In Naples, Rome and Jerusalem there are churches and chapels dedicated to a saint unknown to most of us and whose historical existence lacks real evidence despite great devotion among the early believers Byzantine, Orthodox, Coptic and Romans. Today, two contemporary authors explore the story of Saint Mary of Egypt, patroness of penance.
Tradition has it that at 12, Mary left her rural home along the Nile and traveled to the fleshpots of Alexandria where she lived for 17 years working as a prostitute not for financial security, but for pleasure. One day she boarded a ship bound for Jerusalem where she visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but a mighty force prevented her from entering. There, she is said to have prayed for forgiveness before an icon of the Virgin Mary and when she was finally allowed to enter, she venerated the holy cross. There, a voice ordered her to cross the Jordan, assuring her that there, in the desert, she would find peace.
For years Mary lived naked in the desert doing penance. Towards the end of his life, a monk named Zosimus (also known as Zosimus or Zosimus) also went into the desert and met Mary there, to whom he gave his mantle as a cover. Marie told him her story and he recognized in her an incarnation of humility. When he returned a year later, Zossima gave her the Eucharist and saw her walking on water and levitating. The next time he returned, he found Mary dead, her body uncorrupted, and buried her with the help of a desert lion. In the seventh century, what had been the oral tradition of these double stories of prostitute and monk was recorded by Saint Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, as the universal story of penance and forgiveness.
In Saint Mary of Egypt: A Modern Life and Interpretation in Verseauthor Bonnie Thurston details Mary’s story, then writes a series of poems in the voices of Mary of Egypt, Zosimus, the Virgin Mary and the Desert Lion, to help the reader reflect on the truth eternal in history.
In the voice of Mary, she writes: “The only body I wanted / was a living, living body” and “At its center, / my insatiable center, / was a succulent fruit, / the carnal knowledge / of good and wrong. / I offered a choice / to all comers, / Laughed, then moaned / as they put their hungry hands / to the plow.”
The desert lion adds his voice: “I saw them meet, / the pompous old priest, / the shriveled old woman. / I loved it. / She chose our desert, persevered here, / flourished in her way, / fell in love with ours. / Even snakes / leave her alone.”
But Thurston’s book is not just poetry. Saint Mary of Egypt also contains an exegesis tracing centuries of scholarship on the elusive Mary; scholarship which is affirmed in the foreword by the late Sr. Benedicta Ward, historian of early desert Christian spirituality. For Thurston, Mary is an empowered woman who has made her way in the world and whose conversion has taken place outside the structure of the institutional church; after all, it is the Virgin Mary and not a priest who first receives his repentance. Yet the author also argues for a symbiotic relationship within the respective reconciliations of Mary and Zosimus: Mary needs the monk to bring her the Eucharist, and the monk needs the incarnate humility of repentant Mary. Their old sins are transformed by a merciful God: Mary, forgiven for the sins of the flesh and Zosimus, for the sins of the spirit.
Meanwhile in the travel diary Wild Woman: A Footnote, The Wilderness, and My Search for an Elusive Saint, author Amy Frykholm takes a more personal approach to exploring the mysterious Mary of Egypt, whom she calls “an icon of desire.” Frykholm sets out to uncover the saint’s life story by physically embarking on Mary’s journey through the Nile, Alexandria, Jerusalem and the desert, including stops at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Monastery of Saint -Gerasimos along the Jordan. Combining his own quest for transformation with that of his subject, the author deftly weaves memoir and hagiography to create a captivating read. For Frykholm, Mary is both a woman mad with desire and an ascetic who sets out into the desert to find peace, wholeness and transformation.
These two books should be read together. Through different methods – poetry and travel – they provide access to a figure shrouded in mystery and question the power of legend, both works establishing longing and conversion as important aspects of the Christian tradition of holiness.
The centuries-old popularity of the life story of Mary of Egypt underscores the most fundamental aspects of the Christian imagination: sin is ubiquitous, desire is central to holiness, and God’s mercy is universal. Quite a few reminders for the contemporary reader.