Saint Mary of Egypt

Q.  Dear Father, …  who is the “Mary” in St. Mary’s Hermitage? … Fionn O’Hanlon (An Sciobairín, Contae Chorcaí, Éire)

A. Dear Fionn. … St. Mary’s Hermitage was dedicated to the holy patronage of St. Mary of Egypt. My cousin (Mgr. Angelo Ginex) whilst I was on my journey of discernment for an eremitical vocation, gave me a book entitled ‘The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, the example and model of a true penitent‘ by J Sadler … the book opened an entirely new ascetical direction for me; I deciding to walk on the same road, imitating this Saint whilst linking the Hermitage to Carthusian spirituality. D.U-M.G

THE LIFE OF SAINT MARY OF EGYPT – (1 April)

Patronage: Chastity (warfare against the flesh; deliverance from carnal passions); Demons (deliverance from); Fever; Skin diseases; Temptations of the flesh.

Abba Zosimus forgive me for the sake of the Lord. I cannot face you for I am a naked woman.”

UNKNOWN SILVERSMITH NEAPOLITAN ST. MARY OF EGYPT IN 1699
Saint Mary of Egypt

Mary of Egypt (Coptic: Ϯⲁⲅⲓⲁ Ⲙⲁⲣⲓⲁ Ⲛⲣⲉⲙⲛ̀ⲭⲏⲙⲓ; c. 344 – † c. 421) is revered as the patron saint of penitents, most particularly in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Born probably about 344; died about 421. At the early age of twelve Mary left her home and came to Alexandria, where for upwards of seventeen years she led a life of public prostitution. At the end of that time, on the occasion of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, she embarked for Palestine, not however with the intention of making the pilgrimage, but in the hope that life on board ship would afford her new and abundant opportunities of gratifying an insatiable lust. Arrived in Jerusalem she persisted in her shameless life, and on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross joined the crowds towards the church where the sacred relic was venerated, hoping to meet in the gathering some new victims whom she might allure into sin. And now came the turning-point in her career. When she reached the church door, she suddenly felt herself repelled by some secret force, and having vainly attempted three or four times to enter, she retired to a corner of the churchyard, and was struck with remorse for her wicked life, which she recognized as the cause of her exclusion from the church. Bursting into bitter tears and beating her breast, she began to bewail her sins. Just then her eyes fell upon a statue of the Blessed Virgin above the spot where she was standing, and in deep faith and humility of heart she besought Our Lady for help, and permission to enter the church and venerate the sacred wood on which Jesus had suffered, promising that if her request were granted, she would then renounce forever the world and its ways, and forthwith depart whithersoever Our Lady might lead her. Encouraged by prayer and counting on the mercy of the Mother of God, she once more approached the door of the church, and this time succeeded in entering without the slightest difficulty. Having adored the Holy Cross and kissed the pavement of the church, she returned to Our Lady’s statue, and while praying there for guidance as to her future course, she seemed to hear a voice from afar telling her that if she crossed the Jordan, she would find rest. That same evening Mary reached the Jordan and received Holy Communion in a church dedicated to the Baptist, and the day following crossed the river and wandered eastward into the desert that stretches towards Arabia.

Here she had lived absolutely alone for forty-seven years, subsisting apparently on herbs, when a priest and monk, named Zosimus, who after the custom of his brethren had come out from his monastery to spend Lent in the desert, met her and learned from her own lips the strange and romantic story of her life. As soon as they met, she called Zosimus by his name and recognised him as a priest. After they had conversed and prayed together, she begged Zosimus to promise to meet her at the Jordan on Holy

santa maria egiziana
Saint Mary of Egypt receiving Communion from Zosimus

Thursday evening of the following year and bring with him the Blessed Sacrament. When the appointed evening arrived, Zosimus, we are told, put into a small chalice a portion of the undefiled Body and the precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ (P.L. LXXIII, 686; “Mittens in modico calice intemerati corporis portionem et pretiosi sanguinis D.N.J.C.” But the reference to both species is less clear in Acta SS., IX, 82: “Accipiens parvum poculum intemerati corporis ac venerandi sanguinis Christi Dei nostri“), and came to the spot that had been indicated. After some time Mary appeared on the eastern bank of the river, and having made the sign of the cross, walked upon the waters to the western side. Having received Holy Communion, she raised her hands towards heaven, and cried aloud in the words of Simeon: “Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace, because my eyes have seen thy salvation“. She then charged Zosimus to come in the course of a year to the spot where he had first met her in the desert, adding that he would find her then in what condition God might ordain. He came, but only to find the poor saint’s corpse, and written beside it on the ground a request that he should bury her, and a statement that she had died a year before, on the very night on which he had given her Holy Communion, far away by the Jordan’s banks. Aided, we are told, by a lion, he prepared her grave and buried her, and having commended himself and the Church to her prayers, he returned to his monastery, where now for the first time he recounted the wondrous story of her life.

The saint’s life was written not very long after her death by one who states that he learned the details from the monks of the monastery to which Zosimus had belonged. Many authorities mention St. Sophronius, who became Patriarch of Jerusalem in 635, as the author; but as the Bollandists give good reasons for believing that the Life was written before 500, we may conclude that it is from some other hand. The date of the saint is somewhat uncertain. The Bollandists place her death on 1 April, 421, while many other authorities put it a century later. The Greek Church celebrates her feast on 1 April, while the Roman Martyrology assigns it to 2 April, and the Roman Calendar to 3 April. The Greek date is more likely to be correct; the others may be due to the fact that on those days portions of her relics reached the West. Relics of Saint Mary are venerated in Rome, Naples, Cremona, Antwerp, and some other places. [1]

Orthodox Christianity records many accounts of conversion experiences. Throughout her long history the Church has commemorated thousands of men and women Saints whose former unethical and undesirable lifestyles were transformed into a wholesome Christian existence of submission and obedience to the will of God.

By God’s grace, the one-time rulers, persecutors, tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, and murderers, today make up our canon of Saints. Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you the tax collectors and harlots enter the Kingdom of God before you” (St. Matthew 21:31). This is the reality to why our Lord established the Church within the world. The Church is God’s ultimate vehicle for transforming people’s lives. The Church’s main purpose is to heal, sanctify, and save all believers.

Santa Maria Egiziana
Saint Mary of Egypt

The Church is called the ‘redeemed community’ of Christ Jesus, a union of sinners constantly struggling and growing toward God’s eternal Kingdom, of which the Church offers only a glimpse. To suggest that the Church exists only for the holy and worthy is to undermine its entire nature, if not treating Christ with contempt, Who came into the world to save sinners and establish the Church to continue the ministry of conversion and salvation.”

Therefore the Saints of the Church come directly out of the ranks of us sinners. Remembering and honouring one such sinner turned Saint: Mary of Egypt. Her life was extraordinary. Saint Mary was an individual who represented a cross section of immorality that had befallen the world of her day, a woman whose powerful conversion story from a life of imprudence, intemperance and wantonness, to a  life of holiness and purity has acquired great admiration and has become a focus of  many Christians.

My native land, holy father, was Egypt. During the lifetime of my parents, when I was only twelve years old, I renounced their love and went to Alexandria.” That is how Saint Mary of Egypt begins telling her story to Abba Zosimas. She lived on her own for seventeen years as a damnable woman of ill repute. So engulfed was the young Mary by her sexual sins that on may occasions due to hopelessness, she sought out patronage for herself without requesting any form of payment in return. Her fellow burgesses looked upon her lowliness as a scarlet woman and treated her with an extreme lack of civility. Mary in turn felt aggrieved toward her accusers, she lived in seclusion, realising that she was deliberately throwing her life away. “Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life“.

And then one day… A group of Christians gathered to embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the solemn feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. Driven by curiosity, Mary went along with the pilgrims. When the Alexandrian Christians arrived in Jerusalem, they headed toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christendom’s most sacred shrine, built over the place where our Lord was crucified and the tomb from which He rose.

“When the hour for the holy Elevation of the Cross approached, I was trying to make my way in with the crowd which was struggling to get through the church doors. I had at last squeezed through with great difficulty almost to the entrance of the church, from which the Life-Giving Cross was beings shown to the people. But when I trod on the doorstep which everyone else passed, I was stopped by some force which prevented my entering. Meanwhile I was brushed aside by the crowd and found myself standing alone in the porch. Thinking that this had happened because of my woman’s weakness, I again began to work by way into the crowd, trying to elbow myself forward. But in vain I struggled. Again my feet trod on the doorstep over which others were entering the church without encountering any obstacle. I alone seemed to remain unaccepted by the church. It was as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance. Once again I was excluded by the same mighty force and again I stood in the porch.

Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be pushed, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the Life-Giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart. And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the icon of the Most Holy Mother of God. And turning to her my bodily and spiritual eyes I said:

O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word…’.

“Thus I spoke and as if acquiring some hope in firm faith and feeling some confidence in the mercy of the Mother of God, I left the place where I stood praying. And I went again and mingled with the crowd that was pushing its way into the temple. And no one seemed to thwart me, no one hindered my entering the church. I was possessed with trembling, and was almost in delirium. Having got as far as the doors which I could not reach before — as if the same force which had hindered me cleared the way for me — I now entered without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I saw the Life-Giving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Throwing myself on the ground, I worshiped that holy earth and kissed it with trembling. Then I came out of the church and went to her who had promised to be my security, to the place where I had sealed my vow. And bending my knees before the Virgin Mother of god, I addressed to her such words as these:

‘O Loving Lady, thou hast shown me thy great love for all men, Glory to God Who receives the repentance of sinners through thee. What more can I recollect or say, I who am so sinful? It is time for me, O Lady to fulfill my vow, according to thy witness. Now lead me by the hand along the path of repentance!’ And at these words I heard a voice from on high: ‘If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest!’ Hearing this voice and having faith that it was for me, I cried to the Mother of God: ‘O Lady, Lady, do not forsake me!’ With these words I left the porch of the church and set off on my journey. As I was leaving the church a stranger glanced at me and gave me three coins, saying: ‘Sister, take these.’ And taking the money, I bought three loaves and took them with me on my journey, as a blessed gift. I asked the person who sold the bread: ‘Which is the way to the Jordan?’ I was directed to the city gate which led that way…

Mary crossed the Jordan River, and entered the desert, where she lived with great piety, humility and poverty for 47 years. For almost half a century, Mary underwent strenuous fasts and prayed to God unceasingly, repenting over her former life and praising God whose mercy and compassion had made her aware of the seriousness of her spiritual condition and saved her when she was in Jerusalem.

There was a certain Elder (Γέροντας – Geronda) in one of the monasteries of Palestine, a priest, who from childhood had been brought up in the monastic customs and manners. This Elder’s name was Zosimas. He had followed the ascetic life and in everything he adhered to the rule once given to him by his Elders as spiritual labours. He was so renowned for his spiritual life that many sought him from neighbouring and distant monasteries. Abba Zosimas used to relate how, as soon as he was taken from his mother’s breast, he was handed over to the monastery where he went through his training as an ascetic until the age of 53. Subsequently, he began to be tormented by the thought that he was perfect in everything and needed no instruction from anyone, saying to himself, “Is there a monk on earth who can be of any use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not yet accomplished? Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?” when suddenly an Angel appeared to him and said:

Zosimas, valiantly have you struggled, as far as this is within the power of man, valiantly have you gone through the ascetic course. But there is no man who has attained perfection. Before you lie unknown struggles greater than those you have already accomplished. That you may know how many other ways lead to salvation, leave your native land like the renowned Patriarch Abraham and go to the monastery by the River Jordan.”

Zosimas did as he was told. He left the monastery where he had lived since childhood, and made his way to the River Jordan. And he went deep, deep into the desert with the concealed hope of finding some ascetic living there who might be able to satisfy his thirst and longing. He used to break his journey at fixed hours of the day to rest a little, to chant the Psalms standing and to pray on bent knee.

Santa Maria d'Egitto
Detail of a miniature of Mary of Egypt, covered in golden hair, being handed a cloak by Zosimus, at the beginning of her suffrage. Origin: France, Central (Paris) Yates Thompson 3 f. 287

It was here, deep in the desert that he came upon Saint Mary and began to learn about her life and of her spiritual struggles, repentance and asceticism.

Mary asked Abba Zosimas: Why have you come, man of God, to me who is so sinful? Why do you wish to see a woman naked and devoid of all her virtue? Though I know one thing – the Grace of the Holy Spirit has brought you to render me a service at this time. Tell me, father, how are the Christian people living? And the kings? How is the Church guided?”

Father Zosimas asked: How many years have gone by since you began to live in the desert?” She replied: Forty-seven years have already gone by, I think, since I left the holy city.” Zosimas asked: How can it be that you did not need food or clothing?” She answered: After finishing the three loaves of bread I had, of which I spoke, for 17 years I have fed on herbs an all that can be found in the desert. The clothes I had when I crossed the Jordan became torn and worn out. I suffered greatly from the cold and greatly from extreme heat... She continued: I beg of you, holy father, for the sake of Jesus Christ our God and Savior, tell no one what you have heard, until God delivers me of this earth. And now depart in peace and again next year you shall see me, and I you, if God will preserve us in His great mercy. But for God’s sake, do as I ask you. Next year during Lent do not cross the Jordan, as is your tradition in the monastery.”

“Remain, Abba (Father), in the monastery. And even if you wish to depart, you will not be able to do so. And at sunset of the holy day of the Last Supper, put some of the Life-Giving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the Life-Giving Gifts. For, since the time I communicated in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing. Therefore I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the Life-Giving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper. Tell John the Abbot of the monastery where you live. Look to yourself and to your brothers, for there is much that needs correction. Only do not say this now, but when God guides you. Pray for me!”

With these words she vanished into the depths of the desert. 

For an entire year he kept silent, he  did not dare tell anyone what he had witnessed. But in his prayers, he asked to be given another chance of seeing the ascetic. When at length the first Sunday of the Great Fast came, all went out into the desert with the customary prayers and singing of Psalms. Only Zosimas was held back due to illness — he was beset by fever. And then he remembered what the Saint had told him: “and even if you wish to depart, you will not be able to do so.”

Many days had passed, remaining within the monastery before he recovered from the fever. At dawn on the Feast of the Last Supper, he did as he had been directed by St. Mary. Placing some of the Most Pure Body and Precious Blood into a small chalice and putting some figs and dates and lentils in water into a small basket, he departed for the desert.  Reaching the banks of the Jordan he sat down to wait for the Saint. He waited for a long while and began to doubt that she would come. Then raising his eyes to heaven, he began to pray: Grant me O Lord, to behold that which Thou has allowed me to behold once. Do not let me depart in vain, being the burden of my sins.”  Another thought had immediately struck him: What if she does come? There is no boat; how will she cross the Jordan to come to me who am so unworthy?”

St. Mary walking on the River Jordan

As he pondered he glimpsed the appearance of the holy woman standing on the other sided of the river. Zosimas stood up rejoicing and  thanking God and Hid glory. Again beset with doubt that she would not be able to cross the river Jordan. He noticed that she had made the sign of the Cross over the waters of the Jordan (the night was a brightly moonlit, he subsequently related); then she suddenly stepped upon the waters and began to walk across its surface towards him. As he witnesses this miracle he prostrates himself, she cried out in alarm whilst still walking on the water toward him: Abba, What are you doing? You are a priest carrying the divine Gifts!”

He understood her and raised himself; as she reached the shore she uttered to the elder: “Bless, father, bless meTruly God did not deceive when He promised that when we purify ourselves we shall be like Him. Glory to Thee, Christ Our God, Who has shown me through this thy slave how far away I stand from perfection.”

Here Mary asks him to say the Creed and the Our Father. He began, she finished the prayer and according to the custom of that time gave him the kiss of peace. Having partaken of the Holy Mysteries, she raised her hands toward heaven she sighed with tears running down her face, exclaiming: Now lettest Thou Thy servant in peace depart, O Lord, according to Thy word; for my eyes have witnessed Thy salvation.”

Turning to Zosimus she said: Forgive me. Abba, for asking you, but fulfil another hope of mine. Go now to the monastery and let God’s grace guard you. Next year come again to the same place where I first met you. Come for God’s sake, for you shall again see me, for such is the will of God.”

Touching the Saint’s feet and asking her to pray for the Church, the kingdom and himself, he left her depart in tears, while he went off suspiring and crestfallen, for he could not but hope to vanquish the unassailable. Mary again made the sign of the Cross over the River Jordan, and stepped onto the waters, crossing it as she had done before. Zosimus returned filled with joy, whilst a dread arose within him accusing himself of not having asked the Saint her name. Yet reminded himself to do so the following year.

The following, he again went into the desert, reaching the same spot he again could see no sign her. So raising his eyes to heaven as before, he prayed: Show me, O Lord, Thy pure treasure, which Thou has concealed in the desert. Show me, I pray Thee, this Angel in the flesh, which the world is not worthy of.”

On opposite bank of the Jordan, her face turned towards the rising sun, he saw the Saint lying dead. Her hands were closed according to custom and her face was turned to the East. Running toward, falling at her feet he grieved and shed tears over kissing them, not daring to touch anything else.

Being inconsolable he wept for some time. Then reciting the Psalms proper to the occasion, he recited the burial prayers and reasoned to himself: “Should I bury the body of a Saint? Or will this oppose her wishes?”  And then he saw the words that had been drawn upon the ground beside her head: “Abba Zosimas, bury in this spot the body of the humble Mary. Return to dust that which is dust and pray to the Lord for me, who departed in the Month of Fermoutin of Egypt, called April by the Romans, on the first day, on the very night of Our Lord’s Passion, after having partaken of the Divine Mysteries.” 

Reading this Zosimas was glad to know the Saint’s name. Zosimas thought: “It is time to do as she wished. But how am I to dig a grave with nothing in my hands?”

Nearby he spotted a small piece of wood left by some traveler in the desert. Picking it up he began to dig the ground. But the earth was hard and dry and would not yield to his efforts. He grew tired and was covered in sweat. As he sighed from the depths of his soul and lifting up his eyes he saw a lion standing at the Saint’s body and licking her feet. At the sight of the lion he trembled with fear, especially when he called to mind Mary’s words that she had never seen wild beasts in the desert. Guarding himself with the sign of the Cross, he trusted that the power of the one lying there would protect and keep him from harm. Meanwhile the lion drew closer to him, expressing affection with every movement.

Zosimas said to the lion: “The Great One ordered that her body was to be buried. But I am old and have not the strength to dig the grave (for I have no spade and it would take too long to go and get one), so can you carry out the work with your claws? Then we can commit to the earth the mortal temple of the Saint.”

Burial of Mary of Egypt, Smithfield Decretals Illuminated Manuscript, (Decretals of Gregory IX) Tolouse 13th or 14th century, BL Royal 10 E IV, fol. 288r.
Burial of Mary of Egypt – Decretals of Gregory IX Tolouse 13th or 14th century, BL Royal 10 E IV, fol. 288r.

While he was still speaking the lion began to dig a hole deep enough to bury her body with his front paws.

Zosimas again washed her feet with his tears and calling upon her to pray for all, covering the body with earth in the presence of the lion. Then both departed. And on reaching the monastery he told all the brothers about everything, who marvelled on hearing of God’s miracles. And with fear and love they recalled the memory of the Saint.

But I (Sophronius) upon hearing it, [It is possible, based on Sophronius’ Vita, that Zosimas was from the same monastery by the Jordan where Saint Mary had taken Communion many years before.] tells us, I wrote it down. Perhaps someone else, better informed, has already written the life of the Saint, but as far as I could, I have recorded everything, putting truth above all else. 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, who hear, read and are zealous to write it, and may He grant them 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, honor, dominion and adoration with the Eternal Father and the Most Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

MacRory, Joseph. St. Mary of Egypt.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company,1910.

Claude Lopez-Ginisty, A Dictionary of Orthodox IntercessionsSaint John of Kronstadt Press, Liberty, TN, 1994.

Ron Pepin, Saint Mary of Egypt: Three Medieval Lives in Verse (Cistercian Studies), 1 Jun. 2006.

Fr. Tadros Y. MalatySaint Mary of Egypt Kindle Edition by St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church of Chicago.

Mother TheklaThe Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete and the Life of Saint Mary of Egypt. Publishers Lulu – 1 Aug 2013

Bishop Nikolai Velimirović, The Prologue from Ochrid (Lazarica Press, 1985), Vol. 2., entry for April 4.

Orthodox Research Institute.