I saw a commercical recently that proclaimed, “Freedom has no limits!” It sought to capture the modern imagination with what is a patently absurd statement. Everything in creation has limits – that is the nature of created things. It is nonetheless the case that we can imagine our life without limits – a shameless existence where nothing impedes our pleasure. This was the inner world of a young woman in Alexandria who would later be known as St. Mary of Egypt.
She left home, according to her own testimony, and took up a life of unbridled pleasure: sex, alcohol, whatever she imagined and desired. From what we can tell, that lifestyle came without consequences, for she was running ahead at full throttle when she came face-to-face with a limit. The limit was an invisible force that would not let her cross the threshold of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
She had traveled to Jerusalem on a lark, partying with pilgrims, using her shamelessness to draw others into her pleasure. The True Cross of Christ, fully intact (it was the 6th century), was set to be displayed for veneration on the Feast of the Cross. The Cross, the Church, the Tomb, Golgotha, all that filled that holy place, were themselves to be reduced to objects of her pleasure, souvenirs of a good story. But there are limits.
The limit she encountered was obviously a gift from God. We are not told the nature of the invisible force that prevented her from entering the Church. Angel or the hand of the Most High – we do not know. Three times she was rebuffed and turned back.
In the years before that moment, she had no limits. As such, she had no knowledge of herself or the world. Everything was appetite and passion. We only know the world or ourselves by the limits that describe us. Interestingly, both the word “describe” and the word “define” are rooted in the notion of a limit, a boundary. When God made Himself known to us in the Incarnation of Christ, He allowed Himself to have a limit and a definition. He who was uncircumscribable became circumscribable. It is why we can make an icon of His image. When we dwell without limits (“unfettered freedom”), in some manner, we cease to have any meaningful existence. Who I am also means who I am not.
St. Mary met her limits. She embraced them and entered the desert. There, in years of prayer and fasting, she found, within her limits, the depth of her being and the depth of God. Its paradox is that this life within revealed limits is the only true freedom. Freedom is not the ability to do anything, to have no limits, but the ability to truly be who and what you are, which can only be known through the revelation of limits.
It is of note, I think, that the name of this saint was not made known until the day of her death, when she wrote it in the sand, leaving instructions for the Elder Zossima for her burial. She named herself, “The sinful Mary.” The limits that had been made known to her revealed her to be a saint, one who even walked on water. Such self-knowledge is also the path to knowledge of God whose service is perfect freedom.