St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of Mary of Egypt, 2 April 2017
They said to him, “We are able” (Mark 10.39).
Far away, far away, faint, scraping sound. Pebbles tossed against a brick wall, but … no, that is not it. Smooth waves lapping a shoreline. Ebb and flow, ebb and flow. Handfuls of dust shaping the sandstone into clusters of crystals called a desert rose. ‘Father Zosima’, you hear some distant voice. Leaning over the Gospel and small, painted wooden Cross, in the chapel where you hear confessions, you bend low. ‘What with four screaming kids, that goddam receptionist job, and a husband who’s always pissed off his skull, when the heck am I supposed to find time to pray?’ Your wise words echo distantly, over her head. Next, you figure. ‘I …I’ve been … looking at those … images online again … and I, well, I …’ At nineteen, the closest he ever gets to a girlfriend. Pathetic words fly past your ears. ‘Tell ya the truth, Father Zos’, a gruff, sixtyish voice grates. ‘All I really did was, well, you know, “edit” my tax returns … and well, smack my fat, ugly slut of a wife and … ah, yes, the slice of cheese. Friday, wasn’t it?’ Far away in your thoughts, dust blows over crystal petals. Chilly laughter lost on desert winds. ‘I’m basically a good kid’, boasts a doe-eyed beauty with alabaster skin. ‘Never drink, never do crack, never … well, you know, Father’. Far from never neverland, you hear windswept sand scraping on stones. Night winds whipping dust into petty lists, point-scoring selfies of do this, not that. Passing for …
The image that you have seen of one who truly repents. Mind melted, soul stripped bare.
In bare-backed pews bereft of parishioners, no one sits waiting. All gone, Father Zosima. Had you cushioned the pews … ‘Cushion the Gospel’, a voice perched on your shoulder scrapes your eardrum. Whisper them sweet nothings. A little pious how-to, with a reward. ‘No prostitutes, please’, the receptionist-housewife entreats, ‘there are children present’. No starving Lazarus at the gate. No stinking Lazarus in a shroud. First rule of commerce, Father. Give the customer what she wants. ‘If I want to marry a Methodist’ – or a Muslim? ‘who the heck are you to say No?’ Now no one is left. Now and then, a so-called penitent. A bored, bitter nine-to-five mum. A secret wife-beater. A flirt. Pitiful, sticky fumblings in the front of a screen. Do they know what it truly means to repent? Do they imagine the cost? ‘You expect far too much, Zosima’, says the bishop on the phone. His chief priestly voice mildly mocking, akin to the being perched on your brain. ‘Give them whatever they want’. And … conscience? When you dunk a baby, dab a drop of chrism on a brow, or hear long lists of petty misdemeanors, do you not ask: ‘Are you able to follow Christ?’ ‘Yeah, sure’, you hear. ‘We’re able’. ‘Can you stand in the desert alone’, you long to ask, ‘until the sun melts away your last excuse, the sand strips away your last rag, and the night wind lays your soul bare to itself?’ You never ask, of course. You are tired of banging the brick wall. Play the role, Father Zosima. Black-robed, big-bellied bouzouki-player, belching Alleluias, roasted lamb’s fat and honeyed Greek dripping from your beard.
In your heart, you cannot forget the distant echo. The exact image of her who repents.
Repent? What does it even mean? Perching on your shoulder, the subtle serpent laughs. ‘Do you renounce The Enemy?’ you ask in baptism. Inside your brain stem, Satan smiles. ‘Do you renounce all ancient and modern heresies?’ Really? Come off it, Father Zosima. Whisper them sweet nothings, the poor weaklings. Today they promise. Tomorrow leave. Can you not hear my voice on the night winds? Feel my scourge on your back, my spittle in your face? Yield, priest. Everyone does. Who do you think you are … to withstand me? ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?’ you hear a firm female voice. ‘Never give him what he wants’. ‘What does he want?’ you ask. ‘What you have and he lacks …
‘Your integrity’. ‘Is that you, Mother Mary?’ you ask. Taking its shape from a distant echo a frail, firm face. Darkened by sun and wind. She who knows what it means to repent.
Far away across the Jordan, windswept sand scrapes on stones. Dust lining your monk’s habit, your staff, your bread bag, leaves you little to eat and less to drink. As you begin to faint, you spy atop the surging dune a living skeleton. Burnt black by the unrelenting sun. Stripped of its last rags of modesty. ‘Was I not once the doe-eyed beauty of Alexandria?’ ask the dry bones, wrapped in your traveller’s cloak. ‘Did I sell this alabaster body? I did not sell. I took. An infant in its cradle, a silk-skinned boy. A bellowing bull. A corpse. On the steps of the Holy Sepulchre, I lifted my eyes. Could I “take” her too, the red-mantled Mother and gold-mantled Child? “Go, Mary, my sister”, she said. “Go into the wasteland where no flesh can live. Sun, storm, and lonely night wind will wear away the stone that is your heart. Then will you find glorious rest”. These forty-seven years, no eye sees me. Night winds calling “Mary, Mary”, until the mind melts and the soul forgets itself in God’. As her body rises, featherweight, above the dunes, the scraping echo of the sands burns itself into your mind. Wind, and sand, and night, scraping everything away. Everything …
Except integrity. At the sight of her image, the chilling laughter is lost on desert winds.
Beloved in Christ: in the ebb and flow of sand, sweeping over the deserts east of Jordan, trickling down the hourglass of centuries – what is our sin? A tiny tragedy of self-betrayal. A few million stray grains mixing with crystal clusters of gypsum and baryte. Flattening on an axis, fanning outwards into glittering, scintillating shapes. A rosette resembling a rose. But a desert rose crumbles easily. A handful of dust cast into the ocean of Mercy.
To repent is no point-scoring self-portrait. It is a portrait in which you yourself disappear.
You are the true desert rose. Woman of the city, whose name few if any remember. Once, your alabaster body glistened with oil of Alexandria. Fragrant perfumes from the banks of the Indus and crystal gems from the Abyssinian hills. Then you broke the alabaster flask. For forty-seven years, wetting the Master’s feet with weeping, wiping them with your hair. Your faith is not what you take on but what you give up. Not a feeling but a burning forge. Not a soothing song but a sacrifice. A sacrifice that makes you, and us, whole.
Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us!