Monday, April 02, 2012

St. Mary of Egypt, penitent...



Hold the applause, please.

Today is the day I have been accustomed to commemorate St. Mary of Egypt, yet depending on where you are in the Catholic world, her feast is observed on the 5th Sunday of Easter, or April 1, 2, or 3.  It doesn't matter to me - I think of her today.

Mary of Egypt is a good patron for many modern day sinners like myself who have been given over to hedonistic excess at one time or another - looking for love in all the wrong places, and so on.  A prostitute, she went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and made her services available on the way - sort of like adding an advertising app to her blog on which she promotes her conversion.  The lady just wanted to be loved, don't we all.  (Actually, she would often 'do it' for free, as she liked the sex.)

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mary the Egyptian experienced a stunning conversion and fled into the desert to do penance.  She lived in solitude and silence, and chose not to keep a conversion diary, so we have little to go on as far as her life of penance goes.  Giving up her means of making a living and not cashing in on her conversion story proved costly - thus she went about the desert precincts naked, for decades, barely recognizable as woman or man, accepting the abundance of what little the desert had to offer... 
Approximately one year before her death, she recounted her life to St. Zosimas of Palestine who encountered her in the desert. When he unexpectedly met her in the desert, she was completely naked and almost unrecognizable as human. She asked Zosimas to toss her his mantle to cover herself with, and then she narrated her life's story to him, manifesting marvellous clairvoyance. She asked him to meet her at the banks of the Jordan on Holy Thursday of the following year, and bring her Holy Communion. When he fulfilled her wish, she crossed the river to get to him by walking on the surface of the water and received Holy Communion, telling him to meet her again in the desert the following Lent. The next year, Zosimas travelled to the same spot where he first met her, some twenty day's journey from his monastery, and found her lying there dead. According to an inscription written in the sand next to her head, she had died on the very night he had given her Communion and had been somehow miraculously transported to the place he found her, and her body preserved incorrupt. He buried her body with the assistance of a passing lion. On returning to the monastery he related her life story to the brethren, and it was preserved among them as oral tradition until it was written down by St. Sophronius. - Sorry, I took this from WIKI, although it is fairly accurate.

Conversions can be instantaneous, but they are ordinarily, only the beginning of a long process of purification.  Interestingly, when Our Lady instructed the penitent to go yonder across the Jordan into the desert, she said, "There you will find peace."  She never said happiness.  Today everyone seems to look for happiness and witnesses to their 'courage'.  Yet only true happiness can be had in heaven... at least that was what the Catholic Church taught when I was little.  As we once memorized from the Baltimore Catechism:
Question: Why did God make you?
Answer: God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.
Today however, the prosperity gospel seems to have influenced American Catholics, who freely promote and sell their conversion stories.  Some, like Fr. Corapi, fail to understand that conversion is only the beginning of a long process... 'as long and as hard as life itself'.  (Angela of Foligno)

18 comments:

  1. I've experienced the emphasis on happiness in regards to vocational discernment too. Numerous times I've heard it said that "God wants happy priests." Many times I've wondered to myself where Jesus actually speaks about happiness and, if at all, in what context He does so.

    I belive there is a confusion between happiness, on the one hand, and joy and peace (which are gifts available to us even now through the Holy Spirit and conformity with God's will) on the other.

    In addition, I believe there is often a sense of self-seeking in the idea of happiness being linked do directly with a vocation or with God's will. This is not limited to discernment of religious life or priesthood either. Marriage may be THE most misunderstood of all when it comes to this sort of thing. JPII in TOB talks continuously about marriage as a self-gift. It is not about fulfilment, understood rightly, first and foremost. So much talk about finding the perfect partner or spouse is evidence of this kind of mentality; the primary focus is no longer love, devotion, fidelity, trying to image Christ's love for the Church, but some happy-ever-after narrative that, like much of Christian speak today, has forgotten the Cross and the nature of love.

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  2. Thanks Patrick - good comment.

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  3. Yes, but how do affects play into it all? Should someone seek religious life even though they aren't drawn to it, out of fear that not doing so will get them in trouble with God? Like "I'm not drawn to it, but it's the better path, so maybe I can't make God happy or get to heaven unless that's the path I take."

    Seriously, for my own life, I am in no way drawn to religious life and shudder at the thought of being a priest (not because it's bad, but because of the responsibility before God). Yet I always wonder if it is "okay" for me to pray for a good marriage, since marriage is God's least favorite vocation.

    Likewise, I of all people know the tragedy of marrying without really knowing the sacrifice involved (well, I WAS willing, but she wasn't), but while we're not looking for self-fulfillment in the first place, certainly a certain degree of attraction, of compatibility in interests and temperament, and of affection should be present when choosing a partner.

    I mean that you shouldn't wait for the perfect person to come along and excite all your emotions, but you also shouldn't marry someone you feel no affection for or attraction to, even if they are a perfect Catholic "on paper", right? Certainly people marry the partner they think they will be happy with - wouldn't it be a false sense of sacrifice to just marry someone who makes you unhappy or physically repulses you just because it'd be less satisfying?

    Certainly the desire that leads one to the "self-gift" is usually driven by a desire to be with the beloved and give one's all for his or her sake. I still love my wife who divorced me, and would take her back at any time, not because she didn't hurt me badly or because she deserves it, but because I have a strong desire to see her happy. But I'm also not going to pretend I don't want to be happy with her.

    Besides, my sins are many, why do I even have a "right" to want a happy marriage - I certainly don't deserve it.

    Maybe I should just seek what I know will make me miserable ... :|

    Patrick ... you always have something thoughtful to say, don't you :)

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  4. And Terry, I think there can also be an opposite extreme: fleeing happiness out of a false sense that God wants us to be miserable in this life, period.

    I guess He wants us to do His will. some will end up happier in this life than others. Some who end up happy will become complacent, and some who end up in misery will despair.

    I understand that God's ways are not my own, but there's a serious temptation to think that God wants me to be miserable, or that I would be doing wrong to seek happiness (as long as what I am seeking is morally right, of course).

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  5. Oh, and Patrick - when choosing a marriage partner, there is certainly nothing wrong with choosing qualities in a person which we may, upon examination, find lacking in ourselves. After all, the path we take is often that which will help us move forward.

    I am hopelessly disorganized, prone to laziness, prone to despair and distrust of God, prone to anxiety, etc. If I were to ever find myself seeking a marriage partner again, I would certainly look for someone who I know would not allow me to wallow in these negative traits - and I'd look for someone whose faith is stronger than my own. My parents are extremely complementary, and I know they both sought that out in each other.

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  6. Hi Mercury,
    I can share my thoughts based on my own (ongoing) experiences with discernment and with the contact I’ve had with others who’ve considered these questions and/or discerned seriously themselves:
    “Should someone seek religious life even though they aren't drawn to it, out of fear that not doing so will get them in trouble with God? Like "I'm not drawn to it, but it's the better path, so maybe I can't make God happy or get to heaven unless that's the path I take." “
    No—God does not draw someone who is sincerely seeking Him and already on the path of growing in holiness (or at least desiring and striving to) through fear, but instead through peace. And, celibacy or virginity for the Kingdom—to be distinguished from the religious life—being the “better” path in another sense (as in, it more directly resembles the type of “spousal” relationship we will all have with God in heaven) does not at all imply that, for each individual, it is necessarily the better path for their life now. Discernment is ultimately a matter of the heart and so finds one’s vocation conclusively in prayer rather than abstract logical deduction regarding states of life.
    “Seriously, for my own life, I am in no way drawn to religious life and shudder at the thought of being a priest (not because it's bad, but because of the responsibility before God). Yet I always wonder if it is "okay" for me to pray for a good marriage, since marriage is God's least favorite vocation.”
    I think this way of thinking is confused. First, praying for anything we know to be objectively good (such as marriage, let alone a good marriage) is “okay” assuming that one’s fundamental disposition of heart in prayer is always: “nevertheless, Thy will be done.” There has to be an abandonment there, a holy indifference like St. Ignatius of Loyola spoke of. And God’s will is not necessarily what is (seemingly) “harder” or “more difficult” or even what may necessarily be contrary to our own views about what is best or what we desire.
    Secondly, marriage being God’s least favorite vocation is a category confusion, I think. It’s an assertion that is unfounded in the first place—there is no “competition” between vocations. They are different in nature, of course, and as noted above, one allows those who live it a more direct resemblance now to the kind of life we will all have with God in heaven—those married now and those not will all be “married” to God forever ultimately. But it does not follow that marriage is somehow second rate morally speaking or spiritually speaking because marriage is willed by God and men and women are called to it, and, in my view, that is not generic only but specific—some are called to celibacy and others are called to married.
    The fullness of this is laid out in the Theology of the Body. By going back to the beginning and by speaking about our ultimate end, JPII has given, in my opinion, a way of understanding the vocations of both marriage and celibacy/virginity that cuts through all the anxiousness about competition between them or God simply “putting up” with the married while delighting in the non-married. “Theology of the Body in Simple Language” by Sam Torode has been a very helpful resource for me.

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  7. Terry wrote:

    "Mary of Egypt is a good patron for many modern day sinners like myself who have been given over to hedonistic excess at one time or another - looking for love in all the wrong places, and so on."

    Servus said: "AMEN"

    Ever since I "discovered" St Mary of Egypt I have taken her as my own patron (among others). Her life spoke to me. One thing that has puzzled me about her and some of the other desert mothers and fathers is how did they fulfill their "Sunday obligation"? I mean I guess even if I was called to be a recluse I would still need to be near a chapel, church or oratory so that I could receive the Blessed Sacrament as often as possible (without which I know I would be unable to persevere in grace). So I just wonder about that.

    Mercury, I think you either have a vocation to the religious life or not. The only way to know is to try it. These desert mothers and fathers had a different calling so it seems. They gave up everything for the kingdom. In religion you have the consolation of other like minded souls around you but as a desert recluse you are completely alone with GOD.

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  8. “…certainly a certain degree of attraction, of compatibility in interests and temperament, and of affection should be present when choosing a partner.”

    I agree completely. I was speaking more about the fundamental disposition of one’s heart when approaching the vocation, how the understand the dynamics of it and what its fundamental call is. If one is, at bottom, setting out in search of how happy one’s spouse can make him or her over and above how they can love their spouse, I think there is a problem.

    “I mean that you shouldn't wait for the perfect person to come along and excite all your emotions, but you also shouldn't marry someone you feel no affection for or attraction to, even if they are a perfect Catholic "on paper", right?”

    Right. Because looking for the “perfect Catholic on paper” could well be just another form of self-seeking. If person X fulfills my list of 2,126 requirements that my future spouse must meet, then maybe I’ll give him or her some more dates. There are many Scribes and Pharisees on Catholicmatch : )

    “Certainly people marry the partner they think they will be happy with - wouldn't it be a false sense of sacrifice to just marry someone who makes you unhappy or physically repulses you just because it'd be less satisfying?”

    Yes. The point is not to take on a spouse like he or she is a hair shirt. Focusing on the penitential possibilities inherent in a marriage as well as the maximum possible “fulfillment” value both miss the mark, I think. They are items to consider in discernment, but neither of them determine the vocation. Sadly, I think, when it comes to marriage discernment, people do not pray enough; they do not take it as seriously as they would discernment for priesthood or religious life. More people should ask God—and to ask along with the one they’re dating—whether God is calling them together to marriage. Marriage actually has the unique benefit (because of its nature) where two people can discern alongside one another since one’s vocation is of course intrinsically and necessarily bound up with the vocation of the other.

    “Certainly the desire that leads one to the "self-gift" is usually driven by a desire to be with the beloved and give one's all for his or her sake.”

    I think this is exactly right because it is exactly how God is: He sacrifices because He first of all loves and desires communion with the beloved. The focus is on the beloved ultimately, as you note, which is what I was getting at by contrasting it with the self-fulfillment mentality. These things are not either/or, but instead ultimately matters in the heart that each person should examine for his or her self—again, this is simply the TOB simplified.

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  9. “Besides, my sins are many, why do I even have a "right" to want a happy marriage - I certainly don't deserve it.”

    No one does; no one has a right to anything from God. That’s what makes it all the more remarkable when He does bless us: “It is right to give thanks and praise.” What else can we do when it all comes down to it?

    “Maybe I should just seek what I know will make me miserable ...”
    Mercury, I think because of the types of questions that you ask, that you are sincerely and thoughtfully seeking God. It seems more difficult for you than for most to accept that God does, rightly understood, want you to be happy—which I think He does, again, rightly understood. (The problem is actually not with the suggestion of happiness as part of God’s will, in itself, but instead probably with our own particular conception of happiness.) I do not think people who struggle with the types of concerns that you do are in the same sort of danger of self-indulgence or self-seeking that others may be in. Your pitfalls probably lie elsewhere.
    I’ve seen you ask questions and have struggles of the same nature for months if not years now. Has there been any relief or progress for you? I pray that there will be. I know what it’s like to struggle with these things and I continue to do so at times. Please do persevere and keep praying, ultimately trying to have that disposition of holy indifference in your heart as well as a focus on the love God has for you. You realize too little how loved you are, in my opinion. These are just my thoughts; I mean no presumption.

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  10. Patrick - thank you very much. Your words are beautiful, and you understand so much. Maybe you don't even realize it.

    I have made some progress, but I always fall back - I'll end up thinking "okay marriage is okay, but sex has to be rare" or "marriage is okay, but we HAVE to work for total continence" - other times I get stuck on some thing or another that a saint may have said (Augustine and Jerome are particularly harsh here, haha!).

    In the end, what matter though is that I am in the hands of good priests and a good spiritual director, who point out the errors in my thinking. I also will sometimes see how unfounded my fears are when reading views on marriage (and its use even) by holy men like John Hardon, SJ or Pope John Paul II.

    Finally, there are so many holy married people who love one another intensely and who sacrifice everything for spouse and family because they know that's what they've signed up for. I hardly imagine my grandparents worried about how much sex was too much, or whether they enjoyed it too much, or if they had to get over it, etc. My parents, either, nor the other families I know who truly live the vocation.

    I think beyond it all, what I see in marriage is this: Love intensely and give unceasingly, and always be considerate of her first and foremost, then all else falls into order (especially the sexual stuff I fear so much). If I can live day to day making small sacrifices for the one I love and our children, then there is no need to worry about much.

    Thank you so much, my friend.

    Also you, servus.

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  11. Anonymous6:39 PM

    Terry, I just love your blog posts. Thanks very much for this one.

    - Kathy

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  12. Kathy - thanks very much! God bless you.

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  13. Servus, remember that if Mass isn't available in your location, there's no obligation to go so the desert dwelling saints weren't shirking their Sunday obligation.

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  14. but Nan they went into the desert KNOWING that. I mean they chose to do that. I mean I can't imagine going some place knowing that I wouldn't be able to assist at Mass. Personally, I couldn't survive for years without the sacraments and hope to persevere in grace.

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  15. You're welcome, Mercury.

    I'm sorry if my first comment was abrupt or lacking nuance, causing needless worry. These are very important questions to consider and proper responses to them require numerous distinctions quite often, I think.

    I read an article at the National Catholic Register today discussing the desire to experience God and the temptation for self-seeking that I thought could serve as a good parallel to self-seeking in marriage or any other vocation, as we've been discussing:

    http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jennifer-fulwiler/

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  16. Mercury,

    This may be helpful, regarding discerning God's will in a very personal, subjective, specific sense:

    http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog/2012/04/02/how-do-i-know-if-god-is-talking-to-me-in-prayer

    I thought of this as you were describing what you desire...it seems to me that what we desire, think about, believe, etc. in times of "consolation" (like the article describes) is the "data" that we should trust in terms of how/where God is leading us, what is His will.

    He is not going to lead someone who is seeking Him out of fear or intimidation or something along those lines. A vocation, or any other legitimate spiritual endeavor that God is inviting us to, is a call to love in response to love, to being loved.

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  17. I mis-worded my last reply! - I meant to say He is not going to lead someone who is seeking Him THROUGH fear, etc.

    I want to distinguish between the motives for seeking God (seeking Him out of fear - because we are fearful - is not a bad motive necessarily, though of course it is not all there is) and the "sense" we have in our prayer and seeking (i.e. experiencing fear, desolation, that God does not love us, etc. vs. God's love, His desire to save us, faith, hope, etc.)

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  18. Patrick, thank you and God bless you. I read Jen Fulweiler's article, but haven't read the other one yet.

    I totally knew what she was talking about and I see where it applies to marriage and other vocations. One can "fall in love" with someone, but what one really loves is the experience of being with them.

    This does NOT mean that one should not love that experience, but that one shouldn't let it distinct from loving the person themself (oh man, and I am an English teacher!), which is often a dirtier job than living to be with them.

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