One such example is St Mary of Egypt, whose memory the Church has appointed to be celebrated not just on the day of her repose (1st April) but also on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent, to encourage each of us on our path to deification and sanctification.

In the following pages we shall cite some elements from the life of St Mary of Egypt, and then we shall set out the theological teachings that can be drawn from the truly extraordinary and moving life of this blessed woman, in order to see God’s wonderful works.

1. The Life of St Mary of Egypt

St Mary of EgyptThe life of St Mary of Egypt was written by St Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, a saintly patristic figure of the 6th to 7th century. He is also the author of various ascetical texts and hymns imbued with the spirit of Orthodox theology and the ascetic tradition. He wrote this biography from the accounts of the fathers of the monastery where Abba Zosimas had lived, which had been passed on by word of mouth. The text is now preserved in Migne’s Patrologia Graeca. There are also translations of the life in circulation as independent publications.

The narrative tells us that the hieromonk Abba Zosimas was adorned with sanctity of life. He saw divine visions and had received the gift of divine enlightenment, having lived until the age of fifty-three in great asceticism, and he was renowned in the surrounding region. Then, however, the thought came to him that he was in some way spiritually superior, and he began to wonder if there was any other monk alive who had anything to offer him, or could teach him any new form of ascesis. In order to instruct and correct him, God revealed to him that no one can reach perfection. He then told him to go to a monastery situated on the River Jordan (2-3).

Abba Zosimas obeyed God’s voice and went to the Monastery of St John the Baptist as he had been told. He met the Abbot and the monks, and perceived that they were radiant with theoria and praxis, and lived an intense monastic life in poverty, great asceticism and ceaseless prayer (4-5).

There was a rule at this monastery that on Cheese Sunday, just before the beginning of Great Lent, when all the monks had received Holy Communion, prayed and greeted each other, they should take a few provisions and leave for the desert on the other side of the Jordan, to undertake ascetic struggles during the period of Great Lent. They would return to the monastery on Palm Sunday to commemorate the Passion, Cross and Resurrection of Christ. The brethren were not allowed to meet one another in the wilderness, nor to ask each other on their return what kind of asceticism they had undertaken during this period (6-8).

Abba Zosimas put this rule into practice. Taking some meagre provisions, he left the monastery and went into the desert. His desire was to go as far into it as he could, in the hope of encountering a Father who could help him to attain what he longed for. He prayed as he walked, eating very little, and sleeping wherever he happened to be.

After he had walked for about twenty days, while he was sitting down to rest and singing psalms, he saw in the distance a shadow that looked like a human form. At first he thought it was a demonic delusion, but then he realised that it was a person. The human being he saw was naked, had a black body – the colour was due to the sun’s rays – and had a few white hairs on his or her head that reached no further than the neck (9-10).

Abba Zosimas attempted to draw near to ascertain what he was seeing, but the person went further away. Abba Zosimas ran, and so did he or she. Weeping, the Abba shouted to the figure to stop so that he could receive a blessing. There was no response. When the Abba reached a stream and was worn out, the other person, who caused the Abba great amazement by addressing him by his Christian name, told him that she could not turn round to face him because she was a naked woman and the parts of her body were uncovered. She asked him, if he would, to throw her a rag from his clothing to cover her naked body and then to give her his blessing. The Abba did as she said, and she then turned towards him. At once the Abba knelt down to receive her blessing, and she did the same. Both remained on their knees “each asking the other to bless”. This was the first encounter between Abba Zosimas and St Mary of Egypt, whose name had not been revealed to the Abba (and would not be until after her death) (11-12).

As the Abba was wondering whether she might be an immaterial spirit, she told him that she was a sinful woman who had been walled about by Holy Baptism, and was dust and ashes, not an incorporeal spirit (15).

Conversing with Abba Zosimas in an atmosphere of penitence, St Mary revealed her life to him.

According to the account of the woman whose name was later, after her death, revealed to him to be Mary, from the age of twelve she had lived a dissolute life in Egypt, having lost her virginity at that tender age, and she possessed an uncontrollable and insatiable passion for sexual intercourse (18). She did not earn money by her manner of life, but simply satisfied her passion. She told him, “I was a public provocation to depravity, not, I swear to you, for the sake of money”, for she did what she did without payment, but “fulfilling my own desire”. As she disclosed to him, she had an insatiable desire and irrepressible yearning to wallow in her filthy life, and her way of thinking was a disgrace to human nature. (18).

Because of her immoral life and carnal desire, she followed the pilgrims going to Jerusalem to venerate the Precious Cross. She did not do so in order to venerate the Precious Cross, but so as to have many lovers willing to satisfy her passion (19). She describes very realistically how she embarked on the ship (20). As she herself disclosed, there was no form of lewdness, mentionable or not, that she did not teach those wretched travellers in the course of the journey. She expressed her surprise that the sea endured her depravities and the earth did not open its mouth and swallow her up, so many souls did she ensnare. In the course of this journey she was not content just to corrupt her young fellow-travellers, but also defiled many others, both inhabitants of the city and foreigners (21). When she arrived in Jerusalem during the feast of the Precious Cross she went round the streets “hunting for young men” (22).

She was brought to a sense of profound repentance, however, by a miraculous event. As she was going into the Church to venerate the Wood of the Precious Cross, some sort of power prevented her from proceeding. Then she stood before an icon of the Holy Mother of God, showed great repentance, and sought guidance and help from the Mother of God. With her help she entered the Church this time without hindrance and venerated the Precious Cross. Then, having thanked the Holy Mother of God, she heard a voice urging her to go to the desert on the other side of the Jordan. She asked the Mother of God for her assistance and protection, then made her way to the desert, after first passing by the Monastery of St John the Baptist beside the River Jordan and partaking of the Most Pure Mysteries. For forty-seven years she lived in the desert without ever meeting anyone.

For the first seventeen years in the desert she wrestled fiercely to vanquish her thoughts and desires, essentially to overcome the devil who was making war on her through memories of her former life.

As she confessed herself, for seventeen years she lived in the desert “fighting with irrational desires as if with wild beasts”. She often desired different sorts of food and drink, as well as “immoral songs”, and she had many thoughts urging her to fornication. However, whenever a thought arose in her, she would fall to the ground, water the earth with her tears, and not get up “until such time as that sweet light shone around me, and drove away the thoughts that were troubling me”. She prayed continuously to the Holy Mother of God, who was her guarantor in the life of penitence that she was leading (28-29). Her clothing became torn and wore out, and from then on she was naked. She was burnt by the intense heat and trembled with the freezing cold, and “many times I fell down and stayed there barely breathing and motionless” (30).

After a hard struggle, through the grace of God and the constant protection of the Holy Mother of God, she was freed from thoughts and desires. Then the rational and passible parts of her soul were transformed, and even her body was deified. She herself informed Abba Zosimas of this with great humility.

Because of the high spiritual state St Mary had reached, she had received from God the gift of discernment. By means of this gift she not only knew Abba Zosimas’s name, but also his deeds (13). She even saw what he was thinking (15).

She was naked, but her body had overcome its natural needs. She said, “I am a woman and naked, as you see, and the shame of my body is uncovered” (12). Her body was nourished by the grace of God: “I am fed and covered by the word of God Who upholds all things” (30). In her case, as in the case of other saints, we observe that the energies of the body are suspended. This suspension of bodily energies came about because her soul received the energy of the Triune God, and this divine energy was transmitted to her body as well. “The grace of the Spirit, she said, is sufficient to sustain the essence of the soul intact” (36).

During this first encounter Abba Zosimas saw St Mary of Egypt while she was praying. She had unceasing prayer, and Abba Zosimas actually saw her lift her eyes to heaven, spread out her hands and “begin to whisper a prayer, but her words could not be distinguished”. At one point, while he was sitting watching fearfully, “he saw her raised about a foot above the ground and praying while suspended in the air” (15).

When Orthodox theology speaks of the deification of man it means the deification of his thoughts, his desires and his body: the deification of his complete psychosomatic organism. This is clearly demonstrated in the life of St Mary of Egypt.

At this first meeting, when St Mary had revealed her whole life to Abba Zosimas, she asked him to come the following year on Holy Thursday to a particular place on the bank of the River Jordan, close to an inhabited area, to give her Holy Communion after many years of profound repentance that had transformed her being. “I now desire this with the unquenchable longing of love,” (32) she told him. She had an irresistible longing to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Abba Zosimas returned to the monastery without telling anybody what exactly had happened to him, as was in any case the rule in that monastery. He continuously besought God, however, to count him worthy to see “that dear face” again the following year. He was vexed at how slowly time passed, wishing that whole year could be a single day (22-23).

The next year, as St Mary had foretold to him, an illness prevented Abba Zosimas from leaving the monastery for the desert like the other fathers at the beginning of Great Lent, and he had to remain in the monastery. When the other fathers of the monastery returned on Palm Sunday, he prepared to go to the place that the Saint had indicated to him, to give her Holy Communion.

On Holy Thursday he took with him the Body and Blood of Christ in a small chalice, as well as a few figs and dates and some soaked lentils, and left the monastery to meet St Mary. As she was late arriving at the agreed place, the Abba prayed to God in tears not to deprive him, on account of his sins, of the opportunity to see her again (33-34).

After fervent prayer, he saw her coming from the other side of the Jordan. She made the sign of the Cross, stepped onto the water of the river “and walked on the surface of the water, coming towards him” (35). The Saint asked him to say the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, then she greeted him and partook of the life-giving Mysteries. After that she raised her hands to heaven, sighed tearfully and said, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation” (25).

After entreating him to come again the following year to the stream where he had met her the first time, she asked him to pray for her. The Abba touched the Saint’s feet, sought her prayers, and let her leave, “lamenting and mourning” because he did not dare “detain the one whom nothing could hold back”. She left in the same manner as she had come, walking on the water of the River Jordan (36).

A year later, in accordance with the Saint’s request, the Abba hastened to reach “that wonderful sight”. After walking for many days he reached the place. Like “an expert hunter”, he looked for “that sweetest prey”, God’s Saint, but could not see her anywhere. Then he began to pray contritely to God,  “Show me, Lord, Your inviolate treasure, that You have hidden in this desert. Show me, I beseech You, the angel incarnate of whom the world is unworthy” (36). For Abba Zosimas St Mary was an untouchable treasure that the world was unworthy to possess, an angel in human form. As he prayed in these words, he saw “the Saint lying dead, with her hands placed as was fitting, and lying in such a way as to face towards the East” (37). He also found a written message from her, saying, “Abba Zosimas, bury the body of humble Mary in this place, returning dust to dust, and pray always to the Lord for me, who died on the first day of the Egyptian month of Parmoute, which the Romans call April, on the same night as the saving Passion, after partaking of the divine and mystical supper” (38).

The Saint had departed this life on the same day as she received Holy Communion, having covered in one hour a distance that Abba Zosimas took twenty days to travel the previous year. St Sophronios writes, “The same route along which Zosimas had journeyed for twenty laborious days, Mary traversed in one hour, and immediately departed to God” (38). Her body had acquired other properties: it had been transfigured.

After he had wept profusely and recited the psalms appropriate to the occasion, Abba Zosimas “said the funeral prayers” (38). Then, with deep contrition and “moistening the body with tears”, he turned his attention to burying her. Because the earth was hard, however, and he was getting on in years, he was unable to dig and found himself in a dilemma. At that point “he saw a large lion standing by the body of the Saint, licking her feet”. The Abba was afraid, but the lion itself “showed its good intentions towards him not only by its gestures, but by its whole disposition”. The lion itself was urging and encouraging the Abba by its movements and its behaviour to proceed with her burial. Emboldened by the lion’s meekness, the Abba asked it to dig the grave itself so that St Mary’s body could be buried, as he could not do it himself. The lion obeyed. “While he was still speaking it immediately dug a trench with its front legs, large enough for the body to be buried” (39).

The burial of the Saint took place with the Abba praying and the lion “standing by”. Afterwards both of them departed, “the lion went back into the depths of the desert like a lamb. Zosimas returned, blessing and praising Christ our God” (40).

St Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, finishes by saying that he wrote this life “as best he could” and “preferring nothing to the truth” (41).

The life of St Mary of Egypt shows how an immoral woman can become a god by grace, how a human being can become an angel incarnate, and how Christian hope can replace the despair that comes from the devil. In the person of St Mary of Egypt we see someone who sought sensual pleasure and chased after men for her own satisfaction. By the grace of God, however, she was able to be sanctified to the point that saints chased after her to receive her blessing and to venerate her revered body. Even wild animals honoured her.

Through her repentance and her profound humility, and because by grace she overcame her body’s subjection to suffering and death, St Mary of Egypt offers consolation to us all. On the other hand, she also humbles those who are proud of their ascetic achievements. She not only tamed the ferocious beasts within her, her irrational passions, but also transcended all the limits of human nature and even pacified wild animals in the created world.

This is the purpose of Christ’s incarnation and the wealth it bestows, as preserved within the Church. Through revelational theology and life in Christ, man can be completely transformed.

2. Theological Lessons from the Life of St Mary of Egypt

In the summary of the life of St Mary of Egypt that we have been considering, the greatness of her personality is already evident, as is the power of God’s grace, which brought her to new birth through the wretched state she was in. We shall now, however, undertake a brief analysis of ten theological points that can be identified in the life of St Mary of Egypt.

As we examine these ten points from a theological standpoint, certain phrases from the life of St Mary will have to be repeated to support our argument. We shall mainly be looking in more detail at the summary of her life that has already been set out, but we shall also refer to other passages not previously cited. In any case, repetition fosters learning and retention.

a) The Gift of Baptism

St Mary of Egypt was baptised at an early age, and after Baptism she sunk into a dissolute life. She herself confessed to Abba Zosimas: “I am a sinful woman, but I have been walled about by Holy Baptism” (15). She sinned as a baptised Christian, and made the members of Christ into members of fornication. This gift of Baptism, however, made it possible for her, through the baptism of repentance, to return to Christ, and for her members to become members of the Body of Christ.

The Baptism that we receive as infants is called the washing of regeneration, because through it we are born again into a new life. By Baptism we are restored to the state that Adam was in before he sinned. It is a gift of the Church to enable us to cast off the garments of skin, our corruption and mortality, and to be lifted up spiritually. St Athanasios calls Baptism, “A planting for eternal life”. St Basil regards it as “a chariot to heaven, the cause of our acquiring the kingdom, the gift of adoption”.

S.SymeonNewTheologianBaptism is actually the spiritual vaccination that we receive as infants so that, when we grow up, we can of our own free will vanquish sin, the devil and death. This does not mean that we are deprived of the great privilege of freedom, a gift that God gave us at our creation. Since we do not forfeit our freedom, we can choose to sin even after Baptism, and still have the potential to deny God. According to St Symeon the New Theologian, “Baptism does not take away our free will or freedom of choice, but gives us the freedom no longer to be tyrannised by the devil unless we choose to be”.

According to St Diadochos of Photiki, the grace of Holy Baptism confers on us two gifts. The first is given immediately by the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, when grace renews us, illuminates the divine image in us and washes away every stain of sin. The second is that grace co-operates with us to paint the divine likeness over the divine image in us. This second gift comes when our nous, by our own free will, tastes the goodness of the Holy Spirit. So the grace of Baptism “starts by remaking the divine image in man” and restores it to what it was when he was first created by God. Then, when it sees us “longing with all our heart for the beauty of the divine likeness and humbly standing naked in its atelier”, it bestows the divine likeness on us.

It is good that we receive Baptism at an early age because, without depriving us of our freedom, it gives us the possibility, if we so choose, truly to become members of the Body of Christ.

b) The Grace of Repentance

St Mary of Egypt’s repentance came about through God’s grace and the blessing of the Holy Mother of God, and was expressed with great intensity. She denied the world absolutely, renounced all the wishes of the carnal ‘old man’, and transformed all the powers of her body and soul. By so doing she not only activated the grace of Baptism, but also lived the blessed state of deification. St Mary of Egypt lived in an extreme form something that many of the ascetic fathers of the desert experienced. They would hear a word, either directly from the presence of God as revelation, or from the Elders, and then they would go deep into the desert in order to live this word for the rest of their lives. Every word of revelation has great energy and many years of ascetic effort are required to make it a living reality by God’s grace. This happened in the case of St Mary of Egypt. For forty-seven years she struggled to put into practice the word of revelation that she heard in the Church in Jerusalem, and to assimilate the experience of grace that she was granted through the veneration of the Precious Cross and the voice of the Holy Mother of God. This too came about by the energy of that word.

We can also discern various expressions of self-accusation in her speech. She feels ashamed of her deeds (17); she regards herself as a snake because of her former life (17); she calls herself dissolute (25), “a sinful woman” (13) and “a woman bare of all virtue” (14).

Man has free-will, and God Who gave it to him does not take it away. Nor does He deprive him of the gift of Holy Baptism. Man therefore has the potential, on account of passions, death and corruption, but also as a result of attacks of temptation, to commit sin. The grace of Holy Baptism does not then abandon him completely, but remains in the innermost recesses of his heart, hidden by passions and sins. St Diadochos of Photiki teaches that by Baptism the devil is expelled from the soul, and the grace of God now dwells in its very depths. The devil is, however, permitted to act through the body, from outside.

Repentance comes about by man’s co-operation with the grace of God. It activates the grace of Holy Baptism, which is present in the depths of the heart and is hidden by passions. This is why the service of monastic tonsure, which is an expression of repentance, is called ‘a second Baptism’. Repentance is man’s return from the unnatural state of the loss of communion with God, to the natural or supranat-ural state of progressing from the divine image to the divine likeness.

Agios ClimacusSt John of the Ladder has some amazing words to show the great value of repentance: “Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears after baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so.” He explains these daring words by saying that Baptism is the washing away “of evils that were in us before”, whereas repentance, the second baptism, washes away “sins committed after baptism”.

Repentance is a gift of the Holy Spirit and can be activated in man because the grace of Holy Baptism and Holy Chrismation is within him. St Nicholas Kavasilas writes that we receive the grace of Chrismation together with Baptism, but we perceive its effect later, when we want to live a godly life and repent of the deeds that we have done. The gifts of the holy Chrism are, he writes, “the gifts of godliness, prayer, love, and sobriety, and the other gifts which are opportune for those who receive them”*. Elsewhere he writes that for some people the gift of Holy Chrismation manifests itself later through repentance and a change in their way of life: “Some have subsequently repented and bewailed the sins which they have committed and live according to right reason, and so have given proof of the grace that has been infused into their souls”9. Even if someone excels in love, purity, self-control or humility above the usual human limits, this is a gift of the Holy Chrismation that was bestowed on him when he received the Sacrament, but “became active afterwards”.

It follows that St Mary of Egypt’s repentance and tears were the action of Holy Chrismation, as was her victory over corruption and mortality.

c) The Experience of the Mystery of the Cross

St Mary of Egypt’s miraculous change of direction came about when she went into the Church in Jerusalem “in which the life-giving wood of the Cross was being displayed”. When she had been prevented three or four times from entering the Church, she finally realised that the reason why she was prevented “from seeing the life-giving wood” was “the filth of her deeds”. She felt profound repentance and prayed to the Holy Mother of God to count her worthy to venerate the Precious Wood of the Cross, and promised that, if this were granted, she would then change her life. She would never again do anything to insult her flesh, and would leave the world and everything in it. Among other things, she prayed, “Allow me to see the wood on which the God you bore in the flesh was crucified, Who gave His own blood as a ransom for me”. Then she besought the Holy Mother of God, “Command, Ο Sovereign Lady, that the door to the sacred veneration of the Cross may be opened also to me, and I offer you to God your Son as a trustworthy guarantor, that I shall never again insult my flesh through shameful intercourse, but as soon as I have seen the wood of the Cross of your Son, I shall at once renounce the world and everything in it, and will immediately go wherever you, as the guarantor of my salvation, shall advise and lead me” (23).

After that she entered the Church without hindrance and reached the sanctuary. She was granted “the life-giving sight” of the Cross, beheld “the mysteries of God” and realised how ready God was to accept her repentance. Then she threw herself down and venerated that holy ground. She made a promise before the Holy Mother of God that she would fulfil the terms of her pledge. Afterwards, as we have seen, she went into the desert at the bidding of the Holy Mother of God, to wage the ascetic struggle for the purification of her passions and for her sanctification (22-25).

It is clear from what happened that, when St Mary venerated the Precious Wood of the Cross, she received strength and energy from it. She then went into the desert to experience the mystery of the Cross existentially, for the rest of her life. The words of Christ express her experience: “Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me…” (Mark 8:34). So does the passage in the Apostle Paul’s Epistle, “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Gal. 5:24).

St Mary herself described to Abba Zosimas the struggle she waged in order to transform her being and to vanquish the ‘old man’ with his passions and desires. As soon as a thought came that kindled her passion and ignited the fire of lust within her, she flung herself to the ground, washed it with her tears, and did not get up until such time as, in her own words, “that sweet light shone around me, and drove away the thoughts that were troubling me” (29).

We see from this that St Mary of Egypt venerated the Precious Cross in a state of spiritual inspiration, and through its power she lived the mystery of the Cross in her personal life, by struggling against thoughts and carnal desires. This was linked with the theoria of uncreated Light. There is a very close connection between the Cross and the Resurrection. In patristic theology this is called ‘living the mystery of the Cross’.

St Gregory Palamas, commenting on the Apostle Paul’s words, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14), says that the mystery of the Cross is twofold. Firstly it is “flight from the world and parting from our relatives according to the flesh” and secondly it is when “we are crucified to the world and the passions, and they flee from us”. Of course it is impossible for the passions to depart from within us and not to act in our thoughts “unless we attain to the theoria of God”. When from praxis, which is the repentance that cleanses the passible part of the soul, we attain to theoria, which is communion to differing degrees with God (noetic prayer or the vision of God), and search for the treasure of God’s Kingdom within us, “then we are crucified to the world and the passions”. This comes about because the Cross is “the abolition of sin”.

St Gregory Palamas actually provides an analytical description of how someone can crucify himself and live the mystery of the Cross, confronting  thoughts  of acquisitiveness [curiosity],   fornication  and  self-esteem13.

Within this context St Mary of Egypt acted and lived out in her own life the mystery of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection, which is the foundation of ecclesiastical and ascetic life.

d) Sharing in God’s Deifying Energy

St Mary of Egypt’s experience of the mystery of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection was closely connected with her participation in the deifying energy of God. We see this vividly in her whole life: in her unceasing prayer, in the vision she beheld of uncreated Light and in her experience of continuous communion with God. Thus she attained to the goal of her existence, which was not to lead a moral life based on humanistic principles, but to be deified.

In the teaching of the Fathers of the Church we discover the theological truth that God’s uncreated energy “is indivisibly divided into divisions and inseparably separated into separate parts”, and takes various names according to the results it produces. Thus there are references to the existence-bestowing, life-giving, wisdom-imparting and deifying energies of God. The whole of creation partakes of the existence-bestowing energy of God. Plants and animals share in His existence-bestowing and life-giving energies. Man partakes of the existence-bestowing energy of God, because he has a body; of His life-giving energy, because he is alive; and of His wisdom-imparting energy, because he is created in God’s image. Finally, the saints and angels, in addition to the other energies just mentioned, also share in the deifying energy of God. The energy of God that helps man along his path to deification is also known by other names, such as purifying energy, which purifies his heart from passions; illuminating energy, which illuminates his nous; and deifying energy, which deifies man, through the vision of the uncreated Light.

According to the teaching of the Church, man was created by God “in His image” and “after His likeness”. The divine image refers to man’s nous and free will, whereas the divine likeness refers to his communion with God, his deification. Deification is the vision of uncreated Light, which constitutes man’s communion with God. It follows that man has within him the necessary powers for this journey to deification and for fulfilling the purpose of his creation.

Because man fell into sin and put on the garments of skin (corruption and mortality), a new method was needed to attain this goal. This came about through Christ’s incarnation, when He voluntarily assumed a body subject to death and suffering, in order to vanquish death and make it possible for man too to be victorious over it, through the power of Christ.

According to the teaching of our Church, Christ became man in order to deify human nature. Since then, by means of the deified human nature that came about in the hypostasis of the Word, anyone who partakes of the divine and human Body of Christ through the Sacraments and Christian asceticism can be deified. According to St Maximos the Confessor, man’s deification is very closely linked with Christ’s incarnation. He writes characteristically, “He makes man god by grace to the same degree as God Himself became man by nature according to the divine Economy”.

However sinful a man may be, whatever state he may be in, however low he may have fallen, he can partake of the deifying energy of God, provided he co-operates with the energy of divine grace. Of course, salvation is not the work of nature but of divine grace, which grants deification to the extent that men share in this grace. It makes human nature radiant with supranatural Light and lifts man above the boundaries of nature with the abundance of glory, according to St Maximos the Confessor. He writes, “For created things are not by nature able to accomplish deification since they cannot grasp God. To bestow a consonant measure of deification on created beings is within the power of divine grace alone. Grace irradiates nature with a supranatural light and by the transcendence of its glory raises nature above its natural limits”.

St Nikitas Stithatos defines deification as “the noetic and truly sacred rite, in which the Word of unutterable wisdom makes Himself a sacred offering and gives Himself, so far as is possible, to those who have prepared themselves”. He goes on to say that God gives this deification “as befits His goodness” to rational beings, so that they may achieve the union of faith. Men participate in deification to many different degrees. Those who have been purified from the passions share in deification “through their exalted and noetic concentration upon the divine”. Others “perfected in virtue by purification through their divine intelligence and through sacred intercourse with God, participate according to their proficiency and the degree of their purification in the same deification as their brethren, and they commune with them in the God of unity”.

e) The Suspension of Bodily Energies

In the life of St Mary of Egypt we clearly see the effects of her deification. These include the suspension of her bodily energies, as demonstrated by the fact that she did not take nourishment; the transformation of her body so that she could endure changes in her environment; the ability to cover long distances in a short space of time; the elevation of her body above the ground while praying; and walking on water, as we saw in the summary of her biography in the first part of the chapter.

Body and soul are linked. When the soul is subjected to the body, it becomes carnal, but when the body is under the influence of a soul that has the gift of the Holy Spirit, the body is remade accordingly and is hallowed.

In patristic teaching it is clear that the body is reformed in the course of deification. During theoria all the bodily energies are suspended, including the instinct for self-preservation, the digestive process, and all the functions of the fallen body. We see this in the lives of the Prophets and Apostles, as described in the books of the Old and New Testaments.

According to St Makarios of Egypt, as the body of Christ was glorified when He climbed Mount Tabor, “so also the bodies of the saints are glorified and shine like lightning”. According to St Symeon the New Theologian, when, through many labours and ascetic efforts, a man rises above the needs of the body, “he carries it round with him as a light weight. It is like a spiritual body, and is neither tired nor hungry nor thirsty”, and he reaches the point of divine vision. According to St Nikitas Stithatos, when someone repents and receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, serenity, peace and silence enter his body. Then his body “becomes full of a new power, a new vigour, a new spiritual strength”. In the Gerontikon we come across many such examples, such as the occasion when someone encountered Abba Silouanos “and saw his face and body radiant like an angel’s, and fell to the ground”.

In the course of man’s regeneration the body is illuminated by the soul. Just as the removal of God’s grace from the soul also affects the body, so the soul’s participation in uncreated grace is transmitted to the body too, because soul and body are closely interrelated. Someone who has been reborn acquires an experience of man’s state before the Fall, and also of eschatological life, the life of the saints in the Kingdom of God.

f) The Action of Holy Communion

As we see from the life written by St Sophronios of Jerusalem, St Mary of Egypt partook of the Body and Blood of Christ after venerating the Precious Cross, and then devoted herself to a life of total repentance in the desert. Finally she was counted worthy, after forty-seven years of repentance, to partake again of the Body and Blood of Christ, and to depart that same day to God. Asceticism is inseparable from Holy Communion, from eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ.

It is significant that St Mary of Egypt reached the place where Abba Zosimas was waiting for her by walking on the water of the River Jordan, and left after Holy Communion in the same manner. Immediately after Holy Communion, however, she covered in one hour a distance that should have taken twenty days, and died in the place where she experienced her resurrection and ascension.

The Divine Eucharist is at the centre of ecclesiastical life, just as Holy Communion is an indispensable element in a Christian’s life. In the case of St Mary of Egypt several facts stand out.

The ascetics ascribe great importance to Holy Communion, because according to Christ’s words, no one can live without eating His Body and drinking His Blood (John 6:53). Abba Poimen says that, just as a deer living in the desert eats many snakes, is burnt by their poison, and so desires springs of water, so it is for monks: “in the desert, they are burned by the poison of the demons and they long for Saturday and Sunday to come so that they can go to the springs of water, that is, to the Body and Blood of the Lord, to be purified from the poison of the evil one”.

Holy Communion, however, does not act on man unconditionally. Certain conditions must be met if the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ is to act in a purifying, illuminating and deifying way, and not punitively. Christ acts according to a person’s state. Sometimes He purifies him, sometimes He illuminates, and at other times He deifies. There are, however, circumstances in which He burns him up.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is also received by other means, such as through prayer, repentance, obedience and doing God’s will. According to St Dionysios the Areopagite, “Our greatest likeness to and union with God is the goal of our hierarchy. But divine scripture teaches us that we will only attain this through the most loving observance of the august commandments and by the doing of sacred acts”.

St Mary of Egypt seems not to have taken Holy Communion often, due to her way of life, her complete isolation from other people, and the fact that she lived in the desert, having gone there through a revelation of the Holy Mother of God and at her behest. She took Holy Communion at the outset of her repentance, and at the end of her life, shortly before her soul left her body.

When she could not enter the Church to venerate the Precious Cross and was overwhelmed by profound penitence, she saw the icon of the Holy Mother of God and offered up fervent prayer, promising to leave the world and go wherever the Mother of God wished. She begged her to be the guarantor of her salvation and her guide (23). As she was then able to venerate the Precious Cross without anyone preventing her, she came back and prayed with gratitude to the Holy Mother of God. One of the things she said to her was, “I have seen glory such as we who are dissolute do not rightly see. Glory be to God, Who through you accepts the repentance of sinners…. Now guide me wherever you command. Now be my instructor in salvation, leading me by the hand in the path of repentance.” Thereupon she heard a voice from far away: “If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest.” With tears in her eyes she said to the Holy Mother of God, “My Sovereign Lady, do not forsake me”. Subsequently she made her way to the desert on the far side of the Jordan, having first taken Holy Communion in the Church of St John the Baptist (25-26).

In the case of St Mary of Egypt we see another dimension of Holy Communion. The action of Holy Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ, with the blessing, protection and assistance of the Holy Mother of God, remained within St Mary for forty-seven years. Through her heroic asceticism and prayer this energy stayed constantly within her and brought about the deification of her soul and her body. It kept her in a state of intense spiritual inspiration. Her penitence, together with the action of the Holy Communion she was granted to receive in the Church of St John the Baptist, after her return to God and the revelation from the Holy Mother of God, changed her nous, gave her great inspiration and energy, and imbued her with intense longing for God. This energy governed her entire being for forty-seven whole years. We see this from the fact that towards the end of her life she went to take Holy Communion walking on the water of the River Jordan. She was already in a state of deification.

In her case the words of St John of the Ladder apply absolutely, when he says that he saw impure souls prone to carnal desires, who, having made their experience of sinful love a reason for repentance, “transferred the same love to the Lord; and, overcoming all fear, they drove themselves unsparingly towards the love of God”24.

Divine love transformed her existence, and again the words of St John of the Ladder hold true, “Blessed is he who has obtained such love and longing for God as an enraptured lover has for his beloved”25. He who truly loves “ever keeps before his mind’s eye the face of his beloved, and there embraces it tenderly”. Such a man can find no rest from his yearning even in sleep26. In this state, the whole man is commingled in some way “with the love of God”21.

When St Mary of Egypt reached the end of her life, she was possessed by the desire that had been kindled by her profound experience after God’s revelation and Holy Communion. She was full of the energy and love of God, and when she partook again, a second time, of the Body of Christ, she was led into the uncreated Temple, the Kingdom of God, of which she had a foretaste in this life.

We conclude that Holy Communion acts according to each Christian’s spiritual state, and cannot act without certain prerequisites. Its energy depends on the spiritual state of the person receiving the Holy Gifts.

g) The Gift of a Blessed End

St Mary of Egypt’s entire way of life was the fruit of her communion with Christ, the true Life, and so it was a triumph over death. Her departure from this world was also worthy of her life. Completely out of sight, alone with Christ the Bridegroom, she surrendered her soul to Him for love of Whom she had followed such a hard path. The more someone loves, the more he endures and undergoes sacrifices and labours. All these things are the distinctive characteristics of love and intense longing for God.

Abba Zosimas obeyed the Saint’s request that he visit her the following year in the place where he met her the first time, at the dried-up stream. When the Elder reached there, he saw “the Saint lying dead, with her hands placed as was fitting, and lying in such a way as to look towards the East” (37). While the Abba was wondering whether St Mary would want her body to be buried, he found near her head a message inscribed by her in the earth. In it she asked Abba Zosimas to bury her body and told him that she had reached the end of her life the night before the saving Passion of Christ, after partaking of the divine and Mystical Supper (38). Then the Abba, “running to the feet of the Blessed One, washed them with his tears, not daring to touch any other part” (37).

These are all signs of a holy end. The Saint passed away after partaking of the Most Pure Mysteries in a state of deification. She had foreknowledge of her death, gave verbal and written instructions, arranged the position of her body so as to be facing east, crossed her hands, and remained in this state for a whole year, in an incorrupt form, because Abba Zosimas could recognise her and embrace her feet with tears.

At her burial, apart from Abba Zosimas, there was a lion, which stood next to her body and licked her feet. St Sophronios writes that Abba Zosimas “saw a large lion standing by the body of the Saint, licking her feet” (39). At the command of Abba Zosimas, the lion dug a hole in the ground so that St Mary could be buried. Then the Abba covered her body with earth, weeping and praying, “with the lion standing by” (40).

It was a burial full of contrition and silence. God’s grace was in the dead body of St Mary, the saintly monk Zosimas was in a state of deepest contrition, the lion watched silently and helped significantly with the burial, and the whole creation revered this event. The grace of God was transmitted through the nous of the Saint to her body, and from there it extended to irrational creation as well.

h) The Blessed Figures of Abba Zosimas and St Sophronios

In the life of St Mary of Egypt written by St Sophronios of Jerusalem, Abba Zosimas plays an important role. He is described by the hymnographer as “the greatest of Fathers”. Of course the central figure is St Mary, who by God’s grace healed the whole of her previous life through her great love for God, and transformed her being. But the one who discovered her, to whom she revealed her life, who gave her Holy Communion, and who buried her, is also worthy of honour. Saints are recognised by saints.

On reading this life we are moved by the personality of Abba Zosimas. We can discern many qualities and spiritual gifts in him, such as his zeal and longing, his humility, sensitivity and tenderness. Only a saint can recognise a saint, and St Mary revealed herself and her life only to this holy man.

St Sophronios writes that Abba Zosimas had waged the monastic struggle from early childhood. “His way of life and his words were a credit to him”, and he had devoted himself to every kind of asceticism. He was “a spiritual Elder”, and many people used to ask him about spiritual matters. He lived a life of praxis but also of theoria, “continuously singing psalms and studying the sacred Scriptures”, and had often been found worthy of “divine visions” (2).

God revealed St Mary of Egypt to him because he was being troubled by proud thoughts. First God prompted him to go to the monastery beside the Jordan, where he found monks living the hesychastic life in every respect. “He saw Elders radiant in praxis and theoria”, especially during Great Lent (3-5). Later God revealed St Mary to him, and he was humbled to see how exalted her spiritual state was. We shall look at a few of the words and actions of Abba Zosimas that throw light on his spiritually refined personality.

When the Abba saw St Mary in the distance, without realising exactly what he was seeing, “he was, as it were, inspired by delight and overjoyed at the incredible sight, and he started running in the direction towards which the person he saw was hastening” (10). Zosimas was running, she was avoiding the encounter, and “they were both running to the same place”. The Abba besought her with tears and cries to stop so that he could see exactly who it was (11).

At this first meeting “awe and ecstasy of mind took hold of Zosimas” (12). He knelt down and “asked for a blessing as was customary, but she too prostrated herself” (13). When he saw St Mary praying lifted up above the ground, anguish seized him “and he said ‘Lord have mercy’ over and over again to himself as he lay on the ground” (15). Later “he flung himself down and tearfully grasped her feet” (16). As he listened to the account of how she repented, Zosimas “rushed to make a prostration” (31), but St Mary would not let him. When St Mary left, the Abba “knelt down and venerated the place where her feet had stood, and glorifying and thanking God” (32) he returned to the monastery.

As the Saint had asked him to come to give her Holy Communion, the Abba spent the whole year until that next meeting in hesychia, enraptured by what he had seen, and “he entreated God within himself to show him that dear face again” (33). He was impatient at having to wait so long (33).

Obviously Abba Zosimas was in an ecstatic state as he awaited his next meeting with the Saint.

After a year, when he went out to meet St Mary and she was late in arriving, Abba Zosimas “did not take his eyes off the desert as he waited to see what he so desired to see”. As time passed the Elder “began to weep, then to sigh, and raising his eyes to heaven he entreated God” not to deprive him of this meeting on account of his sins (34). When he saw her walking on the water he was “terrified”. As the account tells us, “he was seized by astonishment at the extraordinary sight” (35).

When he had given her Holy Communion and she was preparing to depart, Abba Zosimas said to her with simplicity: “Would that it were possible to follow you and always see your venerable face”. She asked him to bless her, and the Abba “touched the Saint’s feet and asked her to pray for the Church, the empire and for himself. Then, sighing and lamenting, he let her depart” (36).

He looked forward all the following year to seeing the Saint again, and hastened to reach “that extraordinary sight” (37). When he arrived at the appointed place and did not meet her, “he began to weep once more” and besought God to show him “Your [i.e. God’s] inviolate treasure”, “the angel incarnate” (37). Having found her dead, he cried for a long time, then “he recited the psalms appropriate to the time and the occasion, and said the funeral prayers” (38). In the presence of the lion, as we have seen already, “the Elder again washed the Saint’s feet with his tears, and earnestly entreating her now more than ever to pray for everyone, he covered her body with earth” (40).

All this clearly reveals the spiritual state of Abba Zosimas, because nobody can recognise a saint unless he too has God’s grace. We also see his sensitivity and tenderness of spirit. Through this revelation God cured his proud thoughts and he was humbled before the superiority of St Mary, the former harlot.

The way in which St Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, records this life also makes a profound impression. He writes sensitively, tenderly and contritely. This is evident throughout the biography, even in the prologue and epilogue.

He begins the prologue by reflecting that, although it is good to keep a king’s secret, it is glorious to proclaim the works of God. He feels it would be dangerous “to keep silent about God’s wondrous works” and wrong not to make good use of the gift of grace that he has received and to keep silent about “a sacred narrative” that he has heard about. This story, he says, was told to him by “a holy man, who from childhood had learnt to speak of divine things and to put them into practice”, and took place in his own generation. He assures us that he will not tell lies, nor will he be deceitful in matters that concern God. If anyone does not believe in the things he is revealing, may Christ be merciful to him (1).

In his epilogue he says that he has put down in writing what he heard by word of mouth. He has written as best he could, “preferring nothing to the truth”. He hopes God will ascribe the benefit that results from the account to its author, and count him worthy “to share the lot of those… in the same state and category as this blessed Mary”, together with all who have been pleasing to God “through theoria and praxis” (41).

He ends by saying:

“Let us too glorify God, the Eternal King of All, that He may vouchsafe also to us to obtain mercy on the Day of Judgment, in Christ Jesus our Lord” (41).

St Sophronios of Jerusalem was a Bishop with Orthodox experience and an Orthodox mind, who lived among saintly ascetics and instructed the laity in Orthodox doctrines. As well as everything else, this life shows what sort of person a true Bishop should be. This is also apparent from the fact that the Church recognised the great value of this book, preserved it for so many centuries, and even incorporated it into her worship.

i) Overcoming the Division between the Sexes

As we read the life of St Mary of Egypt, we see the spiritual relationship and communication between three persons: St Mary, who had formerly been a dissolute woman but attained deification; Abba Zosimas, the saintly hieromonk; and Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem, who described St Mary’s life with such love. We also observe the spiritual encounter between Abba Zosimas and St Mary. Thus we become aware of the spiritual phenomenon whereby gender is transcended through deification [theosis].

St Mary of Egypt actually demonstrated an astonishing manliness in her ascetic life. She practised asceticism beyond the limits not only of female nature, but of human nature in general, and became like an angel in human form. Carnal lusts were transformed by the intensity of longing for God and wholly dedicated to Him. Because she was living in a state of deification, although her body was naked she was not ashamed. She had attained to the condition of Eve in Paradise before the Fall.

Nevertheless, she was not bold when she met Abba Zosimas. Since the Abba wanted to see her face, she asked him to throw her a rag from his clothing, so that she could cover her natural frailty and thus receive his blessing. Her actual words to him were, “/ am a woman and naked, as you see, and the shame of my body is uncovered. But if you really want to give a sinful woman your blessing, throw me the rag you are wearing, that I may use it to conceal my female frailty, and turn towards you to be blessed” (12).

Abba Zosimas immediately discerned God’s grace dwelling within the Saint. Her face was radiant and she was lifted above the ground while she was praying. He responded swiftly (lest he forfeit her blessing) to the Saint’s request that he throw her at least a rag. Having taken off his ancient and torn garment, “he threw it to her, standing with his back towards her”. Once St Mary had put on the garment and covered “those parts of her body that particularly needed to be covered”, she turned and spoke to him (13).

By the power of Christ, both of them had transcended the ‘divisions’ and were living as persons. Their experience reflected in some respects the life of Adam and Eve in Paradise, but, because they were still subject to corruption and mortality, they behaved soberly, modestly, and without boldness.

St Maximos the Confessor speaks in his works about five divisions: between uncreated and created, between that which is perceived by the nous and that perceived by the senses, between heaven and earth, between Paradise and the inhabited world, and between male and female. Overcoming these divisions was possible for human nature, because it was related to the extremities of each division. It was linked to the earth by the body, to perceptible objects by the senses, to the spiritual world by the soul, and to the uncreated energy of God by the nous.

Man would gradually have made his way upwards, starting by overcoming the division between male and female. This would have come about through the dispassionate relationship between the two sexes. Subsequently, by means of a holy and virtuous life, he would have transcended the division between Paradise and the world. Through living like an angel he would have transcended the division between heaven and earth. By achieving equality with the angels in his manner of knowing he would have overcome the division between the world perceived by the senses and that perceived by the nous, and through love he would have been united with God and have overcome the division between created and uncreated nature.

Because of the Fall, however, man failed to transcend the division between male and female and naturally he then failed to go on and overcome the other divisions. Now, however, the Word of God has become man through His incarnation, and through His conception without seed by the Holy Mother of God He has overcome the division between male and female. Of course in Christ, all the divisions have been transcended, because He united human and divine nature in His Person28.

In the power of Christ and by his own struggle to commune with God in the Person of Jesus Christ, man can now transcend these divisions. We can see this in the relationship between St Mary of Egypt and Abba Zosimas. Both of them were in communion with Christ to differing degrees. Both were deified, and so had overcome the division between male and female, and they behaved as brother and sister in Christ. However, since they had not yet discarded the garments of skin – bodily corruption and mortality – and were afraid of being too bold, they behaved with mutual respect.

j) The Co-existence of Sacramental and Spiritual Priesthood

There is another interesting point to be stressed in the life of St Mary of Egypt. Both St Sophronios, as a holy Bishop, and Abba Zosimas, as a saintly hieromonk, greatly revered St Mary, who had attained deification by grace and had become “a true sanctuary of divine grace”. The blessed sacramental priesthood respected the spiritual priesthood, and the spiritual priesthood of St Mary revered the sacramental priesthood of Abba Zosimas.

The sacramental priesthood is a ministry that serves the faithful who are in the created temple and offer their prayers through created worship, in order that they may one day enter the uncreated Temple and pray in uncreated worship. The spiritual priesthood, however, ministers in the uncreated Temple and prays through noetic and uncreated worship. St Gregory of Sinai writes that noetic prayer is “the mystical rites celebrated by the nous”29. He also says that a heart that prays by the energy of the Holy Spirit is “a true sanctuary, even before the life to come”20. Elsewhere he refers to this “true sanctuary” as “a spiritual priesthood” that mystically offers up “the Lamb of God upon the noetic altar of the soul”, partakes of Him in communion and eats Him.

Both Abba Zosimas and St Mary of Egypt were such priests of divine grace, as was also St Sophronios of Jerusalem, who wrote this life in contrition of spirit. St Mary had absolute reverence for the priesthood of Abba Zosimas and asked for his prayers, and Abba Zosimas knelt humbly before the Saint, venerated the place where she had been standing and sought her prayers.

The life of St Mary of Egypt is amazing and full of extraordinary acts wrought by God’s grace. The main thing this life shows is the twofold love of that blessed woman, St Mary. There is her former impure love for men, and her hallowed, spiritual and divine love for God. It is the latter that is more significant. From her youth up she was completely given over to carnal desire, and afterwards she acquired intense love for God and devoted herself wholly to Him. She lived a quiet and hidden life, because great loves are secret and unutterable, since there are no words to express them. Anyone who loves God and is possessed by this “sharp and unbearable longing” for God is entirely given over to Him, because he does not want to share his heart among many loves.

The Church has chosen St Mary of Egypt as a model of a life of inspired repentance, spiritual struggle and progress towards deification. In her we see how someone can change from a sinner into a saint through participation in the purifying, illuminating and [glorifying] deifying energy of God. This is why the Great Canon includes troparia to St Mary, and the Church has laid down that her life should be read during the service of the Great Canon. The rubrics direct:

“On Wednesday evening, about the fourth hour of the night, we assemble in church and the priest says Blessed is our God…. After that we read the Six Psalms. …we chant Alleluia and the Hymns to the Holy Trinity in the Tone of the week, followed by the appointed kathisma from the Psalter, and then the sessional hymns to the Apostles and the Mother of God in the Tone of the week. Next we read the first of two parts of the Life of St Mary of Egypt. Psalm 50 is read, and then we begin to sing the Great Canon, slowly and with compunction. Before each troparion of the Canon we make the Sign of the Cross and bow three times, and we chant: Have mercy upon me, Ο God, have mercy upon me”.

The commemoration of St Mary is celebrated on 1st April each year, the day of her glorious repose. However, because of the importance of the life she led, the Church has also appointed that her feast be celebrated on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent, the last Sunday before Holy Week. In this way the Church wishes to demonstrate the measure and degree of our love for God and the manner of repentance.

Anyone who reads this life has a vivid sense of what happens at the end, after the burial of the blessed and hallowed body of St Mary of Egypt. St Sophronios writes:

“Then both of them departed. The lion went back into the depths of the desert like a lamb. Zosimas returned, blessing and praising Christ our God.” (40).

In accordance with these words, let us too either depart like sheep into the desert of hesychia and dispassion, casting off the ferocity of the passions; or else let us go back like Zosimas to the community of the brethren, blessing and praising God.

With the saintly hymnographer we proclaim:

“Thee we have as a pattern of repentance, all-holy Mary; pray to Christ that this gift may be conferred upon us: to praise thee in our hymns with faith and love”.

—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. Hesychia and Theology

 Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

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