St. Mary of Egypt (Died c. 421)
St. Mary of Egypt is one of the most beloved saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church. When she was only twelve years old, she left her parents and moved to Alexandria, where she lived as a prostitute. Later in life, she recalled with horror that she did not live as a prostitute for money, but because of the passions. She was so driven by her desires that she would even refuse money for her services. She lived as a prostitute for seventeen years. She made her living by spinning flax and begging.
One year, when she saw the crowds preparing to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, she decided to join them. Although she had no money, she boasted that her body would provide both “fare and food” for her. On the boat, she had many sexual exploits, seducing both the willing and the unwilling.
Figure 12-2: St. Mary of Egypt
When she got to Jerusalem, however, something strange happened. At daybreak, she tried to enter a church to venerate the True Cross of Christ (read more about this feast and cross in Chapter 16). But something held her back — almost a physical force. No matter how hard she tried, she could not enter the church. To her astonishment, all those around her entered the church without any struggle. She suddenly realized that it was her own sinfulness that was holding her back. She asked the Virgin Mary to help her and asked for forgiveness. After praying, she was able to enter the church and kiss the True Cross. She then said to the Virgin Mary, “O Lady, Lady, do not forsake me!”
As she left the church, a stranger stopped her saying, “Sister, take these.” She took the three coins, bought some loaves of bread, and set off for the desert, as the Virgin Mary had told her that in the desert she would find glorious rest.
Along the way, she stopped at a church, which was built into the banks of the River Jordan. She was baptized there and received communion. She then moved on to the desert, where she lived undetected by any other human being for forty-seven years.
One day a priest named Fr. Zosimas discovered Mary. He was confused and frightened by her naked, emaciated form, however, not sure if she was a demon or an angel. He turned away and prayed for courage, and then approached her again, only to have her flee. Her skin was brown and burnt from the sun and her hair was bleached white from it. He shouted to her, “Why do you run from an old man and a sinner? Slave of the True God, wait for me, whoever you are, in God's name I tell you for the love of God for whose sake you are living in the desert.”
Although Mary had never met him or heard of him, she addressed him by name. “Father Zosimas,” she said, “Forgive me.” Fr. Zosimas was terrified — how did she know his name? But Mary, for her part, was embarrassed because she was completely naked. She asked the priest to loan her his cloak, which he did immediately. Both of them fell prostrate on the ground, each asking for the other's blessing.
Fr. Zosimas listened to Mary with awe. She seemed to know everything about him. Fr. Zosimas asked Mary to share her story with him, and although she was reluctant, it all came pouring out — the details of her former life as a prostitute, as well as her many hardships in the desert. Fr. Zosimas wept openly as she shared her story, but he asked her to continue on. He could see that she had achieved a level of holiness in the desert that was all the greater because of her former level of sin.
She asked Fr. Zosimas if he would return in one year on Holy Thursday with communion for her. He agreed to this. When he returned, one year later, she came walking across a body of water to meet him and he was terrified. He fell on his knees in awe before her, but she scolded him for kneeling like that. “What are you doing? You being a priest, carrying the holy mysteries?”
He got up off the ground, fumbling as he prepared the holy mysteries. After she took communion, she raised her arms and said, “Lord now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” She asked Fr. Zosimas to leave again, and not to return for a year.
When he returned a year later, however, he found her body on the ground. Her hands were crossed over her and she faced the east. Fr. Zosimas kissed her feet and washed them with his tears. He then wept for a long, long time.
She had left him a note in the sand beside her. In the note, she asked him to bury her in that exact spot, and explained that she had died just an hour after he brought her communion. She had signed the note with her name, which he had never heard before, “Mary, the sinner.”
Fr. Zosimas understood that he had to bury her, but the task was formidable. The ground was hard and dry. He tried to dig into the dirt with a small piece of wood, but he quickly became sweaty and exhausted. Just then, a lion approached Mary's body and began to lick her feet.
Fr. Zosimas was terrified by the lion, but again he steeled himself by making the sign of the cross. As he did this he realized that perhaps the lion had been sent to help him. He asked the lion if he might dig the grave with his claws, and the lion complied.
Fr. Zosimas continued to pray and weep over the saint in the presence of the lion. He then buried her with the help of the lion. As he buried her, he alternated between grief and awe at the wonders that had been shown to him through this woman. He then returned to the monastery that he had come from to share what he had experienced. St. Mary of Egypt is commemorated on April 1 and the fifth Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church.
(This account is largely drawn from