St. Mary of Egypt and the myth of “I Could Never”

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St. Mary of Egypt is probably my favorite saint. I was instantly sucked into her story in a way I absolutely could not explain, especially because as a convert, I was a little squeamish about the idea of connecting with any particular saint to begin with. But immediately when I read her life, I openly wept these, like, super emotional tears.

I had no idea why. It’s not as if I found anything at all in common with her (I spent my youth as a very good little girl; St. Mary was a prostitute. Then I did what everyone my age was doing–got married and had babies; she abandoned her whole life and lived in repentance in the desert). But now, seven or eight years later, I understand.

Sometimes the saints single you out, and, since they live outside time, can say before we do–Ah, yes. I know you; I know this struggle. I’ll pray for you until you understand me, too. Because you’re gonna.

The myth of “I could never”

We read her story every year on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, and it’s perfect timing. Just when we’re about to get all impressed with ourselves because of our great asceticism and spiritual efforts this Lent, then we hear her story and we’re all #nevermind.

St. Mary had run away from home at the age of 12 and eventually turned to prostitution not for money, but for fun. She lived this life for 17 years, exercising and enjoying her sexual power over people. Finally, she jumped on board a ship that was headed to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. When her group arrived at the church, she found herself physically unable to enter. She realized after some time that it was her need for repentance that kept her outside. So, she asked forgiveness outside, at the icon of the Mother of God, and asked for protection as she lived out her repentance.

She escaped her life of lasciviousness to the desert, and lived alone for decades. St. Zosimas stumbled upon her toward the end of her life, and it is his account that gives us her story. She told him that after quitting her life, her temptations were so overwhelming that many times, she would lie in the sand face-down, refusing even the slightest movement lest she fail in her resolution to be made new.

Every year I hear this story, and every year, I smirk a little in my head and think, “My gosh. I could never. If the demons wanted to knock me off the right path, a slight breeze would do the trick.”

This year, when I thought this, it reminded me of so many, many conversations I’ve had.

“Oh, Maura, I could never do all those dietary restrictions. I would go insane.”

“He’s so lucky to have a warrior mom. I’m so selfish/shy/not eloquent/whimsical/insert trait here, that I could not be as effective a parent.”

“I could never do the long-distance commute you do for his therapy.”

It’s not like these comments make me mad. I actually appreciate the sentiment, because I do perceive the intention to be more like “I am amazed by this skill you have, and I am not as skilled,” which is overwhelmingly kind.  But if you’ve ever said anything like this to me, you’ll know I openly disagree. Because #1) I don’t often tell stories of my spectacular failures, and #2) you could, and you totally would.

See, when we compare our own lack of skill with a skill someone else has practiced, what we really say is,

“God built something into your character that makes you uniquely able to achieve a level of skill or character that others cannot.”

And that’s just bad theology. God doesn’t give out soul-advantages to a privileged few.

Here’s what: any of us would take gluten out of our kiddo’s diet if we had to (aka, CHILD WON’T STOP PUKING), and we’d make it work. Not because that sounds fun, or even because we have a picture in our minds of how it’s even remotely possible, but because we have to. It doesn’t mean we started out brave or super knowledgeable. On the contrary, we struggled and kicked the wall like a child when we really wanted a pizza and couldn’t order one. We cried a lot and yelled a lot and made a whole crap ton of bad food. But we eventually got there, because we had to.

And once St. Mary had wrestled with that information–that her whole life was wrong and to have any hope for real intimacy with Christ, she needed to toss it all–she must have been overwhelmed. Maybe she thought her efforts would make her look like a total idiot, or like someone from her old life might see her and say “this isn’t you.” Maybe she thought, “I could never.”

But she did. Through the constant, moment-to-moment grace of God, she did.

And if she can, we can.

Really.

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