The Astonishing Sainthood of Mary of Egypt

by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd

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Each year during Lent, we commemorate one of the most remarkable saints, Mary of Egypt. We traditionally recount her story in more detail at at the Canon of Saint Andrew service and we’ll be commemorating her this Sunday. Her life challenges people’s preposterous notions about what kind of people can become saints.  For people who think that saints are a different breed of person than all the rest of us, and that saints are just people who, from the time of their birth, God made better than all the rest of us…then Saint Mary of Egypt is there to essentially poke a finger in their eye for such foolish thinking. Her early life is most peculiarly as far from saintliness as one could possibly imagine. In fact, her early life contains everything that Hollywood values most in a seductively scandalous story…the steamy stuff that sells movie tickets.

The world—and indeed, Hollywood—has done its best to persuade us that the satisfying of every bodily pleasure ultimately brings us happiness without consequences. However, the life of Saint Mary of Egypt also invites us to take a more realistic look at the colossal failure of unrestrained self-gratification to fulfill one’s life.

Mary of Egypt ran away from her parents’ home at the tender age of twelve and journeyed to North Africa’s cultural and commercial center, Alexandria, where she quickly became absorbed with pleasing her physical appetites. It wasn’t long before this developed into an insatiable desire for sexual pleasure, which she pursued for years thereafter with obsessive devotion. When she reached the age of twenty-nine, she impulsively decided to hitch a ride with a group of Christians who were sailing to Jerusalem for the Church’s commemoration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a feast day which attracted pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire. She listened to these Christians’ stories about Christ and His Cross, and then took great pleasure in trying to seductively defile as many of the men as possible—offering up her body to pay for her passage on the ship. Nevertheless, once she arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Mary of Egypt encountered something that would change her life forever.

A fragment of Christ’s Cross was placed on display inside the Jerusalem Church for devotees to venerate. Mary saw many pilgrims leaving the church afterward, who were quite moved at having had such an encounter with something so closely related to Christ. Curiously, she thought that she’d also like to have such a moving experience. So, she merged in with the crowds that were streaming toward that holy site, and pushed her way into the narthex with the others. Yet, when she reached the door to enter the nave of the church, something mysterious prevented her from going in. She tried again, and again, multiple times, but each time she reached the door some silent power blocked her entry. Exhausted, she stood in a corner of the narthex, tearfully trying to discern what was happening to her. Gradually she realized that the wickedly defiling sexual acts that she used to pay her passage to this place were what prevented her from entering the church and having such a meaningful encounter with Christ.

As she stood weeping at this realization, her eyes finally focused upon an icon of the Theotokos on the wall next to her. Looking into the face of the Mother of God, she pleaded for her help. She begged to be allowed to gaze upon the life-giving cross, where the Virgin Mary’s Son had died to conquer sin and death. She promised that she would renounce the world and its temptations and her own distorted appetites, and go wherever the Theotokos led her.

After that prayer of repentance, she tried once more to enter…and to her surprise, nothing blocked her. When she was finally able to venerate the relic of the Cross, she returned to the icon and asked the Mother of God to lead her. Suddenly, she heard a voice saying “If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest.” She obeyed, crossed the Jordan River and withdrew into the desert in utter isolation, to redirect the desire of her remaining life in yearning for God.

So how do we know about her? Because of the description of an encounter with her from a priest/monk named Father Zosimas. He’d become famous for his asceticism (his spiritual struggles, like fasting, prayer and almsgiving). Eventually he mistakenly came to believe that he had attained so much perfection in these spiritual struggles that there was nothing more anyone could teach him. But, God directed him on a path where he would discover otherwise. Zosimas encountered some monks who spent all of Lent alone in the desert, not seeing how anyone else lived or fasted. When they all returned on Palm Sunday, no one could ask how anyone else’s Lenten fast had gone. Thus no one was tempted to impress anyone else; each one had to struggle only with himself, before God. 

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So, following this rule, Fr Zosimas also went into the desert alone. Yet after twenty days, as he stopped for prayer, he discovered someone whose struggle had far surpassed his. There, across the hot shimmering sands, he saw another human being in the distance. It was Mary of Egypt, who, because her clothes had completely worn out and fallen off many years earlier, her skin had now become darkened and leathered by the sun. He tried to approach her but, because she was naked, she avoided him until he threw his cloak to her. Then he begged her to tell him her story, and she reluctantly obeyed. He could tell, by the way she talked and things she mystically revealed about him that she’d grown to live in much closer communion with God than anyone he’d ever met.

Now, I have to admit, when I first heard about her, I wasn’t sure what to think of her. She seemed too extreme–both in her sinfulness and in her repentance. Was it actually possible that a woman could have such an insatiable appetite for sex? And did she really need to spend the next 47 years repenting…punishing herself for her sins? Why couldn’t she just accept God’s forgiveness and get on with her life? As it turns out, God’s intention for our repentance was never meant to be about something so shallow as mere guilt & punishment…nor about just saying we’re sorry and then moving on. Repentance is meant to have a more holistically psychological and spiritual benefit than either of those could offer. Repentance is about coming to self-awareness in the examined life…dying to the part of ourselves that’s slowly killing us…and adjusting our aim towards what’s truly lifegiving.

All those years earlier, in those moments before Mary of Egypt prayed to the Theotokos, when she stood in the corner wondering why she couldn’t get into the church, she suddenly became aware of the destruction that her sin brought upon her own life and upon the lives of those around her, and for the first time in her life she realized that her actions mattered. Up to that moment she had lived only to satisfy her every carnal desire, and believed that it didn’t make any difference. But God, in His marvelous mercy, gave her the experience of seeing that her sins did have a destructive effect on herself and others, and to see that her commitment to persist in such actions prevented her – literally! – from coming close to God. That’s the object of repentance…not to merely wipe the slate clean, not to simply hit the reset button, but rather, to come closer to God, allowing Him to transform us.  

The first step in our coming closer to God, is in our self-awareness of coming to see our sins for what they are. Self-awareness is realizing that left to our own devices, we end up in a pretty dark and despairing place. Self-awareness is learning to see ourselves as God sees us…as only being fulfilled in obeying Jesus Christ. It’s about recognizing the obstacles that block us from Christ…and the desires that draw us away from unity with His will. Saint Mary of Egypt’s particular sins were merely the symptoms of a deeper problem, an illness of passions that drove her further toward emptiness, which needed treatment. In order to repent and be transformed into Christ-likeness, we too need to recognize the appetites, or passions, that are driving us away from God into spiritual and emotional sickness.

And if someone as depraved as Mary of Egypt could do that to become a saint, then every single one of us can too!