Monday, June 18, 2012

Our Holy and God-Bearing Fathers: St. Mary of Egypt

[Though the term "Holy and God-Bearing Fathers" is used for those great saints that went before us in the faith, it does not only apply to men, as this post will show.]

St. Mary of Egypt (344-421 or d. 522) was a hermitess who lived in the desert near the River Jordan after repenting from a life of prostitution.  She is patron of penitent women and reformed prostitutes, and she is also a patron asked for intercession against sexual temptation.  In the Western Church, she is liturgically celebrated on April 3, while in the Eastern Church she is celebrated both on April 1 (the day of her death) and on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent.

At the age of twelve, St. Mary ran away from her parents in Alexandria in order to live a life of dissolution.  She became a prostitute merely for the sake of fulfilling her lustful desires, rejecting money for men, instead gaining her living by begging and spinning flax.  After seventeen years of this sinful life, she went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross as an "anti-pilgrimage," acting the prostitute for those she travelled with and continuing her life of harlotry in Jerusalem.  One day, though, St. Mary approached the Church of Holy Sepulchre in order to see the Cross of the Lord, but she was stopped by an unseen force.  After this had happened thrice, she looked up and saw an icon of the Theotokos outside the church, and she spent the night in weeping and prayers, asking the Theotokos that she might be allowed to see the True Cross, and if that occurred, she promised to spend the rest of her life renouncing her worldly desires and following the commands of Our Lady.  The next day, St. Mary entered the church and venerated the True Cross.

Upon leaving the church, she gave thanks to the Theotokos by venerating her icon, and upon doing so, St. Mary heard a voice telling her, "If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest and true peace."  The saint hurried to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist on the bank of the Jordan, where she received the Mysteries of Confession and the Most Sacred Body and Blood of Christ.  She then fled to the desert across the Jordan, where she lived as an ascetic, surviving for years on three loaves of bread and scarce herbs.  After fighting temptations for seventeen years, she overcame them through the prayers of the Theotokos. 

 St. Mary of Egypt receiving the Sacred Mysteries from St. Zosima

After 47 years in the desert, St. Mary met a priest, St. Zosima.  He begged her to tell him of her life, which she did, expressing marvellous clairvoyance.  After recounted her life, St. Mary asked the priest to come back on Holy Thursday the following year to give her the Sacred Mysteries.  He did so, and she walked across the River Jordan in order to receive the Eucharist from St. Zosima.  She asked him to meet her again the next year on Holy Thursday.  The next year, St. Zosima came to the spot where he first met St. Mary, but he found her dead.  An inscription in the sand near her head recorded that the hermitess had died the day she received the Sacred Mysteries the year before.  Her body was miraculously transported from her place of death and preserved incorrupt until the priest could find it.  With the assistance of a passing lion (as the legend goes), St. Zosima buried the body of St. Mary of Egypt.  The story of her life was passed down orally until finally being recorded in writing by St. Sophronius I, Patriarch of Jerusalem (560-638).

 St. Zosima venerating the incorrupt body of St. Mary

There are no writings of St. Mary of Egypt: her legacy comes from her Life written by St. Sophronius.  She is one of the most popular of the early hermits and hermitesses.  As mentioned above, she is so well-renowned that she is celebrated on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, when it is customary for the priest to bless dried fruit during the Divine Liturgy.  A chapel is dedicated to her within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, commemorating the moment of her conversion.  Even outside the Church, she is well-known, appearing in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust: A Tragedy (which is not a work I recommend, philosophically or literarily).

Below are the hymns used during the liturgy of the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent:

"In you, O Mother Mary, was restored the likeness of God, for you carried your cross and followed Christ.  You taught by your deeds how to spurn the body, for it passes away, and how to value the soul, for it is immortal.  Wherefore, your soul is forever in happiness with the Angels" (Troparion, 8th Tone).

"O Glorious Mary of Egypt, you cast out the darkness of sin and followed the light of penance.  You directed your heart to Christ and offered Him His All-Pure Mother as an all-compassionate intercessor.  Wherefore, you avoided sin and now live in the joyful company of the Angels in Heaven" (Kontakion, 4th Tone).

St. Mary of Egypt, our holy and God-bearing Mother, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Information for this post comes from OrthodoxWiki (Mary of Egypt, Sophronius I of Jerusalem), Wikipedia, and Saints,  The Troparion and Kontakion for St. Mary's Lenten feast come from the Publican's Prayer Book by the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton, pp. 262-263.

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