Women in Christianity: St. Mary of Egypt
This post is part of a recurring series on women in Christianity. My goal in this series is not to highlight exceptional women but instead to discuss the many contributions of women that frequently go unremarked or overlooked. Search the tag women in christianity for more entries in this series.
In this season of Lent, it seems appropriate to write about a Desert Mother from Egypt. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were early Christian monastics who, primarily after official Roman persecution of Christianity had ended, chose to live ascetically in the deserts of the Middle East (mainly Syria) and North Africa (including Egypt). Many lived as hermits, especially the men; some — particularly women — formed early monastic communities.
I encountered the story of Mary’s life in an Old English version, translated from Latin in a tenth-century compilation of saints' lives; different versions have slightly different details, but the narrative remains consistent across versions. The story begins not with Mary but with a monk named Zosimus, who was raised in a monastery and who strives to live a blameless and holy life. Following the traditions of his monastery in the Holy Land, he goes out during Lent to fast for forty days alone in the wilderness. During these forty days, he finds Mary, and she recounts her life story to him.
From a young age, Mary tells Zosimus, she indulged the lusts of the flesh, going so far as to accompany a pilgrimage to Jerusalem because she wanted to seduce handsome young pilgrims. But when she attempted to enter a church in Jerusalem, an invisible power physically barrred her from entry. While alone in the courtyard, Mary saw an image of the Virgin Mary and was moved to repent of her sins and pray that the Virgin would intercede for her, despite her sinfulness.
After this prayer, Mary could enter the church where she received assurance that God will receive any who repent. She prayed to be shown the path to penitence, and was led through the Jordan River and into the desert where she lived alone for 47 years before meeting Zosimus. She miraculously survived on three loaves of bread and what she could scavenge; she also has prophetic knowledge about Zosimus and despite her illiteracy displays a supernatural understanding of scripture.
After telling her story to Zosimus, Mary requests that he wait for her by the Jordan River the next year with the eucharist. He does so, and she walks on water across the river to receive the sacrament from him. She then asks him to return to the place where they first met the next year; when Zosimus makes this journey, he finds Mary dead, and he buries her with the help of a friendly lion. Zosimus then tells her story to the others at his monastery so that they can learn from the life and preserve the memory of this holy woman.
To our modern western ears, this is a bizarre story. Mary’s miraculous survival over nearly half a century alone in the desert, her levitation during prayer, her ability to walk on water, and her body’s capacity to tame a wild beast strain our credulity — and in reality, a historical Mary of Egypt may have never existed.
In addition, Mary’s impulse to subjugate the sinful flesh in order to purify the spirit is no longer deeply woven into the fabric of at least modern American Christianity. I would argue that the elevation of spirit over body owes more to Platonism than to the New Testament. Moreover, in this framework women’s bodies tend to be seen as especially sinful. In Mary’s story, the proper penitence for indulging sexual desires is the extreme denial of all fleshly desires, even needs — and it’s the woman in the story who has sinned sexually, while the man is a virgin.
But at the same time, this story also shows that humility, not a sinful past or devout present or social status, is central to Christianity. Zosimus has been pure and devout since childhood, but he recognizes Mary as more holy than he despite her past. In an amusing moment in the narrative, Zosimus and Mary argue over who should bless the other; finally, Mary blesses Zosimus, indicating her higher status. Significantly, Zosimus is devout, educated, ordained, and a leader in his monastic community, in contrast to the uneducated, illiterate, and isolated Mary. Yet Zosimus sees Mary as a spiritual superior, someone who can guide him towards even greater spiritual growth.
Zosimus is willing to learn from Mary because he recognizes her devotion and her closeness to God — qualities that do not depend on education, status, or lifelong purity. This narrative affirms that to God, and thus to us, external markers of status or even holiness (like Zosimus’s status as priest and abbot) are immaterial. Devotion to God matters, and that does not depend on anything other than a willingness to seek God and repent of sin.
Mary’s devotion was extreme and her survival through her asceticism miraculous, and I don’t want to suggest that the path to repentance and God lies through such extreme denial of the body. But as her story suggests, even the best among us can learn from and be inspired by Mary. The story of St. Mary of Egypt promises us that no matter what our past sins or present circumstances, God will be gracious to us.
Besides which, next to Mary’s 47 years of solitude and survival on the little she could find in the desert, whatever Lenten discipline we may have chosen seems quite mild and bearable in comparison.
To read a version of Mary’s story, click here.