The Fifth Sunday of Great Lent commemorates the life of St Mary of Egypt, a well-known ascetic Saint who lived in the late 5th/early 6th century. Below is a brief biography of the Saint, with scenes from her “Vita Icon”. A Vita Icon is an icon of a Saint with scenes from his/her life shown in the border.
Mary was born in Egypt and at the age of twelve left her parents to live a life of debauchery in Alexandria. Living through begging and spinning flax, she offered herself to almost any man, not to supplement her income but for free, to satisfy a seemingly insatiable desire.
One day, seeing a crowd of Libyans and Egyptians moving towards the port, she followed them and set sail with them for Jerusalem, offering her body to pay her fare. When they arrived in the Holy City, she followed the crowd that was thronging towards the Church of the Resurrection, it being the day of the Exaltation of the Cross. She did this not from a desire to see the Cross, but to just follow the crowd and perhaps to seduce a few of them. However, when she reached the threshold of the church, an invisible force prevented her entering in spite of repeated efforts on her part. Whilst everyone else went in unhindered, Mary was left outside in the church porch, coming to the realization that it was her impure life preventing entry. She burst into tears and smote her breast and, seeing an icon of the Mother of God, made this prayer to her:
“O Sovereign Lady, who bore God in the flesh, I know that I should not dare to look upon your icon, you who are pure in soul and body, because, debauched as I am, I must fill you with disgust. But, as the God born of you became man in order to call sinners to repentance, come to my aid! Allow me to go into the church and prostrate before His Cross. And, as soon as I have seen the Cross, I promise that I will renounce the world and all pleasures, and follow the path of salvation that you will show me.”
With this act of genuine repentance, Mary could now freely enter the church, where she venerated the Life-Giving Cross. returning to the icon of the Mother of God, declared herself ready to follow the path that the Virgin would show her. A voice replied to her from on high: “If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest.”
Leaving the church, she bought three loaves with the alms a pilgrim had given her, discovered which road led to the Jordan and arrived one evening at the Church of Saint John the Baptist. After having washed in the river, she received Communion in the Holy Mysteries, ate half of one of the loaves and went to sleep on the riverbank. The next morning, she crossed the river and lived from that time on in the desert, remaining there for forty-seven years without ever encountering either another human being or any animal.
During these years her clothes became worn and disappeared, leaving her naked; she fed on the scarce plants and wild herbs that grew in the desert. In the beginning – for the first seventeen years in fact – she was beset by many temptations, mainly relating to her former life of debauchery. Throwing herself upon the mercy of Christ, she came through such passions, turning the fire of carnal desire into the flame of divine love.
It was at this time that St Zosimas, a priest-monk was staying at a desert monastery near the Jordan. According to the tradition there, between the start of Great Lent the monks would leave the monastery and wander into the desert, spending the time until Palm Sunday in solitude and prayer. Alone in the desert it was ordained for Zosimas to see St Mary – naked and blackened by the sun, hair as white as snow. Seeking spiritual nourishment, Zosimas begged the apparition for a saving word or two, but Mary fled from him. When he came within ear-shot, Mary, calling Zosimas by name (even though they’d never met), asked him to throw her his cloak that she might cover her nakedness.
Perceiving the woman’s holiness, Zosimas bowed down before her asking for her blessing. Mary, likewise, bowed down before the priest-monk, and so for some time the two were prostrate before the other, uttering the words “Bless me…” After this, Mary asked that she may retire to a nearby hill to pray. At a distance, Zosimas could not make out the lady’s words, but after some time he saw her levitating above the ground. Because of this, he wondered in his heart whether this woman truly was a Saint, an angel, or a demonic delusion. When Mary had finished her prayer she returned to Zosimas and said: “Do thoughts about me, trouble you, Abba, telling you I am a spirit, and that my prayer is feigned? Know, holy father, that I am only a sinful woman, though I am guarded by Holy baptism. And I am no spirit but earth and ashes, and flesh alone.” And with these words she guarded herself with the sign of the Cross on her forehead, eyes, mouth and breast, saying: “May God defend us from the evil one and from his designs, for fierce is his struggle against us.”
Convinced of her holiness now, Zosimas threw himself at her feet and begged for her to tell him more about her holy life. Mary, shamed, raised him up and related the whole story, already given above.
Having finished her account, Mary asked Zosimas to come the following year to the bank of the Jordan with Holy Communion.
When the day arrived, Zosimas saw Mary appearing on the further bank of the river. She made the sign of the Cross and crossed the Jordan, walking on the water. Having received Holy Communion weeping, she said: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation” (Luke 2:29). She then took leave of Zosimas, asking him to meet her the following year in the place where they had first met.
When the year was past, Zosimas, going to the agreed spot, found the Saint’s body stretched on the ground, her arms crossed and her face turned towards the East. An inscription traced on the ground by the Saint read: “Abba Zosimas, bury here the body of the humble Mary; give what is of dust to dust, after having prayed for me. I died on the first day of April, the very night of the Passion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, after having partaken in the Holy Eucharist.”
After having vainly tried to break up the earth with a stick, he suddenly saw a lion approaching Mary’s body and licking her feet. On the orders of the Elder, the beast dug a hole with its claws, in which Zosimas devoutly placed the Saint’s body.
On his return to the monastery, he recounted what had happened, having previously been sworn to secrecy by Mary. The monks marvelled at God’s grace, and honoured the memory of the Saint as an example of God’s mercy and transformative power, passing the story on by word of mouth to one another. A hundred years later, Saint Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, having heard the story committed it to writing.
The Holy Fathers have placed the celebration of St Mary of Egypt’s memory at the end of the Great Fast as an encouragement for all who have neglected their salvation, proclaiming that repentance can bring them back to God even at the eleventh hour.
In you the image was preserved with exactness, O Mother;
For taking up your cross, you did follow Christ,
And by your deeds you did teach us to overlook the flesh, for it passes away, but to attend to the soul since it is immortal.
Wherefore, O righteous Mary, your spirit rejoices with the Angels.
The Life Of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt (the full account by St Sophronius; recommended reading)