St Mary of Egypt, oh my!

by , under church, readings, services

Matins with the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete and the reading of the life of St Mary of Egypt.

Every year I tell myself I shouldn’t go to this service and most years I go anyway. I griped about it in 2005 and 2009, and briefly in 2011; I’ll use the two 2005 posts, the 2009 post, and a post about the Great Canon that I can’t reconstruct the date of (because all of those posts went down with the last-but-one server) as notes for this one.

So why do I go? Mostly out of solidarity with Choirmistress, who would otherwise have to sing and read most of the service on her own. We had two more choir members this time but they left at 10:30 to catch the 10:48 train, when there was still an hour to go. And there’s also bragging rights: four and a half hours is nothing to sneeze at. It may not make me feel any better, spiritually or otherwise, but it does make me feel brave when I go and accomplished when I come home. Perhaps the wrong reason, but so be it.

Why wouldn’t I want to go? The Great Canon, for one. It always has me fuming. I realise that medicine is bitter, that it’s designed to make one uncomfortable, to take people by the shoulders and shake them up, but this is probably not the right way to shake me up, when I’m prone to being overly contrite already. Fr T actually advised me to stay away from the service one year because of that.

There has never been a sin or act or vice in life that I have not committed, O Saviour. I have sinned in mind, word and choice, in purpose, will and action, as no one else has ever done.

Oh? Really? I wonder how I can have missed that. And if it applies to each person who hears this individually, the church must be an abyss of vice and I thought there was at least some virtue in the parish. Also, isn’t it sinful pride to brag about being worse than everybody else?

David once joined sin to sin, for he mixed adultery with murder, yet he immediately offered double repentance. But you, my soul, have done things more wicked without repenting to God.

… if my soul did things more wicked than adultery and murder, it did so without notifying me.

I do accept that any sin of mine, however insignificant, is more relevant for me than any sin, however much objectively worse, committed by someone else, especially in the context of the Great Canon, but it still makes me bristle. Being dragged to repentance kicking and screaming is one thing; being dragged to repentance for what I didn’t do is another.

Most troparia are of a more bearable form, as examples and/or warnings: “[Old Testament Dude*] did [some bad thing] and was punished; you, my soul, take care that you don’t do that so you don’t meet the same fate.” Or else: “[Old Testament Dude] did [some good thing] and God rewarded him; but you, my soul, will not get that reward because you don’t show the same virtue.”

* Not many Old Testament Dudettes in evidence: Eve at the very beginning, Leah and Rachel, the Shunammite woman (see below) and possibly a couple of others.

But this:

The Shunammite woman of old with right good will entertained the righteous man. But you, my soul, have taken into your house neither stranger nor traveller. Therefore you will be cast out of the bridal hall wailing.

Well, I may be cast out of the bridal hall wailing –perhaps because I forgot to bring my wedding garment— but probably not for that, because it’s about the only biblically good thing that our household tends to do with any regularity.

Every year there are a few troparia that speak to me because those are apparently what I need at that moment:

Do not be overcome with despair, O my soul, for thou hast heard of the faith of the woman of Canaan, and how her daughter was healed by the Word of God. Cry out like her from the depth of thy heart, ‘O Son of David, save me’, as she once cried to Christ.

“Overcome with despair”, yes, that’s the greatest risk for me. However hard I try, it’s never good enough. This is a lesson I so must not learn.

And then there’s the life of St Mary of Egypt. Most of it is a “my sin is worse than yours!” contest, tying in well with St Andrew’s humblebragging. The most blatant example is the scene where the monk (narrator of the story) meets the saint in the desert and they keep going “no, you should bless me, I am unworthy!” at each other. More than forty years of penance for seventeen years of depravity seems a bit over the top, too, especially if the penance takes the form of the absolute ascesis that St. Mary practiced. Perhaps she didn’t believe that she was strong enough for a normal life once she’d cast out her besetting demons, and/or merely replaced one addiction with another.

As for the depravity itself: Mary, in her youth, was inordinately fond of sex, and she gave her body to anyone and everyone to indulge that craving. She tells the monk that her sin was worse because she didn’t ask any money for it. I’m not sure that selling your body isn’t worse than giving people the use of it for free, especially if you do it for your own pleasure. Okay, she was a slut, she did it indiscriminately, but that isn’t bad in itself as long as it affects only oneself. But she also forced herself on people who weren’t inclined to begin with; yes, that’s bad. Without any love or even friendship for her partners. It’s not that sex is a bad thing, even for enjoyment only; but an important part of the enjoyment, for me at least, comes from love for the co-indulgent.

I’m coming to feel that any human interaction without love is sinful. (Not romantic love, but agape, the selfless love-thy-neighbour kind of love.) Perhaps that’s the lesson I have to learn from the life of St. Mary of Egypt, rather than the lesson it seems to teach: the only joy worth the trouble is what you squeeze out of the bare rock, painfully, by utter asceticism. Every bit of fun that’s easier to obtain is intrinsically sinful.

I must admit that this year the story was more bearable than many another year, more like fantasy and less like unwelcome teaching, because we had it read to us in English. Choirmistress and Fr T hadn’t been able to find the book it was in — it wasn’t Volume IVa as they thought, but IIIb, and they’d overlooked it at home. While I was reading the Six Psalms I decided to run upstairs as soon as someone else was doing the next reading and find at least something. The closest I could come in physical books was the April volume of the lives-of-the-saints book, and online I couldn’t find the story in Dutch* but only in English. When I told that to Choirmistress she said “English is all right!” so I ran back upstairs and we printed it and I got it into Fr T’s hands at the very last moment, when he was already explaining the problem, the lives-of-the-saints book in his hand.

* And of course, this morning when I was exchanging mail with a choirmate about something completely different she told me where to find the text in Dutch: on the site of the only likely parish I hadn’t tried. Duckduckgo doesn’t find it, perhaps because it’s a PDF and it’s not called Mary of Egypt.

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