Friday, 7 January 2011

Saint of the Desert

Tonight I want to show you my recent icon of St. Mary of Egypt.  She was one of those wonderful women (and men) of the early centuries of the Church, who -- after having a profound experience of the Divine -- went out into the desert to face their demons and find God.

St. Mary was born in an Egyptian village back in the 6th Century.  Remember, this was before the invasion of the Turks which meant that the country was largely Christian -- the people we refer to as Copts today, evangelized by St. Mark.  Her upbringing was Christian, but Mary fell away from the Faith during her teenage years.  Normally she would have married, but ruined her chances to do so by getting intimate with a village boy.  After this she left her village and went to the port City of Alexandria where she supported herself by spinning thread.  Her wild life style continued, however, with a seemingly endless series of sexual exploits.

Eventually, she became bored with life in Alexandria and, seeking further adventures, she hitched a ride on a ship headed for what is now Israel with the intention of eventually ending up in Jerusalem.  She paid for her fare with her body. 

Once in Jerusalem, she decided, for some reason, that she wanted to see the cross of the crucifixion of Christ when it was exhibited on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  So, Mary joined the crowd heading into the church, but when she got to the door, she was stopped by some sort of invisible force.  People around her continued to enter the church, but she was unable to do so.  Stepping out of the way of the others, badly shaken by this event, she had to admit to herself that she was being prevented from entering the church due to her many serious sins.  She later recounted: "My sins were keeping me out."

In the courtyard of the church was an icon of the Blessed Mother and Child.  Mary addressed the image as though it was an actual person and said:  "Your Son came into the world to save sinners.  Dear Mother receive my confession and help me enter the Church.  Don't deprive me of the sight of the true cross.  I promise you, dear Mother, that I will turn from lust and go wherever you direct me."

Now when she tried to enter the church, there was no longer any resistance.  Thus, she went in and venerated the cross of Christ.  Years later she said: "I realized how God receives those who repent.  I threw myself on the floor and kissed the sacred dust."  Leaving the church, Mary returned to the icon and said to Our Lady: "I have come to keep my promise."  In reply, a voice told her: "If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest."

Stopping only to purchase some bread, Mary walked a day's journey from Jerusalem to the Jordan River.  Monks lived near the river at the place where Jesus had been baptized and after spending a few days with them, Mary crossed the Jordan and entered the hot, arid wilderness on the eastern side.  There she lived alone for many decades, sustaining herself just as St. John the Baptist did on locusts and wild honey.  We only know about her at all because she was accidentally discovered years later by a monk named Zossima who happened across her accidentally as he was spending time praying in the desert.  Mary told him her story as well as some of the mystical events that had occurred during her many years of solitude.  As she revealed her story, it became obvious that Mary had changed from a woman of no faith and loose morals into a saint.

In drawing the image of St. Mary, I decided to put an icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in her hands.  This icon is supposedly one of the earliest types of icons and so it seemed fitting for me to use that image as representative of the icon that spoke to Mary in the courtyard of the church.  I coloured St. Mary's skin a leathery brown because the monk, Zossima, had described the Mary that he met in the desert as being "old, sun-darkened and shriveled".  The Greek reads: "Holy (or Blessed) Maria [of] Egypt".  The stark mountain behind her represents the arid and inhospitable desert that helped to form Mary of Egypt into a saint.

Much of the above comes from a well-researched article by Kevin Perrotta that I came across in a magazine entitled The Word Among Us [daily reflections on the readings of the Mass].  Accompanying his article is a drawing of St. Mary which I have scanned into my computer.  You can see it just below this text.

                    St. Mary of Egypt

Now for some interesting bird photos sent to me by a friend.

Here you see, what is to me, a fascinating photo of a mother with her young.  I had no idea that a Swan could arrange her body in such a way as to build a covered platform for her little ones.  I find this photo not only fascinating but quite beautiful.

In this photo are two owls -- I am not sure which type they are.  Although they look like young birds because of their size, they could, in fact, be adults of a species that never gets very big. 

Anyway, when I saw this photo originally, my first thought was that the bigger of two was a male who was saying something along the lines of "What's with all this snuggling business?  I thought we were out here to hunt for mice!"

And, finally, there is this photo of a really overcrowded nest.  Either the parents did not plan for so many babies, did not build a large enough nest or, and more likely, the youngsters are big enough to leave home, but just don't want to!  Kind of reminds me of many of the young people I hear about today. :)

I suspect that sooner or later the discomfort of having to sleep on top on one another will grow old.  Which reminds me, where do the parents sleep now?  I guess they have had to move out and roost on a nearby tree branch at night!
Well, Suki and I are continuing to have a happy new year.  Suki's only problem seems to be figuring out new and diabolical ways to get me out of bed in the morning so that she can have her breakfast!  Of course, this is also my problem, but I am learning ways to resist her entreaties.  Friends have suggested closing her up in another room overnight.  I tried this once for about 15 minutes.  As soon as Suki realized that she was shut in, she began this loud, mournful cry which sounded over and over and over and over again.  After 15 minutes of this torture, I gave in and let her back into the bedroom with me!

Otherwise, my life continues with all its small daily delights and difficulties.  I am finally enjoying this journey I am on -- content in the present moment, yet aware of the adventures ahead -- both in this life and the next.

May the Peace of God be with you all.


Amra Porobic said...

Dear Sallie,
Thanks for sharing the story of St. Mary of Egypt. You definitely made her face as rigid as the terrain behind her. Can you make it a bit softer?
At the end we all had a stomach flue - it was brutal, but we are all much better now.
I like your attempts to control Suki's eating habits.
Love & peace

Sallie (Sarah) said...

Amra: Actually, I think I was being much more gentle with St. Mary's appearance than she really deserved. In Zossima account he actually said: When I first caught sight of her, I saw something so dark and shriveled that I did not know what I was seeing. After asking the creature in God's name to tell me who or what it was, I was able to determine that I was seeing a very old, sun-darkened and shriveled woman who was completely naked. He quickly gives her his cloak to cover herself with and then proceeds to ask her for her story of how she came to be in such a state. So you see, if I had really wanted to work with that description, I would have had to draw something that was almost unrecognizable as human! Actually, I find her face quite beautiful -- difficult to look at, but beautiful. She is definitely a woman who has seen years of struggling with her inner demons --alone under that brutal desert sun. Sallie