St. Mary of Egypt

Feast Day: April 9th

Saint Mary of Egypt with Saint Zosimus


    Died c. 500; feast day is sometimes kept on April 9 or 10.The story of Mary the penitent was known throughout Christendom in the Middle Ages. The story is told in Cyril of Scythopolis's life of Saint Cyriacus, according to John Moschus. He tells of a woman named Mary found by Cyriacus and his companions living as a hermit in the desert beyond the Jordan. She told him that she had been a famous singer and actress who had sinned and was doing penance in the desert; when they returned, she was dead. Around this core, the following story was elaborated and popularly retold in the Middle Ages:

    Mary began her life in Egypt. Her parents adored her, which was already a bad start! She was the center of her family's world. Everything revolved, or had to revolve around her: papa, the sun, her cat.

    Mary was not an unhappy child. On the contrary, everything was given to her, everyone gave in to her. So much so that one day, annoyed because her parents chanced to oppose one of her whims, she ran away from home--at age 12--to the metropolis of Alexandria.

    At that time, a girl of 12 was a woman. Mary was beautiful. She was not adventurous or ambitious or she might not have hurled herself into the wickedness of prostitution for 17 sad years. She had no center, nothing on which to orient herself; she had no faith in anything, she hoped for nothing. She was cynical and disenchanted, at once worshipping and detesting money. There is only one explanation for her life: She loved nothing. Dignity is the premise for any love.

    When she first tried to find her way in the city, she thought of a friend of her father's who lived there. He welcomed her, understood her, offered her refuge, and amused her. He destroyed all modesty, all remorse, all childhood in her. She went along with his debaucheries until she became attracted to another man and his stables, so she dropped the former for the latter, without notice. She was trapped. She lived like a glittering coin that is passed from pocket to pocket; she made her morality consist in not having any, indeed in losing sight of its very meaning. Nothing restrained her, nothing could.

    Out of curiosity, not piety, Mary joined a group of pilgrims who were setting out for Jerusalem. She paid for her passage by offering herself to the sailors. In Jerusalem, an irresistible force prevented her from entering the church with the other pilgrims. In front of an icon depicting the Blessed Virgin or, according to another version, at the Holy Sepulchre, she was overcome by the enormity of her sinfulness. Interiorly, she was told to cross the Jordan, where she would find rest.

    Immediately, Mary set out for the desert, unrecognizing and unrecognized, afraid of the world. All that she took with her were three wretchedly small loaves of bread to provide for her immediate needs, to provide her with time to develop the strength to beg. Thus, completely worn out, she arrived at the bank of the Jordan River. She had no desire to return to her parents' home.

    She made her confession and took communion at the monastery of Saint John the Baptist, but did not tarry there. She left the monks to their mortifications. She had not seen any of them, because she had kept her eyes closed. She climbed the sandy hills to where the desert begins. Her life continued to be marked by excesses. Mary was to let herself dry out like a prune, for this was the remedy that she herself devised against her moral rot and decay.

    We can't conceive of all she endured, what she was seeking, what she experienced during 47 years in an absolute solitude. During these years she suffered from drought and cold. She lived on berries and dates. Her clothes wore out. Sometimes she had been tempted to return to her life of sin, but always she prayed to the Virgin Mary for strength to resist the temptation. She could not read, but she was divinely instructed in the Christian faith.

    There was a monk called Zosimus, who tells us certain things about Mary. He was an old man. About 430, after having lived in a monastery in Palestine for 53 years decided to join a community with stricter rules near the River Jordan. Thus, he came into a new area.

    Like his companions, every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, he ate after Mass; then with his head bowed in deep meditation, he set out by himself for the desert. Each year he advanced further into the solitude of the sandy wastes by adding an extra day's walking. This time he had to walk for 20 days before coming to a rest. He sat on the ground and immediately began to pray. He knew noon had arrived because his shadow contracted around him. Distractedly, he saw someone walking in front of him. If it was the devil, he would protect himself against it in the name of Jesus Christ.

    You've guessed it--before him stood Mary the penitent, but only a truly sharp person would have been able to distinguish her from a man in that state. She was entirely naked but this did not make him uneasy for her skin, roasted by the sun, was black and dry as an old scrap of wood. Her white hair fell down her back. The monk went up to her, but she backed away, crying out, "Throw me your mantle to cover me, for I have no clothes."

He pursued her up to a clump of bushes behind which she took cover.

"Answer me, for the love of God, what are you doing here? Why and for how long?"

"Zosimus, please hand me your mantle, bless me, forgive my sins, and I will come out. . . ."

    It was thus that he learned about her life, and all that has been said and written about her since then. Her temptations and penances Zosimus drew out of her in great detail. Mary the Egyptian spoke only through the Bible whose meaning she found again spontaneously at the end of her long spiritual quest. Zosimus was impressed by her spiritual knowledge and wisdom.

    Mary said to Zosimus, "Leave me your mantle; come to see me next year at Easter, with the Eucharist, and don't breathe a word!"

    As he promised, Zosimus returned the following Holy Thursday to give her Holy Communion. He also brought figs, dates, and lentils with him. But after Mary had received the sacrament, she would take from him only three lentils. She thanked him and begged him to return the following year.

According to one rendition, Saint Mary died suddenly in the night after having left a message for the monk, her friend, which she traced out in the sand and which he was to read a year later:

"Father Zosimus, bury the body of lowly Mary the sinner here. Render unto the earth what is the earth's, and pray for me."

This is how he learned her name. He had forgotten to ask her what it was.

    Zosimus, with the help of a lion, buried her body. He took back his cloak, which he cherished for the rest of his life, and then he reverently buried Mary the Egyptian. She had lived for 78 years. Sixteen centuries later there are perhaps no greater deserts than the hearts of great cities. Mary the Egyptian, pray for us! (Attwater, Attwater2, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Gill)

    In art, Saint Mary is generally portrayed clad only in her long hair with her emblem, three loaves of bread. She may also be shown (1) with Mary Magdalene (with whom she is often confused. The Magdalene often has a jar of ointment and crucifix, while Aegyptica has three loaves); (2) sitting under a palm tree and looking across the Jordan; (3) washing her hair in the Jordan; (4) chased from the church by an angel with a sword; or (5) receiving Holy Communion from Saint Zosimus (Roeder). Saint Mary was most popular in the East but also had a Western cultus. Her image was used by artists from the 12th century on carved capitals, in stained glass in the cathedrals of Chartres, Bourges, and Auxerre (13th c.), and in paintings and sculptures of the later Middle Ages (Farmer).

Prayer to Saint Mary of Egypt

Saint Mary of Egypt, being chased from the church by an angel with a sword; kneeling before a skull; naked but clothed with long hair; receiving Holy Communion from Saint Zosimus; sitting under a palm tree and looking across the Jordan; washing her hair in the Jordan; with Mary Magdalene; with the lion who dug her grave; woman holding three loaves of bread; please pray for us, that we may always be pure and persevere until our dying breathe.

Saint Mary of Egypt, Pray for us