Commemorating the Repentance of St. Mary of Egypt

Commemorating the Repentance of St. Mary of Egypt

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She was born in Egypt, in about 466 AD, to Christian parents. At the age of 12, she ran away from home to Alexandria, where she lived on the street, giving away her favours and spinning flax to feed herself. She loved a good party and her endless capacity for wine brought even more men to her. For 17 years she indulged what she called her “irrepressible desire for lying in filth.” As she told Father Zosimas years later, “every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.”

About 475, when she was about 29, God called Mary so clearly she couldn’t ignore Him any longer. As she roved the streets of Alexandria, she noticed a crowd of Libyans and Egyptians hurrying to the harbour. They were heading for Jerusalem, they told her, for the feast of the exaltation of the Holy Cross. She asked if she might also go along. Certainly, they replied, as long as she could pay her own passage and buy her own food.

Mary hadn’t been serious, but was suddenly seized by a compulsion to travel to Jerusalem for the feast. She sped through the hot, dusty streets to the harbour. Once on the ship, she paid for her passage and meals on board ship with her body, but she also set out to seduce as many of the passengers and crew as she could, even, she said later, “forcing those miserable youths even against their own will.

She arrived in Jerusalem a few days before the feast, and partied with anyone she met. She was searching, late one night, for more parties to fill her emptiness, but as the dawn broke, she saw the crowds making their way to the church. Always attracted by a spectacle, Mary followed them and reached the Church just as the Cross was being shown to the people. She made it through the crowds to the porch of the church and pushed, shoved and wriggled her way through the sweaty, close, packed throngs to the doors of the sanctuary itself to get closer and see and touch the Cross. But as she stepped on the doorstep of the church, an invisible wall descended, blocking her entry. Stunned and surprised, she found herself maneuvered to the corner of the porch as people pressed forward to venerate the Cross.

She tried again and again to enter but couldn’t get past the doorway. She pushed her back to a corner of the porch. She huddled, exhausted and shocked under an icon of the Theotokos. Gradually her past behaviour became clearer to her in the light of the Holy place in which she crouched. Wracked by guilt and sorrow, she sobbed from the depths of her being and she prayed to the Theotokos that if she would be granted the privilege of venerating the true Cross, she would repent, abandon her life and follow wherever the Mother of God led her.

After her prayer, Mary moved to the doors of the Church, and this time, she was able to enter. Trembling so hard she could barely stand, her head whirling, Mary approached the Holy and life giving cross. She saw the Holy mysteries of God and was brought to understand how the Lord accepts repentance. Overcome, she fell to the ground and kissed the floor of the Church.

Mary returned to the icon where she prayed to the Mother of God and heard a voice from nowhere telling her to cross the Jordan “to find glorious rest.” By sunset, she found herself near the Church of St. John the Baptist on the banks of the river Jordan where she prayed and took communion. The next morning, Mary borrowed a small boat, crossed to the other side of the river and disappeared into the desert for the next 47 years.

As she later related to the priest-monk Zosimas, who found her and heard her story, it was not an easy time, especially for the first two decades. God kept her alive on His presence, the loaves of bread she had brought with her, and she foraged for food in the desert. But she was tormented by her memories of the sumptuous food she’d enjoyed in the world, the taste of the wine she had so loved. As she tried to sing hymns and psalms to distract herself, she would find herself singing the right words to secular melodies, or putting lewd verses to Holy music.

Despairing, Mary beat her breast, and reminded herself of the vow she had given the Theotokos. Worst was the lust that attacked her. “A fire was kindled in my miserable heart which seemed to burn me up completely and to awake in me a thirst for embraces,” she told Father Zosimas.

When the fit came upon her, she threw herself on the ground, crying and praying for help from the Theotokos and the Lord. Eventually a sweet, calm light would fall on her, filling her with enlightenment and chasing away the troublesome thoughts and memories. She told Father Zosimas that it wasn’t until she had lived in the desert for 17 years that the torment of her temptation eased.

Over the years, her robe and cloak grew tattered and old. Ultimately, it was easier to go naked than to try to keep modesty, for indeed, who was there to be modest for? Over the years, her skin burned to a dark brown, and her hair turned pure white, and stopped growing just at the top of her shoulders.

God taught her the Bible and the wisdom of the Fathers. She found happiness and contentment in His company. But Mary never forgot her past, and her time was spent in repentance and atonement for her soulless deeds.

Father Zosimas, a wise and old priest was tormented by the thought that somewhere in the world there was a monk who could teach him theology and show him ascetic feats he had not accomplished. To answer his prayer, God sent him an angel, who directed him to a monastery in the desert near the banks of the Jordan River. During Lent, the monks scattered into the desert, to spend the entire period alone with God, returning to the monastery on Palm Sunday.

Father Zosimas wandered for 20 days, and, while praying, he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye. Hoping this was the teacher he was looking for, he chased the figure, and eventually it stopped. A low, harsh voice bade him stay back, explaining that she was a woman and naked. He lent her his cloak and the two wandered for the day, as Mary told him her story.

As the the first glimmers of stars appeared on the horizon, Mary begged him to meet her on the banks of the Jordan River the following year with the Holy Mysteries. She also begged him to speak to no one of her existence or history until she had died. As soon as he had given his word, she disappeared into the desert.

The next year Father Zosimas fell ill just before Lent, and was confined to the monastery for the fast. Mindful of his promise, when the day approached, Father Zosimas went to river to wait for Mary. She appeared at sunset, and walked across the river, as Peter had done in the Gospel, to reach him. She partook of the Gifts, they talked and she asked him to meet her the next year in the place where they had first encountered one another.

The year passed, slowly but Lent arrived, and Father Zosimas left the monastery and wandered until the day appointed for his meeting with Mary. He reached the spot, but at first, he couldn’t see her. He paced and waited, but finally he asked God to show him Mary. He saw, across the river, the saint, face turned to the rising sun, lying dead. When he reached her, he saw, scratched in the ground near her head, a message asking him to bury her body and the date of her death, the first of April.

He found a piece of wood to use as a shovel. But the desert earth was dry and hard packed, and he worked hard to accomplish very little. Sweating and exhausted, Zosimas finally stopped to rest. He froze in fear as he straightened up, for at Mary’s feet crouched an enormous lion. Terrified, the priest dared not move in case it attacked. But he had to finish her grave and bury her. He crossed himself as the huge cat got to its feet and ambled toward him purring! Surely, he was in God’s hands, and Mary was watching over him.

Still frightened, but willing to trust both God and Mary, Zosimas spoke to the lion, asking it to help him bury the saint’s body. The big cat extended its claws and dug into the earth as if it were sand. When the grave was complete, Zosimas washed Mary’s feet with his tears, asking her to pray for him. He wrapped her in the tattered cloak he’d given her two years before. Then, together, the lion and the man filled in the grave and went their separate ways.

True to his promise, Zosimas had said nothing to anyone about Mary while she lived, and on reaching his monastery, he told the Abbot and his brothers everything. The monks passed Mary’s story down by word of mouth from one generation to another, until Sophronius, who visited the monastery, wrote it down.

And as Sophronius himself said, “May God Who works amazing miracles and generously bestows gifts on those who turn to Him with faith reward those who seek light for themselves in this story. May those who hear, read and are zealous to write this story be granted the lot of blessed Mary together with all who at different times have pleased God by their pious thoughts and labours. And let us also give glory to God, the eternal King, that He may grant us, too, His mercy in the day of judgment for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, to Whom belongs all glory, honour, dominion and adoration with the Eternal Father and the Most Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and always, and through all ages. Amen.”

Glory to God, and pray for us, we beg you, Saint Mary of Egypt.

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About author
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Bev Cooke

Bev. Cooke has been writing for publication since 1989. Her first love is writing for young adults, and she has three YA books on the market: Keeper of the Light, a historical fiction about St. Macrina the Elder in 2006. Royal Monastic, a biography of Mother Alexander (Princess Ileana of Romania), also published by Conciliar came out in 2008. Feral, an edgy mainstream novel was released by Orca Book Publishers in 2008. Her latest publication is a departure from her regular work - an Akathist to St. Mary of Egypt, published by Alexander Press in 2010, which was written partly as a response to the seventy missing women from downtown Vancouver's east side, and as a plea to St. Mary of Egypt to pray for those women, and the men and women who live on the streets.

Bev. and her husband live in Victoria, BC where they enjoy two seasons: wet and road construction. They have two adult children, two cats and attend All Saints of Alaska parish.

Bev's very out of date webpage is bevcooke.ca and her blog is http://bevnalabbeyscriptorium.wordpress.com/. It's a little more up to date than the webpage. Bev is planning to blog more and update her webpage very soon, so keep checking back to them and be sure to "Like" her FB page: Bev. Cooke, writer.