St Mary of Egypt
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St Mary of Egypt
'Mary the Egyptian, who called herself a sinner, lived a life of penance and hardship in the desert for forty-seven years. Towards the end of her life, a holy monk named Zosimus found himself travelling through the arid land which lies beyond the river Jordan, in an attempt to find some desert fathers. After walking deep into the desert, Zosimus came across a creature that was black over all her body, from the great heat and burning of the sun. She was also severely thin, from lack of nourishment.
The woman fled as soon as she saw Zosimus coming her way - but the monk quickly followed her. Eventually, she stopped, and asked him: "Abbot Zosimus, why are you following me? Have pity and mercy on me, because I dare not turn to face you, for I am a woman and am also naked. Please, cast your mantle upon me, so that I may, without shame, look and speak with you".
Zosimus was astounded to discover that the woman knew his name, and quickly handed his mantle to her - humbly praying that she would give him her blessing. The creature answered him, saying: "It is only proper that you, father, gave me a blessing, for you have the dignity of the priesthood." When Zosimus heard that the woman not only knew his name, but also his office, his astonishment increased!
After Zosimus had blessed the woman, she exclaimed: "Blessed be God the Saviour of our souls". She then lifted up her hands to heaven in prayer, at which point her body seemed to levitate from the earth. Seeing this, Zosimus began to think that the woman might actually be some kind of evil spirit, so decided to ask her who she was and why she was out in the desert. In answer, she said: "Fair father, if I should recount my story you might flee away from me, as one flees from a venomous serpent. My words would pollute your holy ears, and even the air itself would be filled with foul corruption!"
Zosimus continued to press the woman, though, and demanded to know who she was and why she was living so far from human society. Knowing that Zosimus was resolved, the woman agreed to tell him the story of her life, thus:-
"Fair father I was born in Egypt, and when I was twelve-years-old I went up to Alexandria, where I gave my body openly to sin and became a prostitute. I lived like this for seventeen years, and completely abandoned myself to a lecherous life - refusing no man.
"At that time, the people of Alexandria would go to Jerusalem for the Exultation of the Holy Cross. Interested to see what the fuss was all about, I decided to go with them one year. Not being religious, and realising that I had no money to pay the ship's passage, I decided to pay my way by handing over my body to the sailors. The mariners agreed to my offer.
"When I arrived in Jerusalem, I tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in which the Holy Cross was kept. But, whereas all the others seemed able to walk in unhindered, I was somehow invisibly stopped from entering the building. After a while, it occurred to me that the reason I couldn't enter the church was because of the many great sins that I had committed. Therefore, I began to beat my breast, and to wept tenderly. Just then, I saw an image of Our Lady outside,, on the church's wall. I fell down, and prayed that she would intercede for me with her Son. I asked pardon for my sins, so that Jesus would let me enter the church and adore his Holy Cross. I also promised Our Lady that I would forsake the world, and live a chaste life from then on.
"After praying, and making these promises before Our Blessed Lady, I went again to the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and this time managed to enter without impediment. After I'd spent some time devoutly adoring the Holy Cross, a man came up to me and gave me three pence, which I used to buy three loaves of bread.
"Soon after this, a voice spoke to me, saying: 'If you pass over the Jordan, you will be safe'. So, I immediately crossed the river Jordan, and came to this desert. I have been here now for many years, and have seen no-one in all that time. The three loaves which I had bought eventually became as hard as stone, but I managed to survive on them for some time, after which I took to eating desert herbs. My clothes wore thin and became ragged a long time ago.
"During the first seventeen years I suffered from great temptations to leave my chosen life. The burning of the sun also caused me great discomfort, and I often missed the things that had once satisfied my body's cravings: meat and drink, good wines, as well as the more sensual and depraved lusts.
"When the temptations became overwhelming, I prayed to Our Blessed Lady for help - for it was to her that I had made my original promise. Then, one day whilst weeping over my sins, I saw a great light about me, which filled me with an enormous consolation and helped me overcome those thoughts which had so often tempted me. Since then, I have been delivered from all temptations and am now nourished on the spiritual meat of Our Lord's word.
"This has been my life so far, and I beg you by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ that you would pray for me, a sinful creature".
After hearing the woman's story, old father Zosimus fell down onto the ground and thanked Our Lord for having saved his servant in so marvellous a way.
The hermit then asked him to visit her again, on the following Maundy Thursday. She also begged him to bring the Body of Christ with him - for she had not received Holy Communion since crossing the Jordan all those many years ago. In fact, she had only received Our Lord once, whilst in the church that housed the Holy Cross.
After the year had passed, Zosimus returned on Maundy Thursday. The woman was waiting for him on the other side of the Jordan, and when she saw him, she made the sign of the cross over the water, and walked across the river. When Zosimus saw this miracle, he immediately fell down at the holy woman's feet, but she told him off, telling him: "You shouldn't do that, for you are a priest bearing the Holy Sacrament!" Afterwards, though, she received Our Lord with great devotion, and amidst her tears she exclaimed: "Lord God, be pleased to receive me in peace for my eyes have seen my Saviour."
The hermit asked Zosimus to return before the following Maundy Thursday, as she wanted him to come back and pray for her. She then made the sign of the cross upon the river once more and walked on the water back home. Zosimus went home to his abbey, repenting the fact that he still did not know the woman's name. But, before the year was out, he returned to the desert, as he had promised he would do. When he reached the place where he had met her previously, he found that she was dead - her body already laid out for burial.
Zosimus began to weep tenderly, and said to himself: "I would gladly bury this holy body if I knew that it should not displease her." Whilst deep in thought, wondering whether he should dare bury the holy woman, he saw a letter lying by her head. It read: "Zosimus, bury on this spot the body of poor Mary and render to the earth its right, and pray to God for me, at whose commandment the second day after I received him, he called me from this world." Zosimus was filled with joy to know the saint's name at last, but he was also anxious as he had nothing with him with which to dig a grave. As he was fretting, a lion came along and duly dug Mary's grave with his paws. This majestic creature then stayed for the committal.
After Zosimus had buried Mary, he returned to his abbey. He then recounted his conversations with the holy woman to his brother monks. The holy abbot lived for a hundred years - during which time he gave laud and honour to God of all his gifts. Zosimus also spent his time on earth giving thanks to God for the great mercy he shows poor sinners.
Let us pray to holy Mary the Egyptian, that we too may be penitent whilst on earth, so as to enter into Heaven when God calls us.'
In honour of St Mary of Egypt you can buy an icon of her today here!