My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ God,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE.
ON THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE GREAT FAST OUR HOLY ORTHODOX
CHRISTIAN CHURCH COMMEMORATES OUR VENERABLE MOTHER
MARY OF EGYPT,
The spirit was carried off, the flesh was decamped long ago;
conceal, O earth, the mortified bones of Mary.
An Abridged Life of Saint Mary of Egypt
Mary, our Venerable Mother, hailed from Egypt. She flourished during the years of the great Justinian I, Emperor from 527-565. Her biography was recorded in Greek by Saint Sophronios of Jerusalem (Patriarch from 634-638 A.D.) The Fifth Sunday in the Great Fast was formerly dedicated to the Parable and the Rich Man and Lazaros [Luke 16:19-31].
There was a certain elder in one of the monasteries of Palestine, a priest of holy life and speech, who, from childhood, had been brought up in monastic ways and customs. The elder’s name was Zosimas, a man of the right Orthodox Faith. After leading an exemplary monastic life, at the age of fifty-three he began to be tormented with thoughts, which were saying to him, "IS THERE ANY MONK ON EARTH WITH WHOM I MAY BECOME ACQUAINTED WHO COULD TEACH ME ANYTHING NEW, OR WHO HAS THE POWER TO HELP ME IN ANY OTHER FORM OF ASCETIC DISCIPLINE THAT I DO NOT KNOW OR HAVE NEVER PRACTICED? Is there anyone else leading A CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE in the desert who has not faltered and has fulfilled all aspects of this ascetical conduct of life? Then again, is there anyone in the wilderness who has excelled me in practice or contemplation? [It was not as if he thought himself superior to all; for if someone had exceeded hi in struggles, he wished to learn from such a one.]
An Angel of God appeared to him and said, "Zosimas, valiantly hast thou exerted thyself, as far as this is within the power of man; and thou hast successfully gone through the ascetic course. But there is no man who has attained perfection. Before thee lies unknown struggles, greater than those that thou has accomplished. That thou mayest know how many other ways lead to salvation, leave thy native land, like the renowned Patriarch Abraham, and go to the monastery by the river Jordan. There thou shalt discover others who have achieved greater feats of excellence."
Zosimas did as he was bidden. Zosimas met with the Egoumenos (Abbot) and after an interview, he was received into the monastery. He observed elders (gerontes) proficient both in action and the contemplation of God, aflame in spirit, working for the Lord. Their inexhaustible food was the word of God, while they sustained their bodies on bread and water–that is, as much as their love for God allowed them. Seeing these feats, Zosimas was greatly edified and prepared for the struggle that lay before him.
After many days, the time of the Great Fast was approaching. The fathers had a special tradition, which they observed at the commencement of Forgiveness Sunday. After the priest celebrated the Holy Liturgy, and all partook of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ, the brotherhood entered the refectory and ate a little fasting fare. All, afterward, gathered inside the church, where they prayed earnestly and made prostrations. The elders, then, kissed one another and asked forgiveness. Each one made a prostration to the Egoumenos and asked for his blessing and prayers for the struggle that lay before him. After this, the gates of the monastery were thrown open. Most of them went out into the desert and crossed the river Jordan. Each departing farther took with him as much as he could, or wanted, in the way of food, according to the needs of his body. In this way, they spent the whole of the fast and used to return to the monastery a week before Pascha (the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ), that is, on Palm Sunday.
Father Zosimas did the same as the other fathers of that brotherhood. He, too, went afar off, deep into the desert. He, however, harbored a secret hope in his breast. He yearned to find some desert dweller with whom he could satisfy his thirst and longing for further knowledge and instruction. Abba (Father) Zosimas wandered on, tirelessly, as if hurrying to some definite destination. He had already walked for twenty days. On that day, as he was wont on the previous days, he paused at noon, turned to the east, and began chanting and reciting the customary prayers of the Office of the Sixth Hour. He used to break his journey, thus, at fixe hours of the day, to rest a little, to chant psalms, and to pray on bent knees.
As he sang thus, without his eyes from the heavens, in his peripheral vision there appeared the shadowy illusion of a human body. The being appeared naked, with skin darkened as if burned up by the heat of the sun. The hair on the head was white as wool; it was not long but fell just below the neck. Zosimas was so filled with joy unspeakable at beholding a human form that he ran after the figure. In the midst of the pursuit, however, the form fled from him. Undaunted, he gave chase. Though he closed the gap between them, he became exhausted and was unable to run any further. Meanwhile, that fleeing figure kept moving, descending into the wadi and climbing up again on the other side of a dry river bank. Zosimas cried out to the form until he finally heard a woman’s voice, saying, "Forgive me for Jesus Christ’s sake, but I cannot turn toward thee and show thee my face, Father Zosimas. For I am a woman and naked, as thou seest, with the uncovered shame of my body. But, if thou shouldest like to fulfill one wish of a sinful woman, throw me thy cassock so that I can cover my body and can turn to thee and ask for thy blessing." Here, terror seized Zosimas, for he heard that she called him by name. He perceived that she was manifestly blessed with the gift of foresight.
He at once obliged her and removed his outer mantle, old and tattered as it was. He hurled it in her direction, turning away his glance as he did so. She retrieved the garment from the desert floor and was able to cover at least a part of her body. Then she turned to Zosimas and said, "Why dost thou wish, Abba (Father) Zosima, to see a sinful woman? What shouldest thou wish to hear or learn from me, O thou who hast not shrunk from such great struggles? Why hast thou put thyself to so much trouble now?" Zosimas cast himself on the ground and asked for her blessing. She likewise bowed down before him. And thus, for a long while, they lay on the ground prostrate and asked for each other’s blessing. And one would alone could be heard from both: "BLESS ME!" After a long while the woman said to the elder, "Abba Zosimas, it is thou who must give blessings and pray. Thou art dignified by the Priesthood. As a priest of the Most High, thou hast, for many years, been standing before the Holy Altar and offering the Sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries (Sacraments). Thou has been praying for the forgiveness of sin of others. For this reason, do thou bless me." This flung Zosimas into even greater terror. He was bathed in perspiration and found it difficult to enunciate his words. His heart was beating rapidly and he was gasping. He sighed, as tears welled up in his eyes, and then said, "O mother, filled with the Spirit, by thy mode of life, it is evident that thou livest with God and hast died in the world. O Saint of God, THE GIFT OF CLAIRVOYANCE GRANTED TO THEE IS EVIDENT. For thou hast not only addressed me by my name but also thou hast recognized that I am a priest, though thou hast never seen me before this day. But since grace is manifested not by rank or office, but by spiritual temper or way of life, thou oughtest to give me thy blessing for the sake of the Lord and pray for one who requires thy help."
Then, giving way before the elder’s persistence, the woman said: "May God, the Holy One, Who loves salvation for the sinners, may He bless thee!" Zosimas answered, "Amen." Both, then, rose to their feet. Then the holy woman asked the elder, "Why has thou come, O man of God, to me who am so sinful?" Why dost thou wish to converse with a woman not only bereft of clothing but also wanting in every virtue? Though I know one thing, O Father Zosimas the grace of the Holy Spirit has brought thee to render me a service in time. God has brought thee to this point. But tell me, father, how are the Christian people living? And the world at large and the emperors, how are they faring? How is the Church of God proceeding and being guided? "All is well by thy prayers, O venerable mother! Christ has granted stable peace to all. But still, the unworthy petition of an old man and pray fo the whole world and for me who am a sinner, so that my wanderings in the desert may not be fruitless." She answered, "Thou who art a priest, Abba Zosimas, it is thou who oughtest to beseech God for my sake and on behalf of the world. This is thy calling. But inasmuch as thou hast commanded this of me, I will gladly do what thou has bidden me." (Source: The Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church)
(To be continued)
"Glory Be To GOD
– Saint John Chrysostomos
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With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia (Ministry(,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God
+ Father George