Dead Works and Good Desires: A Sermon for the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt

A sermon preached at St. Silouan of Athos Chapel at St. Gregory of Sinai Monastery on April 6, 2014, by Hieromonk Parthenius, with the blessing of His Grace, Bishop Sergios of Portland, Igoumenos of the Monastery.

Epistle: Heb 9:11-14
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Great Lent is drawing to a close. And as Great Lent is a struggle over a certain span of time, so too our lives. The span of life given us is a struggle, and does not last forever. Man does not go on living this life forever, for “it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgement.” [1] At the end of our lives, will we be disappointed when we realize we did not struggle hard enough? Last week, we heard of the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Will we be disappointed to realize that in  climbing up the Ladder of Divine Ascent, we did not reach the heights we should have? When we ask ourselves those final, soul-searching questions, will we have a good answer?

Our focus these past few weeks has been to use this brief span of time of Great Lent to prepare ourselves to worship the sacred and soul saving events of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord, which begin next week. At this point we ask ourselves some final questions: “Have I made any progress? Am I more on track spiritually than I was before?” Or perhaps we can even answer that, much to our surprise, we have made some spiritual progress. Then the question becomes, “How do I know I will keep what has been given me? How do I know that I will not become again negligent and lose what was gathered?” If we have made any progress over the past few weeks, will we be able to keep it going?

We hope in God that we can continue our spiritual progress, our struggle, and at the same time we harbor serious doubts, because we know ourselves all too well. We don’t trust ourselves. We are always excusing ourselves because of human weakness. Or perhaps we set limits for ourselves that are no real limits. We can do more, but we don’t want to “overload” ourselves. We forget what is at stake. We forget what God, in His infinite compassion, has done for us.

Our Lord Jesus emptied Himself for us sinners. He poured out His blood in order that we may be purified, healed of our passions that so easily sidetrack us, and give up our sinful ways.

Today’s Epistle reading says that we must have our conscience purged. It tells us that salvation comes from the blood of our Lord. “By His own blood he [entered in once into the holy place, having] obtained eternal redemption for us.” The epistle goes on to say that the Blood of Christ can purge our conscience from dead works, to serve the Living God.”

Dead works – a Living God. We cannot serve the Living God with “dead works,” that is, with sins. Our sins make us sick, make us dead, make us abnormal. Our dead works – our sins – separate us from God, Who creates out of nothing all that is. They propel us toward non-being, toward nothingness, and, contrary to what the world might say, do not make us “more human” or “more real.” Our dead works do not make us more real. They make us less real, abnormal, sick. They make us unfit to receive that true love that only comes from God.

We need spiritual healing. We need our conscience purged and purified of the results of evil desire; then we need to have a healthy desire for things pleasing to God.

The fathers teach that we get sick with the dead works of sins because our desire is sick. You might say it is malfunctioning. St. Paul describes this malady in his letter to the Romans when, in humility, he puts himself in the place of one so afflicted and says, for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.[2] We want to do what is right, but we are always falling down. It seems nature is compelling us to do dead works, things unworthy of the God we serve. Our desire is sick. We desire the wrong things. How do we heal this capacity we have to desire so that we desire what is pleasing to God?

Two examples of unhealthy desire are set before us today. The first occurs in today’s gospel. Christ and his disciples are going up to Jerusalem. Now the disciples are away from the bustle of crowds, the Teacher is speaking to them, and they have Him all to themselves. Christ speaks of the events of His Passion, how in Jerusalem the Chief Priests and Scribes will judge him and deliver him to the Gentiles, who will put him to death. But then, on the third day, He will arise from the dead. The scripture records that the disciples “were amazed.” What is this that He is saying? Isn’t there a new kingdom coming? Won’t the Teacher be that new King who will save them from the tyranny of the Romans? Death and then resurrection? What is all this? Not only does the Scripture say that the disciples were “amazed” but also that they were “afraid.” They did not find these words comforting.

Nevertheless, and rather surprisingly, we hear of two disciples – the brothers John and James – who have an unhealthy desire. Despite the awesome words they have all just heard of the coming Passion of our Lord Jesus,  they form a strong desire to have the preeminence over their brother disciples. In the earthly kingdom they think Christ will soon raise up, they want to have the positions of honor, one on the left, and one on the right, of the Master. In St. Matthew’s gospel, it is revealed that the mother of the disciples had asked Jesus to give special honor to her sons in this way. (“That’s just like a Jewish mother,” a Jewish convert to Orthodoxy once told me.) The other ten disciples are indignant when they learn of the two wanting to have power over them.

Before the Resurrection, before the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we see how imperfect the disciples were then. We see how they stood in need of healing of soul. The Son of Man explains to them gently what it means to be a servant of Christ. 

In the world, the power structure can be illustrated by a triangle. In the middle of the triangle are managers. The managers have authority over the many beneath them. But above the managers are the senior managers, and the senior managers rule over the managers, and so on, to the top of the triangle.  In the Church, however, this power structure is inverted. Now the many at the bottom are on top, and the few at the top are now at the bottom,  for Christ says, “ whoever is great among you, shall be your minister.” “For the Son of Man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give His life as a ransom for the many.” 

The whole of Great Lent, we have been praying the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. “O Lord and Master of my life,” we have been praying, “ a spirit of ambition give me not.” The spirit of ambition is a bad desire to lord it over the brethren. Yet Christ teaches that Christian Leaders should think of themselves as servants of fellow servants. 

When our desire is healed, therefore, we will desire what is best for others, not ourselves. “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister…”

The second example of unhealthy desire set before us today comes from St. Mary of Egypt, whose synaxis we are celebrating. St. Zosimas meets up with St. Mary in the desert. St. Zosimas’ prayer to God was that he would be shown a monk practicing extreme asceticism leading to enlightenment. He wondered if there was any monk who had surpassed him in his ascetical endeavor. And here this saint he meets, who lives like one without a body, who prays suspended in the air, who is clairvoyant and by the Spirit knows many things, this woman, not a monk, becomes his unexpected answer to prayer. He begs to know her story, how it was that she came to the desert, and how it was that God visited her and made her holy. Was she from a convent? A virgin who had been in the deserts since she was young? What was her story?

St. Mary warns St. Zosimas that the story of her past is not an edifying one. St. Zosimas resolutely  disagrees. He wants the truth and he begs her for it. 

Then almost reluctantly, we hear the sad tale of the past life of St. Mary. We hear how she followed her fleshly desires from her teenage years, always doing what would please her flesh without the least regard to God’s law. The more she followed her desires, the more she attempted to satisfy her insatiable passions, the more she tried to  fulfill the lusts of her soul, the sicker her soul became.

Later, in her life of repentance in the desert, her unhealthy desires followed her. She calls them “mad desires:”

Believe me, Abba, seventeen years I passed in this desert fighting wild beasts -- mad desires and passions. 

So in the desert, St. Mary had unhealthy desires that urged her on to dead works, even though she had come to the desert to serve the Living God. Let us hear how she dealt with her “mad desires.” Let us hear how her soul became well.

But when such desires entered me I struck myself on the breast and reminded myself of the vow which I had made, when going into the desert. In my thoughts I returned to the ikon of the Mother of God which had received me and to her I cried in prayer. I implored her to chase away the thoughts to which my miserable soul was succumbing. And after weeping for long and beating my breast I used to see light at last which seemed to shine on me from everywhere. And after the violent storm, lasting calm descended.

For many years in the desert, St. Mary struggled and cried out to God and the Mother of God. She wept and beat her breast. She followed the holy Prophet King David who says,

I will pour out before Him my supplication, mine affliction before Him will I declare.[3]

And taking pity on her, God granted her His peace, that peace which passes all understanding.[4]And in this way, her desire was healed. By violently forcing herself, by pouring out her heart to God and His Most Pure Mother,  her desire for dead works went away. She was healed, and desired those things “good and profitable for the soul.” She desired God with all her heart. She gained much spiritual progress, and she continued to ascend to the heights. She climbed steadily up the Ladder of Divine Ascent and did not waver, because she was firm in her purpose. In solitude, she struggled, fasted and prayed. She remained steadfast, because God gave her a new desire that replaced her “mad desires,”  which went away, and the sickness left her. She became a new creation and desired, with all her heart, the things of God. 

As St. Silouan the Athonite says,

The soul that has come to know God fully no longer desires anything else, nor does it attach itself to anything on the earth; and if you put before it a kingdom, it would not desire it, for the love of God gives such sweetness and joy to the soul that even the life of a king can no longer give it any sweetness.[5]

So why is it that we cannot desire the things of God as we should? Why cannot our true and fervent desire be to love God and our neighbor, to pray, to fast, to do those things which are pleasing in the sight of God? Why are we given to thoughts not becoming a Christian, and to saying or doing things we later regret? In short, why can’t we find healing from God?

Our answer surely must be that we just don’t try hard enough. We need to make a beginning. Let us consider today how St. Mary of Egypt changed, how her life received a new beginning.

She found herself in Jerusalem, and she desired, along with the great crowds that were there, to worship the Life-giving Cross of the Lord. But as she tried to enter the Church, an invisible force restrained her. But notice that she did not give up. She had, for once, a good desire. She wanted to worship the Holy Cross with the People of God--but though she tried again and again, she was denied entry to the holy temple. Then, she observed an icon of the Mother of God, and she said with tears,

“O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know, O how well I know, that it is no honour or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to thy ikon, O ever-virgin, who didst keep thy body and soul in purity. Rightly do I inspire hatred and disgust before thy virginal purity. But I have heard that God Who was born of thee became man in order to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of thee suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy Blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before thy son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou wilt lead me.”

Thereafter, her request was granted, and she entered the church freely. The unseen force that had been preventing her, now ushered her in. She venerated the Precious Wood of the Cross with the other Christians there, visited all the holy places of Jerusalem, then strengthened and fortified, made her way to her new life of repentance across the River Jordan.

From St. Mary of Egypt’s new beginning, we observe how we can make ours. We try to do better and fail. We fall and pick ourselves up. But in order to begin the healing that comes from repentance, we need to cry out to God and to the Most Holy Mother of God.

It is very fitting at this time to think of the All-holy one, the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary. When St. Mary of Egypt was in Jerusalem, we see how readily the Mother of God carried the prayer of St. Mary to the attention of the Lord Jesus. We see how many times in the desert, St. Mary was aided by the All-holy one’s prayers to God. By the intercessions of the Theotokos, St. Mary was rescued from a life of sin and ruin. She will rescue us as well. 

We had the privilege here at St. Gregory’s of a beautiful Service of the Akathist Hymn on Friday night. And now, tonight, we will have a vigil for the Annunciation, and again we will hymn the Most Pure Mother of God.

The Mother of God takes pity on us sinners. Have dead works sickened us? Are we sad? Are we despondent? Do we feel like our prayer is not being heard? Are we having trouble establishing a good desire to pray? Are we always falling into sin? Do we need to make a new beginning?

At these low points, it is high time to call on the Mother of God! She loves and cares for the most desperate sinners, and she will tenderly care for you and I. And not only the Most Holy Mother of God, but all the saints, the angels, our guardian angel, our patron saint: all are waiting for us to ask them for help. This is how we make a beginning: asking for help from God’s holy ones. 

The Mother of God helped St. Mary of Egypt and she can help me and she can help you. Let us remember this.

For, as Great Lent is drawing to a close now, and we are losing unique opportunities to reset our spiritual life, so one day will the end draw nigh for every one of us here today. It may not seem fitting to talk about a new beginning at the end of Great Lent, but especially in the case of the spiritual life, it is better late than never. The last hour of our life draws continually closer.

May that hour find us ready, our conscience purged and purified, with a good and healthy desire to experience God’s love, having put to death the dead works of sin, ready to stand in the presence of the Living God. 


[1] Heb 9:27
[2] Rom 7:15
[3] Psalm 141:2
[4] Phi 4:7
[5] St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, IX.13