Some Thoughts on the Story of St. Mary of Egypt
Updated: Feb 27, 2021
Call me nosey, but I think the story of St Mary of Egypt throws up a number of questions alongside her answers. I'm not saying that things don't add up, only that there are surely a few gaps. It seems there’s so much more to it than the kind of harlot-to-Christ conversion story that the western tradition, in confusion, attributes to and epitomises in St. Mary Magdalen.
First of all, the young Mary of Egypt ran away from home at the age of 12. Why? She certainly doesn’t suggest it had anything to do with her parents; in her words, ‘I renounced their love’. Well, in the words of St.Tikhon (Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia), ‘she did no wrong while she lived with her parents. But soon she found this life fatiguing, and her parents’ loving efforts to bridle her will seemed unbearable’.+ Headstrong and longing for independence, therefore, she sets off like the prodigal son. But there the similarity ends. There’s no realisation of a miserable life that results in a repentant homecoming; after all, by her own account, she doesn’t see her life in Alexandria as miserable. It appears that her life is hardly opulent, but it is hedonistic: wine, men and song.
Then, after seventeen years, during which she’s constantly possessed by the desire to possess men, she sets off on a vessel carrying pilgrims to Jerusalem. Not that she wanted to be on any pilgrimage – she’d joined for the ride, so she could seduce as many men as possible in the closed environment of a ship. There, they could almost be her captives. Of course, she needed to pay her fare and her upkeep during the voyage. But there was far more to it than that. In fact, there’s one ready word in modern parlance that well describes her behaviour on board: predatory. (Nonetheless, I had to be very specific in an internet search to find the small number of articles that use that term to refer to a woman). Furthermore, there’s no point at which she seems to have become tired of this way of life – subconsciously she most likely was, though. Marriage and family would no longer have been an option, but there’s no suggestion that she wished for them in any case. There was simply no love in her life of any kind.
The next part of the story is the really intriguing bit. What were her thoughts as she approached the church to venerate the Holy Cross? What was she thinking of? Was it a social exercise? Just the idea that she was ‘in with the in crowd’ and shouldn’t miss out? Did she have some vague idea that this was something special – in the sense of a spectacle – that she wanted to be a part of out of a sense of belonging? Or something holy even – maybe she saw herself as a believer (in the sense that we would view as purely nominal) and so she saw it as a kind of right. It certainly never occurred to her that the life she was leading would stop her. After all, boundaries weren’t - and during all those years in Alexandria never had been - a part of her consciousness.
It was then that her repentance came. As we know, the addict has to realise they have an addiction before they can ever start to recover. Within the addict there is an outstanding brilliance to be found. We don’t need to look at those highly talented celebrities who’ve famously grappled with one or more addictions – sex, alcohol, drugs – to understand this. There’s surely at least one person we’ve encountered whose life reflects this phenomenon – I recall the alcoholic professor at my university who spoke several oriental languages fluently – and didn’t need to be drunk to do so. The devil knows a person’s weak points – he doesn’t need to create huge suffering in an instant – he’s the master of the con trick - the soft sell – that, once the victim is lulled into a sense of false security, can keep him or her on a string for years. But Mary’s own outstanding brilliance, which now came to the fore through divine grace, instantly threw off the enslaving shackles that she’d so believed were her freedom, and, like the thief on the cross, she turned to Christ – in her case, through His Mother. Did that change everything straight away? Yes and no. The thief on the cross still had to undergo crucifixion, even when he knew his sins were forgiven, before attaining paradise. Likewise, the first seventeen years of Mary’s new life in the desert (which she started after a visit to the church of St. John the Baptist – an appropriate role model) were spent atoning for the previous seventeen years of dysfunctionality, her past predatory life becoming her predator, in a way, as she speaks of the ‘wild beasts’ that arose in her struggles. Despite being far from the society she’d once enjoyed, in the desert she was never alone.
Clearly it was a complete removal from her old life. We’re living now at the time of the Covid-19 outbreak when, in order to protect ourselves from the virus, we’re to practise ‘social distancing’ – we may suffer, but we’re far from living our lives in the harshness of an uninhabited desert. We fret if we can’t find bread in the supermarket because other customers have chosen to take too much and hoard it, yet Mary set off into the desert with only three loaves. We miss going to church and receiving the Holy Gifts, but there are only two recorded occasions when Mary took communion – once during her visit to the church of the Forerunner and once from Fr. Zosimas shortly before she fell asleep in the Lord. She must be our woman of the moment.
By the time Father Zosimas first found her in the desert, she’d spent a total forty-seven years there, and her body was both burnt and naked. Ragged and emaciated are words that hardly cut it. She must be one of the most distinctive figures in iconography – the skeletal body, formerly the scene of many a crime against God, that now performed miracles, a person with no formal theology who was still both enlightened and clairvoyant. Yet, when choosing an icon for this site for the first time, I moved away from any of those abounding depictions of her - I found a rare exception. It’s one where she has the appearance of a more conventional (shall we say) holy woman, but on closer inspection you can see the desert sun etched on her face like holy fire. I rather like to think that this represents Mary early in her spiritual journey – still clothed, and ardently taking up her cross.
The ultimate paradox of Mary’s life is that the door of salvation was opened to her only after it was emphatically shut in her face. But it could only be opened with her consent. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Memory Eternal) says this about Christ knocking at the door of our soul: ‘We may not be aware of it with the intensity which should be ours; and yet for each of us, simply, the proof of it is that we are here, and millions of other people at some moment have suddenly perceived the presence of God, have heard His knocking, have let perhaps the door ajar, have listened to what He was saying, had a moment of elation, a moment when suddenly we came to life, and then we shut the door again. We chose our aloneness, we chose to be without Him, and what we imagined to be ‘free’ from Him: we are never free; we are never free not because He enslaves us, not because He hunts us down’.
In other words, there is nothing predatory about God’s approach to us. He continues:
‘We are never free because He is ultimately in the end the only supreme longing of our whole being, because He is the fullness of life, the glory of life, the exultation of life for which we long and which we try to glean right, and left in vain’.*
So finally, in my nosiness, I have all my questions answered: we’re told all we need to know about the life of St. Mary of Egypt. What strikes me about her account is that it reads like a confession – indeed, that must be what it’s designed to be. At no point does she make any defence, like, ‘Well, I was young and foolish at the age of 12’ - which would have appeared to us to be quite reasonable - but we’re not asked to make any allowances. We’re asked to face the fact that, not only was it the life she chose, but that she persisted in it for so long. No matter. God has all time in all eternity for every one of us.