Believing that God had led him into the desert to meet her, Zosimas begged the woman to tell him her story. Although ashamed of her past, she spoke to him about the life she once lived and how she came to reside in the desert.
She was a native Egyptian. Leaving her parents at the age of twelve, she traveled to the city of Alexandria, where she lost her virginity, became enslaved to lustful passions, and gladly fed her all-consuming desire for sexual pleasure. Her income came from begging and spinning flax, not prostitution. Even though men offered to pay her for her services she refused the money. She didn’t sleep with them for the money. She enjoyed it.
One summer she saw a group of Egyptians and Libyans heading toward the shore to board a ship that would carry them to Jerusalem where they could venerate the Precious and Life-giving Cross upon which Jesus Christ had been crucified. She wanted to go on the trip, not as a spiritual pilgrimage, but to find more men with whom she could satisfy her appetite for sexual pleasure. Since she didn’t have any money, she offered her body as payment. Not only did she seduce men onboard the ship, but after reaching land she continued to seek out lovers among both the residents of Jerusalem and foreigners who were visiting the city. Even on the holy feast day of the Exaltation of the Cross she was still looking for young men to take to bed.
She noticed that the people around her began making their way to the church to see the lifting up of the Precious Cross. She followed them there, but when she tried to enter the church she was stopped by an invisible force. Unable to pass through the door, she was swept aside by the crowd. Thinking that her problem was caused by some kind of womanly weakness, she tried using her elbows to push her way through the people. Again, while everyone else passed beside her to go inside, she was unable to enter as though a detachment of soldiers were guarding the way. After three or four attempts, exhausted, without strength for another try, she walked to the corner of the porch and stood alone.
Why couldn’t she enter the church to see the Life-giving Cross? The reason became apparent to her. She had been barred from the church because of her sinful lifestyle. The filth of sin had polluted her soul. As the eyes of her heart opened to see her shameful way of life, she cried tears of repentance and beat her breast in deep sorrow.
Looking up, she saw above her an icon of the Virgin Mary. In desperation she prayed,
O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know that it’s no honor or praise to you when one as impure and depraved as I am looks upon your icon, O ever-virgin, who kept your body and soul in purity. I justifiably inspire hatred and disgust in the presence of your virginal purity, but I’ve heard that God, who was born of you, became a man for the purpose of calling sinners to repentance. So, help me, because I have no other help. Order that the entrance of the church be opened to me. Let me see the Tree, worthy of honor, on which He who was born of you suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before your Son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication. As soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross, I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever you will lead me.After her prayer, she walked into the crowd. The same force which once prevented her from entering the church seemed to clear her way. She explained to Zosimas what she saw when she entered the church: “I saw the Life-giving Cross. I also saw the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance.”
When she left the church, she asked the Virgin Mary to lead her down the path to repentance. She heard a voice speak these words: “If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.” Leaving behind her sinful life, she began living a life of repentance motivated and guided by the Holy Spirit.
By the time Zosimas met this woman, whose name was Mary, she had lived in the desert beyond the Jordan River about forty-seven years. During her first seventeen years in the desert she fought the wild beasts of her passions, the self-centered desires for pleasure that once kept her heart far from God. He past life haunted her. Those old unspiritual songs she once sung with enthusiasm remained fresh in her memory. They confused her mind. Sometimes she was tempted to start singing them again. The sexual appetite she once glutinously satisfied sought to regain control of her soul. “A fire was kindled in my miserable heart that seemed to consume me and to make me thirsty for embraces.” Through a spiritual lifestyle, including fasting and prayer, she overcame the evil passions, was healed of her self-inflicted wounds, and received the purifying grace of God.
St. Mary of Egypt, who fell asleep in the Lord in 522 AD, is a woman that our generation should get to know. So many young men and women in our own time can relate to her before she turned her life around through repentance. How many Americans are inflicting spiritual wounds upon themselves, desecrating the sanctity of their bodies, defiling the image of God within them, and following self-centered passions that lead them farther and farther away from the beauty of Paradise? There are so many young people in America who accept lustful passions and behaviors as “natural,” although they are really corruptions of our human nature that are contrary to sexual wholeness and spiritual life. Our culture, ignorant of the true and living God, accepts and promotes sexual sins that damage the soul, while ridiculing the pure and innocent. The sickness of American culture has caused a great deal of confusion and pain in our generation.
The life of St. Mary offers hope for those who have ripped and stained their virginal purity and lay in despair. Through repentance, turning to the loving God who heals, restores, and transforms, they can throw off their ruined garments and be clothed once again with the radiant garments of purity and holiness. No matter how distant they find themselves from God and how much they have been enslaved to sinful passions, God will meet them where they are and set them free. They can leave behind their sins and begin a life renewed by the Spirit. Through a lifestyle of repentance, the passions calm so that the temporary pleasures of the body lose their luster compared to the pleasure of union with the One who bestows every good and perfect thing upon us.
St. Mary was led into the desert. Does this mean that everyone who leaves behind a lifestyle of sexual sin will need to live the rest of his or her life alone in a deserted place? No, the desert is not for everybody. Perhaps God will lead some people in our generation away from society into the wilderness to live alone as hermits. Maybe He will draw some into monastic communities to fast and pray with others dedicated to the same kind of life. As God knew what St. Mary needed to overcome her sins, He knows what each one of us personally needs to overcome ours. Most people will probably live their lives of repentance while remaining in society. Instead of escaping to the wilderness or a monastery, some will remain unmarried, finding refuge in the life of a parish. For others, a marriage blessed by the Church and nurtured within the Church will be their path of salvation. Marriage is a relationship in which a husband and wife can repent of their past sins together and express their sexuality with one another in love and purity, without sin or shame.
St. Mary’s personal story involves repentance from sexual sins in particular, but she’s a model of repentance in general. Her life encourages us to repent of every kind of sin that afflicts us and draws us from God, in whose image we have been made. No matter what particular sins we find ourselves committing, repentance leads us to healing and wholeness. St. Mary shows us how to leave behind everything that hinders our spiritual health and growth, and to stay on the path to Paradise. Although she struggled violently against her former ways of thinking and acting for many years before she overcame them, she kept the Faith, remained in prayer, and stayed on course, guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Healing sometimes takes time, but the Great Physician of our souls is always with us to care for us through the process. Let’s follow St. Mary’s example and ask her to prayerfully intercede with Christ, our God, on our behalf.
The complete story of St. Mary of Egypt, as recorded by St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, can be found at monochos.net. An abbreviated version of the story is printed in First Fruits of Prayer by Frederica Mathewes-Green, Paraclete Press, 2006.
O Thou who searches the depths of our heart, who hast foreseen all things concerning us before we came into existence, Thou hast delivered from a life of bondage the woman who fled to Thee, O Saviour; and with never-silent voice she cries out to Thy tender love: ‘O ye priests bless Him, and ye people exalt Him above all for ever.’
O holy transformation, that brought thee to a better way of life! O godlike love that hated carnal pleasures! O burning faith in God! We bless thee, Mary worthy of all praise, and we exalt thee above all for ever.
O holy Mary, thou hast received the recompense for thy toil, and the due reward for all the labours whereby thou hast cast down the vengeful enemy. And now thou singest with the angels, crying aloud with never-silent voice and exalting Christ above all for ever. (Triodion)
Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The verses quoted at the end of this essay are from Vespers and Matins of the Fifth Sunday of Lent on which we celebrate the memory of Our Holy Mother, Mary of Egypt, canticle 8, 2nd canon, taken from the Lenten Triodion, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2001. The icon of St. Mary of Egypt is from the IconoGraphics ColorWorks Library, Theologic Systems, Theologic.com. Used by permission.)