The Prodigal Son is said to have “come to himself” when he was feeding the pigs in a foreign land. Hungry, lonely, having wasted his inheritance, it is said that he envied the pigs for their food. But, what does it mean that he “came to himself?” This is one of the primary stories of repentance in the Scriptures, as well as a primary story of forgiveness and restoration. If it is true that he “came to himself” among the pigs, it must also be true that he “lost himself” when he chose to leave home and live a life of waste and extravagance.
It is impossible to know God and not know the self. It is also the case that it is impossible to know the self and not know God. St. Gregory of Nyssa described the soul as a “mirror.” And though this image can be abused, it is, nevertheless, the case that it is within the soul that we see and encounter God. The search for God is thus a search for the self as well. If these are authentic, they tend to occur together.
The modern world is a difficult place in which to find the self, if, for no other reason, than its own fascination with what it describes as the self. The creation of an identity is among the many modern projects – it has become an object of our consumption. We not only “pick” an identity, we tend to “accessorize” as well.
Back in the 90’s, there was a fad that passed through the area for “line dancing” at a local bar with Country and Western music. My wife and I were invited out for the evening and soaked up the atmosphere at the local venue. I do not know if this is still something people do, nor whether the venue remains open. However, it was more than a place to dance. It was a place to wear Western outfits, complete with boots and jeans (and so much more). People enjoyed themselves. I did not, however, figure out why middle managers and such in East Tennessee needed to dress up as cowboys in order to dance. It is simply one of the many subcultures that dot the landscape.
As an aging citizen, I am doubtless out-of-touch with the subcultures of the present, and would likely be yet moreso were I to take a tour of such today. But I see our struggling identities scattered across the public landscape. (And urban cowboys would be the least interesting of them!)
The soul is not a project. We do not pick an identity or choose one as a matter of lifestyle decision-making. The ephemeral things that people imagine themselves to be, even the middle-class parlor games of personality-type tests, fall infinitely short of the truth of our existence. The things we imagine, analyze and spend time on, are often little more than the neurotic struggles of a shame-filled culture in which some version of “well-adjusted” is pretty much the goal of everyone you meet.
The stories in the lives of the saints point us towards a much deeper journey. The pleasure-filled dissipation that marked the life of the young St. Mary of Egypt, with her very frank description of her sex and alcohol addiction related years later, would fit well in the annals of human sin at any place and any time. It is the story of a lost soul. The story of her salvation, remembered each year in Great Lent, bears some initial resemblance to the Prodigal Son.
When Mary is miraculously prevented from crossing the threshold of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, like the Prodigal, she “comes to herself” and sees the frightful truth of just how lost she is. Unlike the Prodigal, there is no fatted calf, ring, or robe immediately greeting her and welcoming her home. Instead, there is a meager loaf of bread and a lifetime of wandering in the desert. It was there she received an invisible robe, and even a crown. She describes her struggle:
…Seventeen years I passed in this desert fighting wild beasts — mad desires and passions. When I was about to partake of food, I used to begin to regret the meat and fish of which I had so much in Egypt. I regretted also not having wine which I loved so much, for I drank a lot of wine when I lived in the world, while here I had not even water. I used to burn and succumb with thirst. The mad desire for profligate songs also entered me and confused me greatly, edging me on to sing satanic songs which I had once learned. 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.
We can only wonder from the outside at the light that shown on her “from everywhere” and the “lasting calm” she experienced. These are part of the experience of the “true self,” found only in union with Christ. It is the place where this “harlot of the desert” can speak with love and wonder to the most pure Queen of Heaven without fear or the self-loathing that forces us to hide.
Modernity has a goal of mediocrity (despite its excessive praise of athletes and such). Indeed, we entertain ourselves with movies that depict super-heroes, made by people whose actual lives rival the debauchery of the young Mary in Alexandria. Of course, the mediocrity of the modern world is a measure that continues to sink lower through its own vacuity. Virginity is ridiculed while murder is praised as freedom.
St. Mary’s path is hard. It is worth pondering what she thought was on the other side of the threshold she was prevented from crossing. It was far more than a selfish desire to see a famous object (the True Cross). Only the knowledge that she was but a few feet away from the very truth of her own existence in the presence of God could have propelled her to make the rash promise that pushed her through that Door.
“…as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever you lead me.’”
Of course, had she been turned away completely, she still would have already seen what she needed to see.
I have written before about the importance of asking the right question. For St. Mary, the question was the request to see the Wood of the Cross. She asked it in the right way – all or nothing. We frequently think that we want to know God. What we often mean by that is that we want to know God as a fact – something we can walk around, examine, discuss, and think about. The real question is whether we want to know God like St. Mary of Egypt knew God. That question comes replete with a self-knowledge she had refused all her life. She was only able to find God in the heart of a drunken, Alexandrian prostitute. It is in similar places of the heart that we will find Him as well.