When we look at the lives of the saints, we study those lives in order to be inspired, to see how God unexpectedly works in the lives of men and women who are willing to follow him. But, often we also see examples of how we are supposed to behave, and what can happen when a person follows God. This Sunday is the Sunday of Mary of Egypt, a saint that sometimes leaves me shaking my head, not always sure what lessons to draw from her life. On the one hand is the obvious. Here is a woman who is a nymphomaniac, by her own admission. She did not charge for her services. She admits that she could not stop herself from her wantonness. On the other hand, also obvious, is the clear way that God irrupted into her life and made it clear to her how far she was from him. But, in his reaching out, he showed the greatest love, for he could have easily left her there to die in her sins. Instead, he performs an action that appears harsh—banning her from church—but only in order to get her attention long enough for her to be saved. There are so many other lessons that could be drawn, but I digress.
Our spiritual leaders are supposed to look at the lives of the saints, draw examples from them, and lead their lives accordingly. We, having seen their lives, as well as read the lives of the saints, are supposed to imitate them. Saint Paul says to imitate him as he imitates Christ. Jesus says that he does nothing unless he sees the Father doing it. Thus, if the dynamic of imitation is working correctly, we look at Christ to imitate him. We look at the saints to imitate them. We look at our spiritual leaders to imitate them. We look at our family leaders to imitate them. There is a sense in which there is a type of trickle-down spirituality at work here. The great commitment of Christ, the great sacrifice of Christ, the great imitation of Christ, all comes down to us, not simply directly, but it also trickles down to us through the lives of others who are following him. The priesthood of the believer is strongly at work when we can not only imitate Christ and receive his grace, but when we can look at the lives of those among us who are leading righteous lives and imitate them. In that sense, we are priests, mediating God’s grace to others as they imitate what they see of God in us. Mind you, that is also extremely frightening. It makes me think of tying millstones around my neck!
Sometimes, we imitate someone out of fear. This was true of Saint Mary of Egypt, who ran into the desert to imitate the monastics in fear for her eternal life. She eventually imitated them so well that she is one of the saints of Lent, a high honor indeed. In here life one can truly see how the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Her first relationship with the Lord was not one of love but of fear. Yet, by the end, she deeply loved God and was filled with wisdom. She ends up becoming one of the great saints of the Middle East, one who is revered and known by name throughout Orthodoxy.
So, may this Sunday teach me to imitate not only Christ, but also the Apostles, the saints, my spiritual leaders, and my fellow Christians. May I see in my fellow saints (for we are saints-in-training) what is worthy of imitation. May I forgive that which is not worthy of imitation that, I too, may be forgiven. May I have the deep commitment to Christ that is found in Saint Mary of Egypt.