The Border of the Grace of God

This Sunday, on the Orthodox calendar, commemorates St. Mary of Egypt, 6th century harlot-turned-saint. This meditation was written in Jerusalem in 2008 when I was on pilgrimage. The image is of the icon mentioned in the meditation.

Today, walking and weaving our way through the streets of Old Jerusalem, shops on each side of the alley, the smells of a rich mixture of spices and a thousand other things, shop-keepers calling with eagerness to the “foreigners” passing by – we were on a free morning, and there were gifts to be found.

We came across another pilgrim, separate from our group, who took us to a greater gift. In the environs of the Holy Sepulchre Church, there are two small chapels that are used for the local Arab Christian congregation. That chapel’s treasure is quietly situated in a corner of the rear of the Church. No sign announces its presence. It is an icon of the Mother of God – indeed – the icon which hung at the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that spoke to St. Mary of Egypt, when, as a young harlot, she was unable to cross the threshhold of the Church. That moment led to her conversion and her immediate entrance into the trans-Jordan desert.

Everything here, things that have filled the stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints who have populated this area, are amazingly proximate. Nothing is a terribly great distance. The desert is only a hill away from Jerusalem.

But winding through alley ways and shops, we found the Icon of the Mother of God through which God showed mercy on Mary of Egypt. It stood at the border of the grace of God. God’s grace, of course, has no border, except the stony heart that refuses Him hospitality. But He knocks on that stony door with great persistence.

I knelt before the icon and prayed for our stony hearts – my stony heart – the many places in our lives that have created borders for grace. St. Mary of Egypt pray to God for us!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





15 responses to “The Border of the Grace of God”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! Getting to read about this amazing icon from you and to see the photo of the icon as it is in reality is a blessing!

  2. Patrick Conner Avatar
    Patrick Conner

    I am deeply moved by this icon – had no idea it still existed. Thank you, Father, for posting the photo.

  3. Paulie Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. I chose St. Mary of Egypt as my patron saint when I converted to Orthodoxy. Her story, for me, is so multi-layered and continues to teach me daily about humility, repentance, struggles with our passions, the grace, love and forgiveness of God, strength, and I could probably go on and on,

  4. rmdoson Avatar

    St. Mary of Egypt is one of my favorite saints for the same reasons as Paulie mention (except she is not my patron). Hers is a wonderful story & I thank you for commemorating her in your blog in such a beautiful manner 🙂

  5. […] A beautiful and short tale relating to tomorrow’s feast of St Mary of Egypt. (via JD Swartz) […]

  6. Paulie Avatar

    One of the reasons I chose St. Mary of Egypt is because as I was reading through some of the lives of the saints, I noticed they all read pretty much the same way, in a sense: born of pious parents… lived a pious life.. Well, that certainly wasn’t me – and I understand (now) that this was probably the wrong perspective to have, but at that time I wondered how anyone who was “born of pious parents” could choose anything other than to live a pious life since that’s all they ever knew. And then I came across St. Mary of Egypt. This is a woman who came from darkness, fully enjoying her passions and lusts, and yet was able to see through that darkness the light of God. In that sense, she reminds me of the thief on the cross. In addition, Abba Zosimas, the most pious of monks, was led to this simple, truly repentant and humble woman who taught him the greatest lessons of his life. There are just so many lessons to be learned from both of their lives!

  7. Subdeaconnik Avatar

    Children of pious parents have it hard . . . see how many don’t become saints . . . .

  8. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Everyone has it hard (or not). Pious parents can be a stumbling block to some children while harlots and thieves can be a hindrance to others. So instead of trying to play God, we try simply to live out the lives we’re given.

    Fr. Thomas Hopko: “Life is learning to deal with what we’ve been dealt.”

  9. Kiprian Avatar

    That particular icon is at least 800 years younger than it is proposed to be. Any art historians out there who also see 15th C. Italian influences?

  10. Andrew Avatar

    Wonderful beyond words, thank you Father.

  11. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames


    Not an art historian, but I have some interest. I see nothing of 15th Century Italy, but rather Coptic/Egyptian influences.


  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Gee, Kiprian, my eye totally disagrees. And I’ve seen it up close. Sorry to disappoint. It has nothing Italian about it.

  13. Kiprian Avatar

    Someone might want to post a link to one 5th C. icon that looks anything like this. Nevermind the blush cheeks, the eyes shadowed and looking right. Again, nothing like this appears even at St. Katherine’s in Sinai for another 800 years. We Orthodox can be hopelessly romantic in our need to have a genuine article, but an icon from the mid-400’s would be astonishingly newsworthy.

    Here’s a rare 6th C icon 100 years newer than St. Mary of Egypt’s lifespan:

    Here’s a 14th C. example:

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is also true that an icon can be presented as “painted by St. Luke,” in the sense of “in the line of the one painted by Luke.” It is how we speak. The icon at St. James (the Church next to the Church of the Resurrection where the icon resides) is generally recognized and venerated as the icon that was on the porch, venerated by St. Mary of Egypt. Of course, that particular building (the Church of the Resurrection) was destroyed by the Persians in the 7th century (at least partially). However, it remains the icon that is venerated as the one associated with St. Mary of Egypt – which is sufficient for me.

    There are problems with dating icons by stylistic measures. First, there is a fairly small sample at St. Catherine’s, far too small to generalize about. It is quite clear that artistic possibilities far exceed what we see at St. Catherine’s from what early Byzantine art that does exist. There is not simply a straight line that moves from a “more primitive” image such as the Virgin you linked to, and 16th century, etc. It is not at all clear that there is an “evolutionary” path in the art of icons.
    The fact is that we know very little about the artistic range in pre-iconoclast iconography. It certainly existed. But the examples are not there. Thus we can’t draw a conclusion on that basis. We could go the route of shroud scholars and Carbon-date everything, with all the problems associated with it.

    Apparently, we are hopelessly trapped with Tradition. It’s clear that we can be too sentimental about such things. I would hesitate to make such a judgment as you’ve offered without having personally seen and examined the icon. It would not be the first newsworthy matter within Orthodoxy to have somehow stayed off the radar of the 24 hour news-cycle. 60 minutes behaved as if they had just discovered Mt. Athos last year. I generally refrain dismissing popular piety too lightly.
    I appreciate the examples.

  15. Fr. David Subu Avatar
    Fr. David Subu

    I’m afraid I have to give this one to Kiprian. I was wondering the same thing. I still think it’s wonderful that there has been an icon in that chapel associated with that miracle for centuries. It doesn’t diminish God’s grace at all, nor limit its borders…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast