Updated: Sep 25, 2019
St. Mary of Egypt exemplifies our vision of social justice for many reasons. Not only did she overcome profane human desire in search of spiritual fulfillment, she did so through acts of generosity and humility.
She was born in Egypt, and at the age of twelve began to live a life of debauchery in Alexandria, where she spent seventeen years in this perverted way of life. Driven by the adulterous flame of the flesh, she one day boarded a boat which was sailing for Jerusalem. Arriving at the Holy City, she wanted to enter the church in order to venerate the Honorable Cross, but some invisible force restrained her, preventing her from entering the church. In great fear, she gazed upon the icon of the All-holy Mother of God in the narthex and prayed that she be allowed to enter the church to venerate the Honorable Cross, all the while confessing her sinfulness, and promising that she would go wherever the All-pure One would direct her. She was then permitted to enter the church. —From the Prologue of Ohrid
Venerable Father Zosima, who witnessed St. Mary’s transformation, didn’t know what to expect when he left the comforts of his monastery to wander the desert.
The monks returned to the monastery on Palm Sunday, each having his own conscience as a witness of his ascetic struggles. It was a rule of the monastery that no one asked how anyone else had toiled in the desert. Abba Zosimas, according to the custom of the monastery, went deep into the desert hoping to find someone living there who could benefit him. He walked into the wilderness for twenty days and then, when he sang the Psalms of the Sixth Hour and made the usual prayers. Suddenly, to the right of the hill where he stood, he saw a human form. He was afraid, thinking that it might be a demonic apparition. Then he guarded himself with the Sign of the Cross, which removed his fear. He turned to the right and saw a form walking southward. The body was black from the blazing sunlight, and the faded short hair was white like a sheep’s fleece. Abba Zosimas rejoiced, since he had not seen any living thing for many days. The desert-dweller saw Zosimas approaching, and attempted to flee from him. Abba Zosimas, forgetting his age and fatigue, quickened his pace. When he was close enough to be heard, he called out, “Why do you flee from me, a sinful old man? Wait for me, for the love of God.” —From the Menaion
St. Mary proves that transformation is possible; and Venerable Zosima proves that the established Church often needs to step out of its comfort zone to witness and see to further Christian transformation. St. Mary is a great saint of Africa, the ancestral land of Black people, and Zosima is like the global Ukrainian Church which must be driven to action, even if it means working in an apparently barren landscape: food deserts, war zones, spaces of environmental spoil.
Formally, St. Mary is commemorated as the patron of those penitent. Indeed, every barren landscape, like death, is instigated by human sin. Our fellowship calls for penance among those who abandoned their neighbors. The history of many Eastern Christian Churches in America, including Ukrainian communities, is one where the social and economic “American dream” often took precedent to the Gospel’s call to love one’s neighbor, visit the sick, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry.
While Eastern Christian migrants to the West have more-or-less prospered in the century since their first immigration, their fellow Americans haven’t been privy to the same privileges they fought for. Instead of serving their neighbors in the way Christ calls for, many have largely participated in “white flight” out of the urban centers their immigrant predecessors first settled in.
Because of America’s complex relationship between race, class, economics, and immigration, the kind of white flight that descendants of Ukrainian and other migrants profited from has led to the very same kind of humiliation Ukrainians fought against on the Euromaidan. St. Mary of Egypt offers a practical call to universal human dignity and love despite the suffering of Ukrainians in Ukraine and Americans in America.