• Augustine of Hippo
  • Demiana
  • Mary of Egypt
  • John the Dwarf
  • The Latter-day Saints
  • Etheldreda

Mary of Egypt

				Mary of Egypt
Life 9
Humility 9
Works 2
Martyrdom 0
Influence 3

'Some pilgrimage was hers, paid for in virtue!'

St Zosimas was a pretty shit-hot monk, and he knew it. He was assiduous in his study of the Scriptures, faithful in his devotion to the Lord and tireless in helping his fellow monks. Yet he felt a nagging sense that something was missing. Had he really mastered so easily what the Lord was asking of him? Was there no teacher who could stretch him further?

Zosimas got his answer when he was called to leave his monastery and go into the desert near the River Jordan. For three weeks he walked into the unpopulated wastes, searching for the one who would show him what he'd been missing; and when he found her, he almost ran away.

After living alone in the desert for year after year, Mary's clothes had long since gone, and her modesty was preserved only by her immensely long, grey hair. She was fearful of the newcomer, but Zosimas eventually persuaded Mary to tell him the extraordinary story of her fall and repentance.

As a young woman, Mary had been the archetypal 'happy hooker'. Passing curiousity led her to join pilgrims on board a ship travelling to the Holy Land, saying 'I have a body and that will serve as both fare and food for me.' Yet when she reached the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she found her way barred by an invisible force. Realising the sinfulness of her ways, she broke down and prayed to the Virgin Mary, who instructed her to go to the desert and spend her life in repentance.

Zosimas was the first human being she had seen in many years, and she greeted him by name despite never having met him. Having calmed his fears, she then begged him to grant her Holy Communion; yet, ultimately, it was Zosimas who would profit most from their meeting.

From being the most degraded creature that early Christianity found it possible to imagine, Mary of Egypt became an example of supernatural piety and pentience. It is unclear whether this says more about Mary or about early Christianity.

The story of Mary is known only through the words of Zosimas, for she was no scholar; yet what the story shows is that the word of the Lord works through other means than books and sermons.

At the end of her encounter with St Zosimas, Mary enjoined him to return in one year's time. Zosimas faithfully followed her instructions, but when he reached the banks of the Jordan, found only her dead body, with a message written in the sand. A friendly lion helped him to bury the body.

There is nothing the Eastern Churches like better than a supremely penitent woman saint, and Mary of Egypt has considerable importance in Orthodoxy and the Eastern Catholic Church, though she is also recognised as a saint by the Vatican. She is the patron saint of chastity, deliverance from demons, fever, skin diseases and temptations of the flesh.