Healing and Wholeness, Then and Now:
St John the Merciful, St Mary of Egypt
and Today’s Poor
by Mary Marrocco
One sunny afternoon a few weeks ago -- sunny, but cold and snowy -- I was sitting on the second floor of the little Mission Parish for which I work. Its windows overlook the streets and alley-ways of east-end Toronto, Canada: the strip bar down the street, refugee housing across the park, municipal prison, home for battered women, and countless corners and shadows which provide covering for drug dealing, prostitution, and other popular local activities. I was talking with Hank, a regular volunteer at the Mission; since dropping out of high school, Hank has been in and out of prison, and has spent most of his adult life living on welfare, "hanging out" in bars, and watching Hockey Night in Canada.
For several days, Hank had been nervous as a kitten, abandoning or forgetting his duties (burnt soup was a recurring experience that week). Finally, this day, he sat me down with his favourite introductory remark: "I gotta talk to you". After a little preliminary circumlocution, the reasons for his distress began to become apparent. Did I think it unreasonable, when living with someone, to expect that person not to be seeing other men, or have men over? What would one do about discovering one's girlfriend had been lying, and covering up her heroin usage? "I knew about the crack", he explained, "but I didn't know she was into heroin". He told me his frustrations, listened to my responses, such as they were, and finally shook his head. "Gimme a guy with a gun and I know what to do, but when it comes to my personal life, I don't know what's going on!" Yet it was within these concrete details of his life that he was able to break a barrier, reflect with me about honour, trust, love, commitment and loyalty, and try to be raised up and raise up the women for whom he cared.
John the Compassionate (more commonly known as John the Merciful, or John the Almsgiver), seventh-century patriarch of Alexandria, is patron of our Mission Parish. He is most famed for his legendary first act upon becoming patriarch (609 or 611): he asked his councillors to make a list of all his masters.
But his hearers could not imagine who these could be, and besought him to tell them, as they were astonished that any could possibly be masters of the patriarch; and he opened his angelic mouth again and said: "Those whom you call poor and beggars, these I proclaim my masters and helpers. For they, and they only, are really able to help us and bestow upon us the kingdom of heaven."
Those three words, "and they only", are the key to my theological reflection in what follows.
Patriarch John's response to poverty was not standard government issue.
[A stranger] approached [John] as he was on his way to visit the sick in the hospitals (for he did this two or three times a week) and said to him: "Have mercy upon me for I am a prisoner of war."
John said to his purse-bearer: "Give him six nomismata." After the man had received these he went off, changed his clothes, met John again in another street, and falling at his feet said: "Have pity upon me for I am in want." The Patriarch again said to his purse-bearer: "Give him six nomismata." As he went away the purse-bearer whispered in the Patriarch's ear: "By your prayers, master, this same man has had alms from you twice over!" But the Patriarch pretended not to understand. Soon the man came again for the third time to ask for money and the attendant, carrying the gold, nudged the Patriarch to let him know that it was the same man: whereupon the truly merciful and beloved of God said; "Give him twelve nomismata, for perchance it is my Christ and He is making trial of me."
This story led to interesting discussion with the people at our Mission about how to deal with those who would manipulate or use us, and whether one can respond to violence and manipulation with love and compassion. Hank's response was succinct, as always: "Love is a wonderful thing and all that, but I still say, if somebody's comin' at you with a baseball bat, you gotta do something".
Our neighbourhood people respond very readily to the stories, lives and words of early church figures, once they have been given a place in which to make the initial contact. Like most of us, they are unlikely to go to the library and pick up a Greek text (or even an English translation) of the latest Gregory of Nyssa, for instance; but when Gregory is brought to them, and a little of the dust cleared off, they not only enter readily into his world and learn from him, but inevitably they teach me something of who he is, what he struggled with, and how he speaks of God. For our feastday, we dramatised the life of John the Compassionate, and presented the legendary occasion on which he was given a costly blanket by a rich patron, who saw that the patriarch had only a thin covering; John promptly sold the expensive blanket and distributed the money to the poor, whereupon the rich benefactor bought the blanket back and gave it again to John. The patriarch again sold it and distributed the money; the rich benefactor re-purchased and re-donated. When he had done this for the third time the Saint said to him jokingly: "Let us see whether you or I will give up first!" This story not only entered into our discussion of what to do with donations of money and goods given to the Mission, but it also helped us prepare for the visit of our own bishop to the parish; we talked about who a bishop is, what his place in the church is, how we ought to prepare to receive him, and what his proper place here among the poor would be.
The world of the urban poor, in which our parish dwells, is lively, messy, chaotic, unpredictable, and totally concrete; it is also a Lenten desert, a school of asceticism, a place of hunger for eucharist and communion, and fertile earth for theology. The life of St John the Compassionate has provided a backdrop for us, in our little pocket of downtown Toronto, to enter into that desert and be met there by others, such as the patriarch of a great city, far away and long ago; others, who have struggled for healing in a place and time of brokenness, sought wholeness amongst chaos, found hope in the midst of hopelessness and meaning in the drudgery or tragedy of daily living.
Another who stands in that desert is Mary of Egypt. Why should Mary be an appropriate and appealing icon for street men and women, in a time and place to which icons, holiness, spiritual healing, sin, glorification, and communion are for the most part non-concepts? Why should a fourth-century legendary woman, alone in the desert for forty-seven years, speak to the poor of a crowded neighbourhood in a wealthy western city? Ask Anna, an eighteen-year-old girl, five months married and eight months pregnant, who stood for two hours during the canon of St Andrew of Crete, one of the most austere services in the austerity of Great Lent. She then sat and listened to the Life of Mary of Egypt. Anna knows, in her own life, the meaning of isolation, rejection and suffering; and she chose to bring these to Mary and the church.
Mary of Egypt is one of the many hidden treasures of the church. Sometimes these treasures seem very well-hidden indeed, as though one were opening the door to a vast treasure-chamber whose glimmering precious jewels are buried in layers of dust. Yet the wonders of this treasure-chamber, once uncovered and held to the light, illumine and assist our own struggles for healing, holiness and happiness. This is true for all of us in the church today, but is especially and abundantly clear among the poor. When the poor are met by Christ, in the saints and in the church, something happens. That is all. The simplest and most profound truth I know is this: Christ and the poor belong together, and here the church is born. They are suffering, they are hungry, they are trapped, they are broken; and they have entrance into the deepest mysteries of the church; and they walk with the saints, or, perhaps the saints walk with them. To unlock the doors of the church for and with the poor is to receive this blessing that the poor carry in themselves. They help unveil the mysteries of the church. Just so did Mary of Egypt, a naked woman wandering the desert in repentance of her sins, unveil for the monk and priest Zossima the mysteries of the church, which he had lived for over fifty years but still longed to enter into; their meeting brought him to the place for which he hungered.
I will explore a little Mary's life, and her meeting with Zossima, with reference to the daily experience of poverty. The meaning of the word "poverty", in my own context, will perhaps become clearer as I progress, but I will observe that Toronto is a wealthy city in a wealthy peaceful nation, which aims to provide for its poor through social programmes and government institutions. In our environment, no-one need die of starvation or exposure. The poverty we meet every day is a poverty of apathy, violence, hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, lack of belonging and commitment, lack of value and meaning, anger and depression: the pool of anger which underlies the city. In the depths of this pool, we come upon Mary, as did the monk Zossima. I am not going to assess the historicity, origins or development of Mary's Life; rather, I invite you to walk with me into this desert icon, meet Mary, and see what she teaches about healing and how she illumines the spiritual lives of my own teachers, the poor.
In the meeting of Mary and Zossima, three aspects of the spiritual life are readily seen and help us understand the lives of the poor. First is the uniqueness of the path of healing; second, the way two people can help heal each other; third, the church as a place of healing and wholeness.
Uniqueness of the Path: Suffering, Solitude and Silence
Mary's life moves from brokenness and sinfulness, to conversion and repentance, healing, and finally wholeness: this is her glorification as she becomes Mary. Only at death, the fulfillment of her life, is her name revealed. Unique in its details, her path traces the common human path of healing and glorification.
Mary's healing comes directly out of her brokenness. In telling her story to Zossima, she identifies the brokenness in herself; she does not examine the psychological or sociological reasons for this brokenness, but simply and clearly presents the evil she sees at work in herself: she renounced her parents' love, "gave herself up to passion and lust", had an insatiable longing for "wallowing in the mud" and for "any kind of desecration of nature", led others into depravity ("ensnaring souls"), and did so publicly and continually. Her description shows, first, a disorder of human relationships: between herself and her parents, and between herself and the men she "hunts and chases". Second, a disordered physicality: not that she loved sex, but that she had an uncontrollable appetite for it, reflecting a disordered relationship with her own body. Third, a disordered sense of the female-male relationship: she seduced men not for money, but because she loved to do so; she used her body to gain control over men, even forcing men against their will, resulting in a female-male relationship of dominance and slavery, but her enslavement of the men she meets also enslaved her to her own desire, and cut her off from true relationships. This radical disorder of all right relationships is demonstrated by her inability to enter the church, which is an image of right order among humans and between humans and God. These are the signs of her brokenness and sinfulness.
Forty-seven years later, when she is discovered by the monk Zossima--himself the external image of holiness and order--he quickly identifies signs of holiness in her. First, never having seen him before, she knows his name and calls him by it, and also recognises him as presbyter, showing a deep internal understanding of the right ordering of things. She knows his thoughts, rises off the ground while praying, and later walks across the water to him; these signs manifest a right relationship between herself and creation, the truly proper ordering of glorification. This is seen in her burial, when a lion helps return her to the earth.
Her brokenness is about sexuality, intimacy, relationship and insatiable hunger and loneliness; her path of healing is thoroughly physical, through solitude, hunger, longing, suffering and nakedness. In her broken state, she longed for, sought, and habituated dark places: wallowing in the mud, she calls it. Yet her disordered desire leads to her true desire; she is drawn to the men who are drawn to the feastday, but her true longing is for the feastday itself, and so she is led to church. She repents the impurity of her actions, but her time in the desert purifies her, so that Zossima calls her the "pure treasure hidden in the desert". She loves control, of her own body and of men; healing comes when she abandons herself, gives all control to God, obeys and follows without knowing where, why or how she will be led. Her sinfulness is played out among other humans; her path of repentance is in complete solitude. Her brokenness involves using people; her conversion, though within a crowd, is a moment of stillness, solitude and intimacy, as she stands alone before the icon of the Theotokos.
Spiritual healing, the work of a lifetime, is unique to the particular person. Indeed, part of the work is to accept and receive the particular healing that is fitting for no-one else but me. Often we put a high priority on fairness, by which we mean that everyone ought to be treated identically; yet fairness does not mean uniformity, but rather, that each person receives what is uniquely intended for that person. It can be as simple as giving a person a particular work to do, fitted for that person. For example, Cindy, who has a mental illness and speech impediment as well as epilepsy, has lived all her adult life on disability benefits and has been picked up by several different men because of her assured income. When she first came to us at St John's, she had no concept of work or self-worth at all, and would always begin by giving a detailed list of her problems and ailments, by which she identified herself. Cindy was given the simple task of laying out knives, forks and spoons for the meal, and being responsible for collecting them at the end of the meal: she received this as her responsibility and ministry, others recognised it as her domain, and she made it part of her routine and her place in the community. During the time she did this, she blossomed as a person, became more sociable and even spoke more clearly. She surely did less work than many others in the place, but to take on this duty and succeed in it was for her a path of healing.
Mary's Life is laced with the powerful interplay between holiness and evil, forgiveness and suffering. Her Lenten story emphasises the evil to which the human heart is subject, and repentance as the struggle to receive love. The desert battle is against the evil within; by Mary's account, she undergoes physical suffering, but by far the greater suffering is that within herself: she was not disturbed by wild beasts in the desert, but the fire which burned in her was the wild beasts of "frenzied desires". She thirsted, not for water in the desert, but for men's embraces. For her, the fire inside can be worked out only in desert heat and solitude. She is well aware of the presence of evil in herself, in the desert, in the monastery and respects it; rather than battling it directly, she turns to God, to fasting, prayer and the sacraments.
At our Mission, we have a sit-down meal which emphasises family: speaking to one another, learning each other's names, and the beauty of the table. Some are known to one another, some complete strangers; some spend their lives eating at missions, others live in low-income housing; many never sit at a meal, the preferred methods being fast food, eating in front of the television, spending one's cheque on liquor, drugs, lottery tickets or junk food. A miracle occurs each time in this gathering of misfits: the miracle of breaking bread together. However, one can never be certain, on a given day, that the entire meal will be achieved in peace. Always there is an energy which would disperse and divide the group, as though the body were ready at any moment to fly apart. The challenge is to maintain a presence of unity at the centre, and draw people in towards that centre so that they can remain a body. Some nights the divisive, outward energy is particularly strong, for example my last Wednesday before leaving Canada, which fell between Christmas and New Year's, a particularly difficult time. Depression, anger and unrest lay heavily on many that night, and conflict broke out several times. The danger within that room came from what was inside the hearts of the people gathered there; no external or natural danger threatened us. Like Mary in the desert, the battle is not first of all against climate, animals, hunger, thirst: the struggle is with the forces inside the human heart.
Mary portrays the power of addiction, the struggle not with any physical reality around her but with constant desire. For her, prayer, solitude, fasting and her own physical needs bring healing. The desert battle of addiction is readily understandable by those who come to us subject to the powerful force created by addiction, whether to drugs, alcohol, sex, violence itself, or even despair and failure. It has been a privilege to observe Jay, a tall, thin man with grey hair, who spends time with us each day, and recently celebrated with us an entire month sober. He came back a few weeks later and, in response to my "How are you?" replied that he had been back on the bottle again; but, like a good monk who falls and gets up again, falls and gets up again, he has continued to come back and continued to fight the fight. Periodically we take some of our neighbourhood people on retreats in the country. Three days outside their own environment, with a chance for solitude, silence, wholesome pursuits, prayer and community work, is at first alarming to those accustomed to noise and stimulants, but works a great change in a short time.
For Mary, the path of healing does not entail avoiding evil and suffering; avoidance of suffering is a modern passion, not a Patristic one. Rather, it means respecting the degree to which humans are subject to both. The feastday which draws her to the church is the Elevation of the Cross; it is a glimpse of the cross which she desires and which leads to her moment of repentance in front of the icon. For us, one of our main poverties is not to see or name our own human subjection to evil, and the suffering and brokenness of human lives. Rage, despair, depression, and division control so many lives, and issue forth in violence. For example, Joe and Paul, alcoholics from childhood, wandering and looking for trouble, responding with anger to being served a meal, seeking to use and steal from those who would freely give, needing to break little ones and smash what appears wholesome. Can we risk, as John the Compassionate did, to bring gentleness where the only known path is violence, to look for and call upon the gentleness and love at the heart of those whose world is marked by deception, rage, failure; can we even believe, at times, that these are the deepest reality of their hearts? These are real questions for us when we wish to sit down at table with both the lambs and the lions, and to receive Joe and Paul as the presence of Christ; not problems to be solved, but persons to be given life, a life which they themselves do not understand and probably do not respect, but which is deeply hidden within them, beneath their desire to twist and break. I sat one day talking with Jimmy, his young wife beside him. He had been too drunk the night before to sit through dinner with us. This day, I looked into his eyes as he told me some of the many substances he had been imbibing that day, explained that they had nothing to eat because the refrigerator broke when he kicked in the freezer door, assured me he never hits his wife ("well, just that once") refused all her pleas that he would take himself to a clinic, and punctuated the narrative with repeated declarations that "I'm an alcoholic, I'm no good, and there's nothing I can do about it". I looked at the lines around his wife's mouth, then looked again into Jimmy's eyes. The challenge at that moment was to seek there the image of Christ, and believe that there was a path of healing and redemption for this hard, broken man. It was the voice of love, not of fear or punishment, which called to Mary and brought her to life; taking the risk to speak the word of love in response to violence, violence within or without us, is also part of the spiritual path.
The Way Two People Heal Each Other: Communion and Community
The monk Zossima considers himself, in his fifty-third year, as having reached perfection: "Can there possibly be found among the wisdom-loving men of the desert one surpassing me either in active life or in contemplation?", he muses. His search for perfection and holiness brings him face-to-face with a harlot, who teaches him the meaning of repentance and mercy, as he has never experienced them in all his life of perfection as a monk. He recognises her holiness and is drawn by her beauty and the life within her. His love for her, and the teaching she provides about forgiveness, repentance, and the sacraments, break open his understanding and his heart. His heart burns for her: he "waits to see what he longed for", and must learn patience in the two years he spends in that longing, unable to see her in the flesh. Part of Zossima's path of repentance is to receive and accept Mary's path, and to tell her story among the monks when he returns, thus fulfilling the opening lines of the Life: "it is good to keep close the secret of a King, but to reveal gloriously the works of God" (Tobit 12:7).
The story of Mary and Zossima is a story of coming to vision. She learns to see the glory of the "life-giving cross" and the meaning of repentance. He learns to see Mary. First he sees a shadow, then a naked woman, then a holy woman; when he buries her, he clothes her in his own monastic cloak. At our Mission, an ex-inmate, who was doing some carpentry work for us, smashed his finger and began to swear. He was stopped by the presence of an icon of Christ just above him; as he told us later, "there's always somebody looking at you around here". He began to see--and to see that he was seen. The first step towards vision, for us, is simply seeing the person sitting beside you. Frank is a thin, ragged man, always wearing a baseball cap and dirty jacket, who commonly eats with us. But not till I sat down with him at table, asked his name, and inquired what he had been doing with his day, did I learn that he spends most of his days visiting his mother in a chronic-care hospital just up the street, and so learned to see in this tattered street man a loving and beloved son.
That the heart is a treasure, and the real work is uncovering the beauty of that treasure, is perhaps the hardest thing to remember in day-to-day pastoral existence, when there are bills to be paid, programmes to be kept up, floors to be swept, homilies to be written, a thousand details to be accomplished, and benefactors seeking (naturally enough) results for their money. It is also, often, the most difficult truth to receive; as with Sammy, who wears a steel plate in his head gained during a fight, and who can be heard to mutter: "the devil's in me, and ain't nothing can get him out", but who stood with a lighted candle in hand, through three hours of a Paschal vigil in the middle of an April night, and listened to John Chrysostom's proclamation that "hell is angered! Christ is risen!"
Zossima's healing, through his meeting with Mary, comes in steps, and leads in ways that he can follow, though he does not know to what they lead. God is gentle. That gentleness is particularly striking in the midst of the harsh, unyielding milieu of the downtown poor. It is not so easy to come at once out of the darkness of one's own poverty and emptiness into the light of love and peace; it is difficult, sometimes, for the neighbourhood people even to sit from start to finish of a meal. One night I followed Al out into the street: "I have to go, I have to be someplace", he kept saying; "I'm too nervous to stay". Then for a moment he looked me directly in the eye: "I never knew I could sink so low", he said. "It's not me. I'm not like this. You sure find out who your friends areI never knew I could sink so low". When he saw I was truly listening, his eyes overflowed. "I gotta walk", he said, the tears on his cheek mingling with the rain, "I just gotta walk". "Can you pray?", I asked. "I always pray when I walk", he said. It is a risk, to come out of pain and loneliness into love and relationship, to risk being held and comforted for a little, to risk coming into one's own heart with its love, pain and longing. But God is gentle, and leads along steps we can take, as with Zossima. After 53 years, he is ready to meet Mary; after 70 years, Mary is ready to meet him. Their hearts have been prepared for one another, through fasting, suffering, seeking, longing, being broken, being opened, learning to love, learning their own weakness, and learning to see.
For both Mary and Zossima, the path is watered by tears. Tears accompany his pursuit of her upon first seeing her, his request for her story, her moment of repentance, her prayer to the Theotokos, her agony in the desert, his blessing of her upon hearing her story, her reception of communion, their parting, his discovery of her dead body and his burial of her. Weeping comes, especially, at moments which unite profound pain and love. Tears, in the spiritual life, are part of the path of conversion and wholeness, and witness the movements of the heart, the entrance of joy into suffering, light into darkness, love into loneliness. Whereas their tears flow freely and unburden the heart, it is remarkable that, for us, tears tend to come with shame and a desire to hide. Lionel, on Christmas Day, began to weep when he tried to thank us, and could not stay. Almost to a man, the prison inmates overflow in tears during our services of forgiveness, but they hide their tears from one another and tend to be ashamed of them afterwards. Shane, his craggy face impassive but his voice husky, told me of his mother's death a week before, and readily received my offer of prayer for her in the chapel, but could not stay through it because "I'd start to cry".
The story takes two lifetimes to come to fruition; their whole lives have been preparation for this moment of meeting and death. Perhaps Zossima could not have met Mary any earlier in his life; perhaps they could not have met in the setting of the monastery. In their meeting, each brings healing and completeness to the other's life. Mary is able to partake of communion, after her confession, and to end her years in the desert. Thus, after a youth spent living deformed male-female relationships, Mary meets Zossima, who loves her as a woman, sees her as a mother, and blesses her. They give birth to one another. Almost their first act, upon meeting, is to fall down and bless each other: man and woman free each other and raise each other up to God. The miracle is that they thus meet and that real communion, between each other and within the church, is possible. They end with a kiss of peace on the lips. In their icon, Mary and Zossima present one another, images of glorification: he in monastic robe, she in rags.
Church as Place of Healing and Wholeness
For Mary, the turning-point comes when she is drawn to the church but cannot enter where the crowds are freely entering: "some kind of power held me back and did not allow me to go in". She is left "standing lonely in the entrance", and after trying several times, she sees that "the impurity of my actions obstructed my entrance". This invisible wall which prevents her from going where she wishes to go becomes the doorway by which she is able at last to enter into the church: her own desire to see the cross, her grief at being unable to do so, and her awareness (for the first time in her life) that she is totally cut off from others, bring her to prayer. She opens her eyes and sees that she is standing in the presence of the Mother of God, and the prayer of her heart is spoken. Now the way which was impassable becomes open to her, she is able to look upon the cross and the Mysteries, "and I saw how the Lord accepts repentance".
The church, as the earthly presence of the heavenly reality, where the disorder of creation and humanity is not only set right but glorified, is the place of spiritual healing. Mary's disordered desire draws her, unwittingly, to the church. She is outside of the church, outside of communion and relationship, through her brokenness and sinfulness. Love draws her into the church, and through forgiveness she is brought to healing. Mary and Zossima help each other claim their place in the church: she calls him to his priesthood and his monastic life; he hears her confession and brings her the "sacred mysteries" of the eucharist, by which she is freed to come to death. Her place in the church comes through suffering, wandering, asceticism and being outcast; she understands deeply the ways and heart of the church, though having only once even set foot in a church, and communicating twice in her entire life! His external place in the church is of long-standing, but it is the meeting with this wanderer which gives him his true place in the church.
The poor, the lonely, the outcast, the suffering, stand with Mary at the heart of the church. One evening during vespers in our little chapel, the door opened and a neighbourhood man walked in, one whom I had never seen before. He paused on the threshold, then went out again. I followed him out, and asked if he needed help. "Oh", he said, "I'm sorry to have bothered you. That place is too beautiful. I knew I didn't belong there". To invite the poor into the church is to invite them into their own home, and call on them to claim their place. We live the liturgy in the chapel, in the refectory, in the foyer, on the front doorstep, on the street, and in the neighbourhood. As Mary helps Zossima receive his place in the church, and as both of them help the poor to claim theirs, so the poor help the rest of us.
I have called upon the person, the icon, of Mary of Egypt, to help show how early church figures such as herself and our patron, John the Compassionate, touch the lives of today's poor and illumine for them the spiritual struggle, but also the path of holiness, which they are living. She has shown us the path of sin, suffering, repentance, healing and glorification, which is the path of human life leading towards divine life, and which is understood and lived first of all by the poor, like herself.
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Most recent update : 24-03-10.