St. Mary of Egypt
Prepared by Milad Hamwi
On the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate our venerable mother Mary of Egypt: the humble victor over carnal passions. She is our model of true repentance, an encouragement for all who have neglected their salvation, and an example of the transforming power of God’s all-consuming love.
She was born in Egypt, around 344, and ran away from her parents at the age of 12 to go to Alexandria. For 17 years thereafter, she lived a dissolute life, giving herself over to unrestrained and insatiable sensuality. Although she often accepted no money for these acts, she lived in poverty, gaining some income by weaving linen. One summer, she boarded a ship with a crowd of Egyptian and Libyan pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, offering her body to pay her fare. When she tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the other men, she was stopped at the threshold by an invisible force three times. Once she realized that it was her impurity that was preventing her from entering, she was filled with remorse, and turned to the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, crying:
“O Lady Virgin, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word! I know that I am unworthy to look upon your icon. I rightly inspire hatred and disgust before your purity, but I know also that God became Man in order to call sinners to repentance. Help me, O All-Pure One. Let me enter the church. Allow me to behold the Wood upon which the Lord was crucified in the flesh, shedding His Blood for the redemption of sinners, and also for me. Be my witness before Your Son that I will never defile my body again with the impurity of fornication. As soon as I have seen the Cross of your Son, I will renounce the world, and go wherever you lead me.”
She was then permitted to enter the Church, and venerated the Holy Cross. She then returned to the icon to give thanks, and heard a voice saying, “If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest.” She immediately cried out “O Lady, do not forsake me!” Leaving the Church, she set out for the Jordan, and came upon the Church of St. John the Baptist, where she received Holy Communion. After sleeping that night on the riverbank and washing her hands and face in the Jordan, she found a small boat in which she crossed to the opposite shore, taking nothing more than three loaves of bread.
For the next 47 years, she lived in the desert, enduring the burning heat of day and the freezing cold of night, having only wild herbs for food. Through extraordinary asceticism, the fire of carnal desire in her was turned into the flame of divine love. She struggled most intensely during the first 17 years, during which she was tormented by mad desires and passions.
About one year before her death, she met St. Zosimas, a priest-monk from a Palestinian monastery on the outskirts of Caesarea. After being disturbed by the thought that he had attained perfection, he was instructed by an angel of the Lord to go the monastery by the Jordan, where he participated in the practice of spending the Great Fast in the desert across the river. It was at this time that he met and was humbled by St. Mary’s virtue. After recognizing him as a priest and calling him by name, she began to relay the story of her life, using his cloak to cover her naked and withered body. During this encounter, he observed her being elevated from the ground during prayer, and speaking words from Holy Scripture, even though she was unlearned. After giving him some instructions to complete at the monastery, manifesting her clairvoyance, she then asked him to bring her Holy Communion on Holy Thursday of the following year.
He followed her instructions, and the next year, he arrived at the riverbank with the Holy Mysteries. St. Mary met him by walking across the river, and after partaking of Holy Communion, returned across the river by foot, having asked him to meet her again in the desert within a year. Upon his return, he found her body on the sand, with an inscription indicating that she had fallen asleep in the Lord on the night of the Lord’s Passion, after partaking of the Mystical Supper. It also indicated that she desired to be buried on that spot. Although the monk tried to dig, the ground was hard and dry, and looking up he saw a lion licking the feet of St. Mary. St. Zosimas then boldly ordered the lion to dig a hole in the earth for her body, which was quickly complete. After burying the body, the elder returned to the monastery, where he relayed his encounter with the saint to the other monks. They preserved the story of St. Mary’s life among them as oral tradition until it was written down by St. Sophronius.
Troparion (tone 8)
In thee, O Mother, was exactly preserved what was according to the divine image. For thou didst take the cross and follow Christ, and by thy life, didst teach us to ignore the flesh, since it is transitory, but to care for the soul as an immortal thing. Therefore, thy spirit, St. Mary, rejoices with the Angels.