Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Saint Mary of Egypt

Into the tradition of the Great Lent, the accent of the conversion is often remembered into the liturgical hymns. Because the Lent itself is, at its origins, a monastic tradition, it is very important for the Eastern Christians to have some examples to follow in their own lives. They must know how exactly they can change their lives, and also the fact, that even the biggest sinner can become a saint, if he really repents and makes a change in his life, called in the Greek tradition, metanoia.

The life of Our venerable mother Saint Mary of Egypt is a very good example for the citizens from the cities, who have a very alert way of life, who can’t pray all the time. They may say that there’s no time for praying, for almsgiving, because it is so much to do, especially today. Such a life of a saint is also a good example for the ones who travel. Especially in the past, traveling itself was seen as dangerous: you don’t know what you will meet in your way. Finally, such a life is good to read by the ones who consider themselves saints: they would see that there are some other people who go before them into the Kingdom of God, because God’s paths are mysterious.

The Life of Saint Mary

The life of Saint Mary of Egypt was written by St. Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem (634 - 638). The way he depicts such a life is very interesting. I would say that is like a piece of romantic literature, or a opera theatre. That’s why I will slice it in this way.

Saint Mary is one of the holy women who became saint from prostitute, according to the words of Our Lord, that that the tax-gatherers and the harlots will go before the righteous one into the reign of God (Mat. 21,31).

In the tradition of the Eastern Church, the life of St. Mary is read in the Synaxarion of the Morning Service into the 5th Sunday of the Great Lent, and during the Matins of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete on the preceding Thursday.

The reason for that fact, is that St. Mary is a good example of transformation from a citizen (which, according to the ascetic tradition means full of sins) into a holy of the Desert (which means also, the bearer of the purity).

Saint Mary of Egypt lived during the sixth century in the city of Alexandria and later into the Judaean Desert and passed away in a remarkable manner, according to the legend, in 522. It is notable that the Synaxarion states that Zosimas, the teller of her life, lived during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius II, who reigned from 408 to 450, so she may have lived even earlier.

Such a religious novel begins in a special manner, with “once upon a time”, like all the stories. First of all, the narrator speaks about a holy monastery into the Desert of Palestine and the traditions there. At the beginning of the Great Lent all the monks used to leave their monastery and live into the deep desert with only a few bread and water. Only in the Last Week all of them came together into the monastery, in order to celebrate the Passions of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Between those monks was the holy hieromonk (priester-monk) Zosimas, already a monk for 53 years long. He is commemorated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches on April 4.

Exactly as St. Anthony the Great once, Zosimas was asking himself if there is some other person in the world holy like him, or maybe more. In the same moment a holy angel sent him into the deeper desert, he crossed the river of Jordan and went further for other 12 days. In a morning, making his usual prayers, he saw something like a human shadow, which he thought first it would be a demon. But “the shadow” ran away and Zosimas after her. After some times, “the shadow” told him she is a woman, but being completely naked, can’t stop, so the monk gave her his own monastic cloth. Then the woman started to speak about her life.

She began her life as a young woman who followed the passions of the body, running away from her parents at age twelve for Alexandria. There she lived as a harlot for seventeen years, refusing money from the men that she copulated with, instead living by begging and spinning flax.

One day, however, she met a group of young men heading toward the sea to sail to Palestine for the veneration of the Holy Cross in the City of Jerusalem. Probably Mary was looking already for something in her passion: maybe the infinite seduction of the Lord, but she didn’t know that. Anyway, she decided immediately to go also to Jerusalem. So she went along for the ride, seducing the men as they traveled for the fun of it. But when the group reached Jerusalem and actually went towards the church, Mary was prohibited from entering by an unseen force. After three such attempts, she remained outside on the church. Then she looked through the open door and saw inside an icon of the Theotokos. She began to weep and prayed with all her might that the Mother of God might allow her to see the True Cross; afterwards, she promised, she would renounce her worldly desires and go wherever the Holy Virgin may lead her.

After this heart-felt conversion at the doors of the church, she fled into the desert to live as an ascetic. She survived for years on only three loaves of bread and thereafter on scarce herbs of the land. For another seventeen years, Mary was tormented by “wild beasts: mad desires and passions”. After these years of temptation, however, she overcame the passions and was led by the Theotokos in all things. All those years she didn’t take any Holy Communion or the Sacrament of Confession, because se didn’t met anyone. In the meantime, all her clothes were destroyed, that’s why she was naked, enduring heath during the days and cold during the nights, until her skin became black and hard like an armor.

Following 47 years in solitude, in the end she met the priest St. Zosimas in the desert, who pleaded with her to tell him of her life. She recounted her story with great humility while also demonstrating her gift of clairvoyance; she knew who Zosimas was and his life story despite never having met him before. Finally, she asked Zosimas to meet her again the following year at sunset on Holy Thursday by the banks of the Jordan. That was in fact her Sacrament of confession, and after that, she was waiting for the Holy communion for another year.

After another year, Zosimas did exactly this, though he began to doubt his experience as the sun began to go that night. Then Mary appeared on the opposite side of the Jordan; crossing herself, she miraculously walked across the water and met Zosima.s When he attempted to bow, she rebuked him, saying that as a priest he was far superior, and furthermore, he was holding the Holy Mysteries. Mary then received the Holy Body and Flesh of Our Lord and walked back across the Jordan, after giving Zosima instructions about his monastery and that he should return to where they first met exactly a year later.

A year later, father Zosimas found Mary's body with a message written on the sand, asking him for burial, and revealing that she had died immediately after receiving the Holy Mysteries the year before (and thus had been miraculously transported to the spot where she now lay). So Zosima, amazed, began to dig, but soon tired; then a lion approached and began to help him, that is, after Zosimas had recovered from his fear of the creature. Thus St. Mary of Egypt was buried. Zosimas returned to the monastery, told all he had seen, and improved the faults of the monks and abbot there. He died at almost a hundred years old in the same monastery.

Later, the story of Mary's life was written down by St. Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Hymn (Troparion) of Saint Mary the Egyptian

“The image of God was truly preserved in you, O mother, for you took up the Cross and followed Christ. By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away; but to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. Therefore your spirit, O holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the Angels”


In iconography, St. Mary of Egypt is depicted as a deeply tanned, emaciated old woman with unkempt gray hair, either naked or covered by the mantle she borrowed from Zosimas. She is often shown with the three loaves of bread she bought before undertaking her journey into the desert.

The Veneration of St. Mary the Egyptian

The Eastern Church celebrates her feast day on the day of her repose, on April 1; additionally, she is commemorated on the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, the 5th Sunday in Great Lent, as we said already.

In the Roman Catholic Church, she is commemorated on April 3 (or April 2, according to the Roman Martyrology). Although she is venerated by Anglicans, St. Mary of Egypt does not appear on Anglican Church Calendars.

In Goethe’s Faust, St. Mary of Egypt is one of the three penitent saints who pray to the Virgin Mary for forgiveness for Faust. Her words are set by Mahler in his 8th Symphony as the final saint’s appeal to the Mater Gloriosa.

In Ben Jonson’s play Volpone (1606), one of the characters uses the expression “Marry Gip”, which means “Mary of Egypt”.

Mary of Egypt is the subject of operas by Ottorino Respighi and Sir John Tavener, the latter written in 1992 for the Aldeburgh Festival.

Nalo Hopkinson’s science-fiction novel, The Salt Roads, also features Mary of Egypt and takes a historical fiction approach to telling her story.

There is a chapel dedicated to her at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, commemorating the moment of her conversion. Also the Temple of Portunus in Rome was preserved, by being rededicated to Saint Mary of Egypt in 872.

There are many churches carrying her name. An example would be the Russian Orthodox church from Tübingen, Germany.

In the 1st Sunday of the Great Lent 2011, called in the Easter Church, “the Sunday of the Orthodoxy”, one more Monastery started its life, under the patronage of St. Mary. It is the first orthodox monastery southern from Sahara Desert, in Uganda and the first monastery with exclusively native African nuns.

Facts. Mary Magdalene and Mary the Egyptian

Today the majority of the Christians believe that St. Mary Magdalene is a former prostitute, converted by Our Lord. Even if it would be so, there’s no evangelical sign to believe so. The holy Scriptures tell us only that, Jesus healed her, being enslaved before by seven demons (Mark 16,9 anf Luke 8,2). The moment when he did so is unknown, but probably, according to St. Matthew (15,39), that happened after Jesus multiplicated 7 breads and some fishes for the 4000 followers.

The confusion between Mary Magdalene and probably St. Mary the Egyptian occurred for the first time into a sermon of Pope Gregory the Great, in the 6th century. Since then, St. Mary Magdalene was believed to be a converted prostitute, without any proof.

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