Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

“By your patience you will possess your souls.”

Posted in Fasting, Sermons, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 14 April 2019

Today we celebrate the last Sunday of Great Lent. Next week, with the Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem, our journey ends, and God’s journey–the path of passion–begins.

On this last Sunday of Lent, the Church celebrates the memory of Saint Mary of Egypt. We are all very familiar with the story of her life, and I will not retell it here. But what are we to learn from it? Why does the Church remind us about this wondrous saint every year at the height of our lowly efforts in asceticism? I think that two themes in the life of Saint Mary can be helpful to us: the power of fasting, and the power of patience.

We try to fast, especially during Lent, as much as we are able or willing. Of course, we are not all the same, but on average, we do not fast much. We all abstain from food and water from midnight until communion on Sunday mornings. Some of us may think it difficult, but any teenager sleeping in until noon fasts just as much or more. We observe a strict fast on several days throughout the year, and are thus preoccupied with the time of the bringing-out of the Shroud, or the appearance of the first star, or the blessing of the dried fruits, or some other such thing. And this is only a few days throughout the year. As for the rest of our efforts, it is hardly proper to call them ‘fasting.’ ‘Vegan days’–maybe; ‘soy or fish days’–maybe; but ‘fasting’–hardly.

Saint Mary crossed the Jordan with nothing but two and a half loaves of bread. She spent the next forty-seven years in the desert. Maybe she found some meager plants and roots there, but in her own words, the dried pieces of bread that she brought with her lasted for many years. She was not too far from civilization. She knew how to cross the Jordan again and return to the city for some more bread. And who could have blamed her if once a decade she returned for some more bread?! But fasting in the desert was more preferable to her than returning to the city, even if for a short time. Fasting was all that she had. Saint Mary did not have any prayer books, could not attend services, and as far as we know was able to partake of Holy Communion only twice in her life–on the day before she entered the desert and again forty-seven years later, shortly before her death. So she exercised in fasting, and God not only sustained her physically, but also filled her with His Spirit and His Word.

Clearly, this is not an realistic recipe for every one of us, but the next time we are preoccupied with the discomfort of skipping coffee and breakfast on Sunday morning or grumble about having to eat shrimp or beans instead of steak, let us remember that it was through fasting that Mary conquered her sins and passions, it was through fasting that she found peace for her soul, and it was through fasting that she became one of the greatest saints that ever lived. But it was not through fasting for a few hours on Sunday mornings or a few days a year. The process of Mary’s rebirth and resurrection from her death in sin to life in Christ took time.

It is not an accidental part of the story that in order to reach the place of her salvation, Saint Mary had to cross the holy waters of the Jordan. She washed her face and hands in a symbolic renewal of her baptismal vows and crossed the river at the Church of Saint John the Baptist. But nothing magical happened–at least, not in the “Harry Potter” sense of the word ‘magic.’ Mary did not walk on water then; she had to use a small boat to cross the river. It took her seventeen years of living in the desert in prayer, fasting, and solitude before she was able to break free from the bondage of sin. Seventeen long years she was being tormented by the wounds and scars left by the chains and shackles–the same number of years that she had spent being a slave to sin. Ten years in, fifteen years in, she could have given up and said: “Obviously, this is not working–all this desert heat and bitter cold, all the fasting–and I still have no peace.” And who would have blamed her?! But she was patient, she persevered, and God freed her from her torment and granted her peace.

And what about us? Often, we give up too easily. We pray a little, fast a little, try a little, and get discouraged and despondent when we see little or no results from our efforts. But let us learn patience and perseverance–if not from the lofty example of Saint Mary of Egypt, then at least from the tale of the two frogs in a milk vat. Sure, it is easier to give up and go back to Alexandria or to drown in milk. But life and freedom are won by those who do not give up. After all, patience or perseverance is one of the seven heavenly virtues, according to some.

Maybe we kept the fast well, maybe we did not. Maybe we were diligent in our prayers, maybe not so much. The merciful Lord still gives us time for repentance. We still have another week of Lent and then also the Passion Week. Maybe we lack many things: not enough time, not enough money, too far from a church, too bored during services, too tired to read good books, etc. But we can always fast. Fasting does not cost any money, it does not require any special place, it does not take any extra time and can be done whenever–even while we sleep! And if we have the proper disposition in our hearts and put forth the effort in patience, little by little, we will surely be able to direct our lives toward God and receive peace for our souls. As our Lord said: “By your patience you will possess your souls” (Lk 21:19).

See also The Fifth Sunday of Great Lent: Satan’s Temptations




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