In the icon I have of her, her face is weathered, her hair gray, her body gaunt, her legs and arms like sticks. She wears nothing but a cloak. The Jordan River flows behind her, while St. Zosimas, the priest who received the gift of her story, gives her the gift of the Eucharist for which she begged.
For Orthodox and Catholics of both east and west, St. Mary of Egypt is the patron saint of penitents. She is also the patron saint of chastity and for those who suffer sexual temptations, which makes her the perfect patron saint for our flesh-addicted times.
Once a woman with a voracious sexual appetite, this saint who died in 530 AD* repented for her promiscuity by spending forty-seven years naked in the desert, thirty more than the seventeen she spent living in depravity.
We know of her story through St. Zosimas (c. 460-560)*, who told it to the monks at his monastery. They passed on the story orally for years until it was written down by St. Sophronius (634-638) to ensure its preservation.
After spending fifty-three years in a monastery in Palestine, Zosimas struggles with the thought that he has surpassed all of the monks in his ascetic practice. No one there, he believes, can teach him anything else.
In a vision, he is instructed to go to a monastery by the Jordan. Once there, Zosimas finds a home among the monks:
“There he saw elders, glorious in active life and contemplation, fervent in spirit, toiling towards the Lord. Their singing was unceasing, their vigil all night. Work was always in their hands and psalms on their lips.” **
For the Lenten fast, the monks leave the monastery and cross the Jordan to spend time alone in the desert until Palm Sunday.
During his time in the desert, Zosimas sees what he believes is an apparition. He pursues it, but it runs from him until he breaks down in tears by the bed of a dried-up stream. There, the apparition reveals herself to be a naked and sinful woman. She does not wish him to see her body, so she requests his cloak to cover herself. He is startled because the woman addresses him by name.
When she requests his priestly blessing, he is filled with dread and tells her that she has “nearly died to the world” and has greater spiritual gifts. In an act of great humility, the formerly prideful monk and priest asks her to bless him. She humbly complies out of obedience.
He begs her to tell him her story, because he believes God has led him to the desert for this purpose. So she reveals that at the age of twelve she left her parents and ran off to Alexandria, where she quickly lost her virginity and “. . . without restraint and insatiably I gave myself up to lust.”
One year she saw many Libyans and Egyptians heading to ships bound for Jerusalem and the feast of the Elevation of the Cross. She boarded one of the ships, paying her way with her body. On land, before the feast, she leads many more astray:
“I was not satisfied with the young men whom I had at sea and who helped my journey. . . . I seduced many others. . . . The holy day of the Elevation of the Cross came, and I was still chasing, hunting young men.”
On the day of the feast she tries to enter the church, but a force prevents her. She tries again and again until she understands why she cannot enter.
Weeping, she prays before an icon of the Holy Mother of God, the virgin, and promises that once she sees the Cross of Christ she will repent for her sins and renounce the world. The church is opened to her and inside she hears a voice that tells her she will find great peace on the other side of the Jordan.
Each Lent her story is read by Orthodox and Eastern Catholics at Morning Prayer on Thursday of the fifth week of Lent. A great reminder of what it means to truly feel sorrow for our sins and the great joy that comes from giving all to Christ, hers is a story to read and reflect on many times throughout the year.
Like St. Mary of Egypt, Our Lord waited patiently for my conversion. Once a great sinner against chastity, I have begun a devotion to her. I hope you will join me. We are in great need of her intercession in our sex-crazed times.
*The dates of St. Mary of Egypt’s birth and death are disputed. The Prologue of Ohrid lists her death as 530, which makes sense given the dates for St. Zosimas.
**Quotations are from The Lenten Triodion, Vol. 4, Weeks 5 and 6 of Great Lent, Sophia Press.