THE LIFE OF OUR HOLY MOTHER, Mary of Egypt is not well known in the west although her feast day is the same day on both Eastern and Western calendars. She is commemorated today, 1 April.
Her life is read liturgically in the Byzantine and Orthodox churches at Matins for the Thursday of the 5th week of Lent. In practice, this means Wednesday night of that week. Like many saints so well-loved, she is treated as family and called “Our Mother” and “Holy Mother Mary of Egypt”. Her life was written down by St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634–638), from older stories passed down in his monastic community. The original reporter was the monastic elder, Zosimas, who heard the story from the Saint’s own lips.
What follows is not the liturgical text, available online. This is my own retelling. I heard and read this story often in the Orthodox Church, where I also had a chance to venerate a relic of St Mary. It’s ingrained in my heart.
Saint Mary was born sometime in the early to mid 5th century. We know nothing of her family or her background. I imagine that she was poor because of what follows. She is not averse to manual labor nor does she rank as a very high-class courtesan. What she does say is that at the age of 12 she discovered sex. Mary went off to the big city of Alexandria and began to enjoy herself. At this time marriage often took place at the same age, and in those days life expectancy was not then what it is now. Mary is not being a child here. She is a girl in her sexual prime.
Mary was at pains in the story to say she was not a prostitute. She busied herself with spinning flax, with basket weaving, and other manual labor, this suggests that she was poor because she was willing to do this work. She did not want to sell what she enjoyed as she did not think it was fair to be paid for it. She lived this life for 17 years in Alexandria. “This was life to me,” she says. “Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.”
One day Mary saw a group of young men getting ready to get on a boat. In response to her questions about where they were going and why, the men explained that they were going to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, which happens every September. Mary asked to go with them not for any pious pursuit and implying it sounded – to her – like a fun idea to be the only woman on a boat filled with young men. On the boat ride and during their time in the city of Jerusalem leading up to the feast day, there was nothing she didn’t do. She says that sometimes she even had sex with the young men when they were not willing to do so.
Then came the feast. With all of her new friends she went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem but no matter how many times she tried to get in, she was prevented from entering the church. It was not that the crowds prevented her: she would shove along with everybody else. Yet each time approaching the door she found force holding her back and pushing her off to the side until finally she was alone on the porch of the church, looking at the open door, unable to enter.
Then she turned and saw an icon of Mary the Mother of God. She was not alone and it dawned on her why she could not enter. So she prayed and asked the Blessed Virgin to help her enter the church. If she could but enter the church and venerate the Holy Cross, she prayed, she would make amends and change her life, embarking on the path of repentance for the rest of her days. Then, in her greatest Act of Faith, she turned and walked into the church.
She knelt and kissed the holy wood whereupon hung the price of all of our lives and souls and, most dearly, hers.
Then she left the church. Someone thought she was a beggar and gave her coins, which she used to buy a small amount of food. Then, hearing a voice promise her comfort, she went to the Jordan River and crossed it into the desert, which for the next 17 years became the arena of the Angelic Conquest of her passions.
Mary’s emotions would sometimes stir her; sometimes lust would catch hold of her, sometimes her cravings for food would drive her wild, and sometimes she would find herself singing songs that she used to sing about sex and vulgarity. At these times she would throw herself on the ground and beg for God’s mercy where she would wrestle with the demons that tormented her. There she would beg to be freed from her passion. After her long battle, one day there came from God an inner peace.
She had lived alone for 47 years when she met Fr Zosima, a priest from a monastery on the Jerusalem side of the Jordan River. He was wandering through the Jordan desert on his Lenten fast.
The priest reported that when he begged her to pray for the Church and she hovered above the sandy floor of the wasteland while praying. She was illiterate and had never been taught scripture yet she could quote it fluently. From her inner sight, she knew Fr Zosima’s name and that he was a priest. After 17 years she had won her struggle, and then for 30 more years, receiving so much grace from God that she lived partly in this world as the Angels do in the next.
She asked the priest to meet her after Easter with the Holy Eucharist. As he came to her from his monastery, he saw her walk on the water, crossing the Jordan to receive the Eucharist from him and then walk back across the water.
A year later, when he went to find her, he found her body lying on the sand. Unable to dig into the hard ground to bury her, he prayed. A lion came and helped him dig.
The Golden Legend is a collection of the Lives of the Saints, compiled around 1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, a Dominican priest from Genoa. In it are hundreds of stories collected from around the Church. The entry on St Mary the Egyptian closes with these words:
And Zosimus returned to his abbey and recounted to his brethren the conversation of this holy woman Mary. And Zosimus lived an hundred years in holy life, and gave laud to God of all his gifts, and his goodness that he receiveth sinners to mercy, which with good heart turn to him, and promiseth to them the joy of heaven.
Then let us pray to this holy Mary the Egyptian that we may be here so penitent that we may come thither.
Every year during Orthodox Lent, when the Life of St Mary of Egypt would be read in liturgy, I saw in her so much of my own journey: the discovery of sex, the enjoyment of sex, and the life of someone devoted to finding “every kind of abuse of nature”. This was life to me. Her story told me there was hope for a way out, there was not only the chance of change but also the grace-filled reality of it.
In the Byzantine rite, this Vita is read liturgically during the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete at Matins on the Thursday before the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It’s a long text. Reading the Canon and this vita together makes this one of the longest services of the Byzantine Liturgical Year. (Only the Paschal vigil service with 15 readings and a Divine Liturgy of St Basil is longer.)
The last time I was appointed to read a portion of the Vita, written by St Sophronius, I was unable to finish when, reading this paragraph, I was overcome:
Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.’ I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once. 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.
My friend, Fr A, had to step in and finish reading for me while I went to the corner and mourned my sins. Look, it’s a long text. I’m not going to torture you with it. But I suggest you read The life of our holy mother, Mary of Egypt nonetheless. Bookmark it. It might take a while. Prayerfully move through it. You may find some portion of your journey there. Or you may not. I don’t care what orientation you feel you have, or what your life looks like even now. If you find yourself somewhere in the middle of her story and crave, deeply, to also find yourself in the end of her story, reach out. Let’s see what we can do to help each other.
Pray for me at least.