Now that we are in the season of fasting (Great Lent), our thoughts are turned toward repentance and one of the best examples of repentance for us is that of St. Mary of Egypt. In the usual versions of St. Mary's life, she is a repentant prostitute who spends most of her life in the desert, living alone in repentance. There is another, lesser known, version of her life, though, which is also worth reading and was commonly known among the ancient Desert Fathers. We will give both those versions, both instructive, which do not necessarily contradict each other. First, the more commonly-known version:
BEGIN: In her youth, Mary chose to live a dissolute life in Alexandria until, one day, drawn by curiosity, she joined some pilgrims going by ship to Jerusalem. On the way she seduced many of her companions, and continued to live in this way in Jerusalem. On the day appointed for the veneration of the Holy Cross (September 14), Mary went with the others to the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the relic of the True Cross was to be displayed. She went forward to enter the church with the other pilgrims, but on the threshold an invisible force seemed to prevent her from entering. At once sudden contrition filled her heart and she began to weep, praying to Mary the Mother of God to help her. Next morning she found she could enter the church and venerate the cross. At once she left the city and crossed over Jordan, taking only a little bread which she had bought with some coins a pilgrim had given her. In the desert she lived for forty seven years until a priest, Zossima, found her by accident, heard her story, gave her communion and eventually returned in time to bury her, a lion helping him to dig her grave. END
In the second version of her life, St. Mary did not immediately leave Jerusalem after consecrating herself to God, but instead stayed on at the Holy Sepulchre as a nun where she again fell into sin:
BEGIN: An anchorite told this story to the brothers: "When I was living in the desert on the slopes of Arnona, one day a weakness of soul came upon me and my thoughts said to me, "Go for a walk in the desert." I came to a dried up stream; it was an advanced hour in the evening and by the light of the moon I fixed my eyes on a distant object and I saw that it was sitting on a rock. Then I reflected that even if it was indeed a lion, I ought not to be afraid but to entrust myself to the grace of Christ. So I approached the rock, and by the side of it there was a narrow opening. At once the being I had seen afar off hid itself in this cave. When I reached the top of the rock, I found there a basket full of bread and a jar of water which showed me that it must be a human being. I called to him, 'Servant of God, be so kind as to come out so that I may be blessed by you.' He was silent but when I had renewed my appeal several times, he answered me thus: "Excuse me, father, but I cannot come out." When I asked why, he said, "You must know that I am a woman and that I am naked." At these words I rolled up the cloak that I was carrying, and threw it into the opening in the rock, saying to her, ìHere, cover yourself and come out" and she did so. When she had come out, we offered a prayer to God and we sat down. Then I asked her, "My mother, of your kindness, tell me what has happened to you. How long have you been here? Why did you undertake this journey? And how did you find this cave?"
She began to tell me about herself thus: "Once I was a consecrated virgin living in the Holy Sepulchre. One of the monks who had his cell at the gate got to know me. I used to meet him so often that it reached the point where we fell into sin. I would go to his house and he would come to mine. One day as I was was going to his cell as usual I heard him weeping before God and making his confession to Him. I knocked on the door, but he, because of hwat he had done with me, did not open it to me at all. He went on weeping and confessing. Seeing this, I said to myself, 'He is repenting of his sins but I do not repent of mine. He is lamenting his faults; shall I not also afflict myself?' Re-entering my cell alone, I dressed myself poorly and filled this basket with loaves and this jar with water, and then I went into the Holy Sepulchre. There I prayed asking that the great God, the wonderful, who came to save those who were lost and to raise up those that are fallen, He who hears all those who address themselves to Him in truth, that He would show mercy towards me, a sinful woman, and if He should find the repentance and transformation of my soul acceptable, that He would bless these loaves and this water so that they would last me to the end of my life, so that no necessity of the flesh or needs of hunger should give me a pretext for interrupting perpetual praise. After that I went into Holy Golgotha where I offered the same prayer and touching the top of the Holy Stone, there I invoked the holy Name of God. Then having reached Jericho and crossed over Jordan, I journeyed the length of the Dead Sea, for at that time the water was not very high. I crossed the mountains and wandered in the desert and I had the good fortune to find this dried up stream. When I climbed this rock, I found this cave here and when I went into it its narrowness pleased me greatly, for it made me think that the good God had offered it to me as a place of refuge. I have been here thirty years without having seen anyone except yourself at this hour. The basket of loaves and the jar of water have sufficed for my needs until now without failing me. After a time my clothes wore out but my hair had grown and I was covered with it in such a way that neither heat nor cold made me suffer by the grace of Christ."
After these words she invited me to take some of the loaves, for she sensed that I was very hungry. We ate and drank equally. Once, I looked into the basket and saw that the loaves remained as they had been and also the water had not diminished and I praised God. I wanted to leave her my old robe but she would not have it. She said, ìYou will bring me new clothing,î which pleased me very much and I begged her to wait for me just there. We offered a prayer to God and I went away, marking all the way my path for my return. I went back to the church of the nearby village and old the priest about the matter. He told the faithful that certain of the saints were living naked and that those who had too many clothes should offer them to them. The friends of Christ gave many clothes diligently and I took what was necessary and went off joyously in the hope of seeing again this spiritual mother. But I could not find the cave again although I wore myself out seeking it. And when at last by chance I saw it, the woman inspired by God was no longer to be found there; her absence affected me deeply. Some days later some anchorites came to visit me, and they told this story:
"When we came to the edge of the sea, we saw by night in the desert an anchorite whose hair covered him; when we begged him to bless us, he fled quickly, entering a little cave which we found nearby. We wanted to go in but he implored us, saying, 'Oh servants of Christ, do not disturb me! Lo,
on top of the rock is a basket of loaves and a jar of water; please be good enough to serve yourselves.' He offered a prayer for us to God, and when we reached the top we found things as he had said. We sat down and although we ate, the bread did not diminish, and although we drank of the water in the jar it remained the same. For the rest of the night we were silent. At dawn we got up to be blessed by the anchorite and we found him asleep in the Lord. Also, we discovered that he was a woman who had been naked and who had covered herself with her hair. We received a blessing from her body and rolled a stone to the entry, to the cave. Then, having offered a prayer to God, we came away."
Then I understood that he spoke of the holy mother, the former consecrated virgin, and I told them what I had learned from her. Together we glorified God to whom be glory to ages of ages. Amen. END
from Sr. Benedicta Ward, "Harlots of the Desert,"(Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1987), pp. 27, 29 - 32.