Written by Marina Mikhael ~ The story of Saint Mary of Egypt starts with Father Zossima. Father Zossima was traveling through the woods near the Jordan River when he saw a black shadow and followed it. The shadow began to run and Father Zossima ran after it until he could run no more. He called on the shadow to let him rest and said, “Why are you running away from an old man, a sinner? Wait for me, whoever you are, in the name of God for whose sake you live in the desert.” The shadow answered and told him,
“Father Zossima, forgive me, for God’s sake, but I cannot turn round and show myself to you, for I am a woman and, as you see, with the shame of my body uncovered. If you wish to answer the prayer of a sinful woman throw me your cloak so I can cover my weakness.”
Father Zossima then threw his old cloak to her and, after she covered herself, they greeted each other by kneeling to each other.
As they sat together, Father Zossima marveled over how a woman of God was brought to the desert to live in such a state. He asked her to tell him everything and, though reluctant to reveal her sin, St. Mary told him everything.
From Egypt, St. Mary lived a sinful life, having an insatiable desire for lust. She did not do it for money; it was her desire and addiction that led her to sin daily. She carried on with this life for more than seventeen years, tempting many men and causing all to fall into sin. One day, she saw a crowd of men going onto a boat to travel to Jerusalem. She asked a passerby where they were all going, finding out that they were going to celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Though the passerby told her that the fare was expensive, she was determined to board the ship in order to satisfy her lust with many more men. She made it onto the ship and was able to convince young and old, willing and unwilling, to fall into temptation with her.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, she followed the crowds to the church. As she was approaching the threshold of the door to see the Holy Cross, a force was preventing her from entering. Realizing she was the only one with this difficulty, she understood that it was her sin that kept her from seeing the Holy Cross. She went into the courtyard and began to weep, praying to the Virgin Mother of God, St. Mary, to intercede on her behalf while she confessed and repented all her sins. She confessed every single sin she had done before God and prayed earnestly for His forgiveness. She tried again to see the Holy Cross and now she was able to walk in with ease. It was at this moment that she realized the promises of God and how great His mercy is to sinners. She gave thanks to the Virgin, St. Mary, and to Christ and asked them to lead her into the life of repentance and salvation. At this moment, she heard a voice say, “If you cross the Jordan River, you will find rest.” Immediately, she left everything and went to dwell in the wilderness beyond the Jordan River.
After telling this story to Father Zossima, St. Mary of Egypt asked him not to tell anyone of her existence or her story until her passing and to return at this time every year to give her the Holy Eucharist. He left and, without telling a soul, returned the next year and gave her Holy Communion. She asked him to come again the next year and meet at this same place. As he approached the stream where they met before, he found the saint lying dead with her head facing the east. He saw by her head these words written in the ground:
“Father Zossima, bury in this place the body of Mary the sinner, return me to the earth of which I am made, dust to dust, having prayed to the Lord for me, who died on the same night as the Passion of the Lord after making her communion of the Divine and Mysterious Supper.”
Because Father Zossima was an old man, a lion helped him to build the grave and bury the Saint. He then left to his monastery and told all of his brothers the story of Saint Mary of Egypt. May God help us live a life of repentance as this marvelous Saint did and learn to depend on Christ alone for all our needs.
Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert. Trappist, Kentucky: Cistercian Publications Inc.