Sunday, October 2, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 40 ~ St. Mary of Egypt

Somehow I suspect that the term “nymphomaniac” is not in favor now, even in a situation where it might, once upon a time, have seemed appropriate to apply it. But then we do have the new term, “sexual addiction,” which seems serviceable enough as a description of the same basic syndrome, so I guess we’re not at a loss. Moreover, we no longer have to use different terms for men (“satyriasis”) and women, and undoubtedly that represents progress.

In any case, the woman we now know as St. Mary of Egypt had a problem. I have read several versions of her story, and some are more colorful than others. Some say merely that she lived a profligate life, and perhaps that she had been a prostitute. Others say that she was indeed a prostitute, and moreover that it was for fun rather than profit, and that she was driven by what we would surely today—even today, even by secular standards in one of the most sexually permissive cultures that has ever existed—see as an unhealthy, excessive, and reckless sexual obsession or compulsion.

The basic version of the story goes like this: having spent her youth living a profligate life in Alexandria, and suffering from a bit of ennui, Mary joined a group of pilgrims sailing to Palestine for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. But she apparently did this more or less in the spirit of a modern party girl taking a week-long Carnival cruise to Jamaica, and had no particular interest or intentions regarding the religious aspect of the trip.

Having arrived in Jerusalem, and still, um, partying, she joined the crowds heading to the church where the feast was to be celebrated, and which held a relic of the Cross. But when she arrived at the door, she found that some invisible force prevented her entry. After trying repeatedly, she realized that it was her sins that were keeping her out of the celebration, and was suddenly consumed with remorse. Seeing a statue of Our Lady, she implored the assistance of the Blessed Mother and promised to renounce her sins. Trying the church door again, she was able to enter and to venerate the relic.

Afterwards she roamed into the desert and lived there alone for forty years, until by accident she crossed paths with an elderly monk named Zosimus. He thought she looked like some kind of wild thing, naked, and with short white hair. Having covered herself with his mantle, she amazed him with her knowledge of the scriptures, which she seemed to know by some kind of immediately infused knowledge. Recognizing him as a priest, she asked that he return to her a year later and bring her Holy Communion. He did so; she received, recited the prayer of Simeon, and asked again that the monk return a year later.

Again he did as requested. But this time he found her dead, and with a note written on the ground saying that she had died that same night she had received Communion from him, and asking that he bury her. Zosimus found that he was unable, because of his age and weakness and the hardness of the ground, to dig the grave. A lion wandered by, and Zosimus asked his help. Together they buried Mary, and Zosimus went back to his monastery and wrote the story of her life.

Now, we may think some or all of this is legendary (though I would be sorry to have to give up the lion). And Mary is certainly an extreme character. If I had met her in the desert I would have assured her that we all sin, and she shouldn’t be so hard on herself, and so on.

But I think this kind of harsh lesson is one we ought to listen to. It seems incontrovertible that our culture is in the grip of some strange sexual mania. The sheer level of unreason involved is disturbing. I’m sure there are things happening in the spiritual world that we can’t see, and it’s very clear that simply to argue for what seems to be obvious facts—for instance, that a man’s belief that he is really a woman does not make him a woman—is not going to make any impression on those who are caught up in the mania.

It leads me to think often of “This kind cometh not out but by prayer and fasting.” Personally I dislike hearing these words because I really dislike even the mildest sort of fasting. Maybe St. Mary of Egypt, as extreme as she is, is exactly the kind of example and intercessor I need, and the world needs at this time.

The story as I’ve told it above sticks to the basic narrative that’s common to most accounts of St. Mary’s life. But there are variants. Google will show you any number of them. One of the most well-told versions is this one by a professor of religious studies who is an Orthodox Christian. There is a very vivid account in the Golden Legend. Here is a very lengthy account written from the point of view of Zosimus.

And here is my favorite variant of all, from the 13th century Smithfield Decretals:

Maclin Horton is the proprietor of his own blog Light on Dark Water from which sprang this series. You might want to check out the current series there, 52 Movies or last year's 52 AuthorsIn this series he has written about St HenrikSt. John Fisher, St Ansgar, and St. John Kemble.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


  1. I just noticed that I never commented on this. I was really glad to see something about St. Mary of Egypt because I only knew of her vaguely. She really is a saint for our time. We could use her help. And I love that last image.


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