How does a nymphomaniac wind up becoming a saint so revered her body glowed with uncreated light? How does a whore who enjoyed sex so much she did not charge her customers transform into an ascetic so severe she survived on two and a half loaves of bread for 37 years? St Mary of Egypt stands out as the paragon of repentance. Her story highlights the transformative power inherent in the crux of this holiest of times, Great Lent. This is why I believe she is deemed by the Orthodox Church as similar figures such as the prodigal son and the Publican, as the icon of what it is to have a change of heart. This is why she is venerated as such not once, not twice, but three times throughout the ecclesiastical year. She exemplifies truly what Repentance is for the sinful soul and her story gives even the most passionate among us that hope that we too can change; that we can become holy even when before we were the most sinful of sinners. Her story teaches us that the most wretched of us has hope for change—that with our willingness and the power of the Holy Spirit, we too can change and become golden. We can transform from the most miserable of situations into something glorious and awesome, which is all our calling in the Orthodox faith. Her story had been passed down orally from one monastic generation to another until sometime in the 7th century the Monk Sophronius recorded it for all posterity.
St Mary was born in Egypt during the 3rd century into what we would describe in the present age as a dysfunctional family. In her growing up she knew only bickering and fighting in her house. Her parents were wretched people. Her father most likely was abusive to her and her mother. She grew up with no sense of worth in herself, without a proper psychological base. Yearning always for the love and affection she was deprived of in her formative years, she became a run away at age 12 and lived the street life. But the choice to use her body as a way of making a living covered up the deeper wound she harbored, the bottomless pit of self-esteem, which the lack of fatherly love plunged her into. I believe her voracious lust, her addiction to sexual pleasure she used as a sedative for the deep anguish she felt. She used sex as a way to drown the deeper pain of loss and the emptiness that a young girl feels when she is not affirmed by the opposite sex. She became the lowliest type of prostitute, barely eking out a subsistence living, because she often did not charge her clients for her services. Most likely she used sex as a means of fulfillment, the only way she knew to connect to the opposite sex.
The turning point of her story occurred when she was just about to turn 30, having lived a life of wantonness for 17 years. She was wandering along the piers of Alexandria when she witnessed crowds and crowds of people heading for the docks. As she noticed many a fine example of manliness among them, she inquired where they were all going from a passerby. “They are heading for ship to take them to Jerusalem to venerate the Life-giving Cross,” the stranger replied. She decided she wanted to join them. If she had money for the journey and for provisions, the stranger informed her, he could see no reason why they would not let her aboard. Even though she lacked the money, yet in her mind she knew she could work her passage on the ship providing her services in the world’s oldest profession. She joined the travelers and not only readily gave up herself to anyone for the asking, she actually went out of her way to seduce the young seafarers. After many tryst on that voyage, the ship arrived in the port city close to Jerusalem. With the pilgrims, St Mary made her way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Swept along with the crowd, she was about to cross the threshold of the Church but to her dismay, a force of some sort kept her from entering. Try as she might, again and again, she was barred from entering the Church; it was as if a supernatural hand was blocking her entrance. Intrigued by the situation, she started pondering about the reasons why she could not despite all her best efforts she could not enter the Church. Luckily, next to the main entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a smaller chapel dedicated to the Theotokos. She entered into the dark stillness of this room and noticing an icon of the Holy Virgin, she knelt down and prayed. It was in the darkness of this chapel that the first stirrings of repentance in her soul took place. She prayed for the first time deeply and asked intercession by the Mother of God that she would plead on her behalf that she be allowed to enter the sanctuary and pray over the stone where the Holy Body and Blood of our Savior was spilled for the sins of mankind. She bargained with the Virgin. And it was then that she made a wager: If she, the most defiled and sinful, would be allowed to enter and pray in the holiest of sites, she would change her life. She would dedicate her life to Christ and would turn away from her passionate living and live in prayer.
She tried to pass through the threshold once again, and this time, to her surprise, she was allowed entry. From that moment on, after St Mary had experienced what we would call today a mystical experience, she never looked back. With the prodding of the Holy Spirit, she made her way to the church of St. John the Baptist by the River Jordan. And after purchasing some water and two and a half loaves of bread and bathing in its holy waters, she crossed the Jordan on a boat moored nearby to the desert on the other side. That was to be the last contact she would have with the world. She was not heard or seen from anyone from that time forward—until, 47 years later one Great Lent, in 521, an elderly monk from the monastery of St. John named Father Zosimas, following the monastic rule common to the brethren of that monastery, to retreat into the desert during the last week of Great Lent returning on Palm Sunday, wandered onto her path.
The monk spotted a creature that resembled neither man nor woman, just skin and bones, with long wild gray hair covering her nakedness, surrounded in a halo of ethereal light. Not knowing whether the figure he saw before him was a demon or an angel, the monk fell into prayer. To his surpise, the creature spoke to him addressing him by his name, “Forgive me for God’s sake, but I cannot turn towards you and show you my face, Abba Zosimas. For I am a woman and naked as you see with the uncovered shame of my body. But if you would like to fulfill one wish of a sinful woman, throw me your cloak so that I can cover my body and can turn to you and ask for your blessing.” The father complied with the request, and St Mary emerged out of the wilderness. She confessed her life to him in all its grotesque details and instructed him that since she had not partaken of the Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ since leaving for the desert 47 years prior, that he should return in a year’s time to the same spot to administer the Holy Mysteries to her. When asked how she had survived all that time, St Mary replied that she had eaten a few crumbs of the dried out loaves of bread she had taken with her. She had struggled with her passions and the demons in the desert but had been sustained by the Uncreated Light of the Holy Spirit. However, the saint charged the elder not to relate anything of what he had seen or heard until she instructed him.
The following year, the elder returned bearing the Holy Gifts. She appeared once more, but this time on the other side of the River Jordan in the tattered vestiges of the mantle he had given her. It was a moonlit light and as there was no means of getting to the other side, the elder marveled when he saw a path illuminated over the river as the ascetic made the sign of the Cross over the river, took one step and then another, and made her way towards him. She knelt down at his feet and partook of the holy sacraments. Not knowing who she was, he asked her what her name was. She instructed him to return the following year and she would give him the answer.
After a year passed, the monk went out into the desert. While contemplating how he might find her, he at last stumbled upon the saint’s limp lifeless body in the very spot they had convened the year before. Inscribed in the sand over her head was the message, “Abba Zosimas, bury on this spot the body of 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.” The year in which she died was 522.” As by now the Elder was old and feeble, he did not know how he would find the strength to dig a grave with his bare hands to bury her. It was then that he spotted a lion. The animal took to digging a hole with its claws and so the elder was able to lay her body to rest. Her story Abba Zosimas took back to the monastery with him until he gave up his ghost around the ripe old age of 100 until a monk named Sophronius wrote it down, in which form it has come down to us to this day.
St Mary of Egypt stands in the long line of ascetic mystics in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. She is proof positive that repentance can work miracles. That a prostitute, a woman groveling in the slimiest of passions, can be transformed into a living beacon of light and purity. Such is the power of the Holy Spirit working in the deepest heart of man.