What is true strength and true power? A man thinks it is the ability to overpower any other man with ruthless and unreserved displays of strength to make it known that he is not to be trifled with. A woman thinks it is in her cunning that allows her to obtain anything she wants, whether through flattery or the use of her body. What difference is there between these and drooling, four-footed beasts? Any animal can react according to its instincts, bearing its fangs and lashing out when angry, gorging itself past satiety when hungry, or finding anything to mate with when impassioned. One who acts according to his base emotions is no better than such an animal — he is a weak creature, a slave to his swaying and unsteady passions. These voluptuaries cannot help but succumb to every whim of their god, hedonism, that throws them to and fro like a paper boat caught in the ocean’s mighty currents; the ultimate result: dissolution within the miry waters.
True strength is that which breaks free from these innate and carnal desires.
True power allows one to disobey these desires.
Men of all ages have sought ceaselessly to obtain this power. The late 3rd century holy Hieromartyr Cyprian of Nicomedia, for example, was once a prominent pagan priest educated in philosophy and the sorcerer’s craft and served Satan, the Prince of Darkness, in his attempt to know this power. Similarly, the mid-3rd century holy Martyr Christopher of Lycia sought to serve the greatest and most powerful king in the world when he, too, found himself under the rule of Satan, the Prince of the Worldly Powers, after realizing that the king he served feared Satan. However, upon encountering the Lord Jesus Christ, both men departed from the devil’s reign after witnessing how Satan could only tremble in the face of Christ’s power, and for this reason, they vowed to serve Christ as their Lord for the remainder of their lives. This fearsome and wondrous power we see Our Lord exhibit in certain passages of the scriptures, such as in Luke’s gospel where he casts a demon out of a man with a simple command. The observers were amazed: “What a word this is?” they exclaimed. “For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out” (Lk 4:36). Cyprian and Christopher were graced by Christ to have this same power imbued into them, and with it, they and countless others endured fierce beatings and horrible deaths for the gain of sainthood and the glory of Our Lord’s Name.
So, how might one obtain this same power? It may disappoint you to learn that it is unobtainable through purely human efforts. Rather, it is only in Jesus Christ, who is not merely human but theanthropic, through which it can be attained. Only those who have united themselves to him through Holy Baptism are freed from the carnality that enslaves our minds, bodies, and souls and chains them to the fetters that are our passions. With Christ living mystically within the newly baptized, they are then adopted as sons (and daughters) of God by the seal of his Holy Spirit given in the holy sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation). Through this mystical union with Christ, we are given the strength and ability necessary to deny our carnal passions and make the about-face turn from the way of sin that leads to death, to the Way of Life that is accompanied by, and leads to, Christ.
Exemplifying this perfectly is St. Mary of Egypt, a 4th century ascetic who is commemorated in Eastern Christian traditions on the fifth Sunday of Great Lent. She is celebrated for what she accomplished centuries ago through the grace and love of Christ and the power that he bestowed on her. St. Mary received this power when she confessed her sins to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and by her holy intercessions to her Son, our God, she was gifted with the strength to live a life of total repentance, turning from a life of debauchery and overindulgence to one of probity, abstemiousness, and holiness. St. Mary’s former life was characterized by the most libertine indulgence as she did all that pleased her body; beginning at the age of twelve, after forsaking and abandoning her parents, in her own words, she for seventeen years “unrestrainedly and insatiably gave [herself] up to sensuality.”i She did so, not “for the sake of gain,” as she tells us, but “so as to make as many men as possible to try to obtain [her], doing free of charge what gave [her] pleasure.” Indeed, she made even prostitutes appear prudish. “I lived by begging,” she says, “often by spinning flax, but I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life. That is how I lived.” In her retelling of the story of how she approached her encounter with the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross and Our Blessed Mother, she finds herself unable to describe to Abba Zosimas, her sole attender, the acts she committed and now regarded as so terrible and atrocious:
“How shall I relate to you what happened after
this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took
place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently
forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is
no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their
teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how
the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not
swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls.”
Yet, although not a single soul in the world may have had any hope for her, God continued to hope in her, which she realized after her miraculous conversion: “But I think God was seeking my repentance,” she recounts. “For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.” And return she did. By the grace of Christ and with the power he imparted to her, she repented and dwelled for decades in what monks of all ages have labored and strained for intensely, only to receive a mere taste. She became violent towards her own carnal nature and destroyed the powers that once held her so miserably captive, fulfilling the words of Our Lord that “the violent take [the kingdom of heaven] by force” (Matt 11:12). In conquering her former slavemasters that were her passions and overcoming worldly desires, she has made herself ruler, becoming a pillar in the temple of God and having his Name and the Name of his Holy City written upon her (Rev 3:12). One indication of true power (and true strength) is illustrated in St. Mary of Egypt’s 47-year struggle to live a holy life in the desert. For St. Mary of Egypt, true power (and true strength) was the protection of the Omnipotent Word of God.
“At times the sun burned me up and at other times I shivered from the frost, and frequently falling to the ground I lay without breath and without motion. I struggled with many terrible temptations. But from that time till now the power of God in numerous ways had guarded my sinful soul and my humble body. When I only reflect on the evils from which Our Lord has delivered me I have imperishable food for hope of salvation. I am fed and clothed by the all-powerful Word of God, the Lord of all. For it is not by bread alone that man lives. And those who have stripped off the rags of sin have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rock” (Job 24; Heb 11:38).
O holy saints Cyprian, Christopher, and Mary who now stand in the immediate presence and glory of God in all His power, please pray for us sinners that we, too, may become by grace what God is by nature.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philip 4:13)
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insult, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9-10)
José Luis Sáenz is a graduate student studying nutrition and dietetics at the University of Texas-San Antonio. For the last four years or so he has sought to serve Christ and currently finds himself a catechumen within the Russian Orthodox Church. Although no expert, he enjoys playing the guitar as well as viewing art and reading poetry.
i cf. Sandiopoulos, John (2017). “Life of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt (St. Sophronios of Jerusalem).” (Retrieved from https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/, fall 2019). Note: all other direct quotes in this post about St. Mary of Egypt were taken from this source.
*All scriptural quotations taken from the New King James Version (NKJV).