The Orthodox Pages
THE PEOPLE'S HANDBOOK
THE LIFE OF
ST. MARY OF EGYPT
Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of
is good to hide the secret of a king, but it is glorious to reveal and
preach the works of God." (Tobit 12:7) So said the Archangel Raphael to
Tobit when he performed the wonderful healing of his blindness. Actually,
not to keep the secret of a king is perilous and a terrible risk, but to
be silent about the works of God is a great loss for the soul. And I (says
St. Sophronios), in writing the life of St. Mary of
now we must begin to tell this most amazing story, which has taken place
in our generation. There was a certain elder in one of the monasteries of
Zosimas did as he was told. He left the monastery in which he had lived from childhood, and went to the River Jordan. At last he reached the community to which God had sent him. Having knocked at the door of the monastery, he told the monk who was the porter who he was; and the porter told the abbot. On being admitted to the abbot's presence, Zosimas made the usual monastic prostration and prayer. Seeing that he was a monk the abbot asked: "Where do you come from, brother, and why have you come to us poor old men?" Zosimas replied: "There is no need to speak about where I have come from, but I have come, father, seeking spiritual profit, for I have heard great things about your skill in leading souls to God." "Brother," the abbot said to him, "Only God can heal the infirmity of the soul. May He teach you and us His divine ways and guide us. But as it is the love of Christ that has moved you to visit us poor old men, then stay with us, if that is why you have come. May the Good Shepherd Who laid down His life for our salvation fill us all with the grace of the Holy Spirit.Ē
After this, Zosimas bowed to the abbot, asked for his prayers and blessing, and stayed in the monastery. There he saw elders proficient both in action and the contemplation of God, aflame in spirit, working for the Lord. They sang incessantly, they stood in prayer all night, work was ever in their hands and psalms on their lips. Never an idle word was heard among them, they knew nothing about acquiring temporal goods or the cares of life. They had but one desire -- to become in body like corpses. Their constant food was the Word of God, and they sustained their bodies on bread and water, as much as their love for God allowed them. Seeing this, Zosimas was greatly edified and prepared for the struggle that lay before him. Many days passed and the time drew near when all Christians fast and prepare themselves to worship the Divine Passion and Resurrection of Christ. The monastery gates were kept always locked and only opened when one of the community was sent out on some errand. It was a desert place, not only unvisited by people of the world but even unknown to them. There was a rule in that monastery which was the reason why God brought Zosimas there.
At the beginning of the Great Fast [on Forgiveness Sunday] the priest celebrated the holy Liturgy and all partook of the holy body and blood of Christ. After the Liturgy they went to the refectory and would eat a little Lenten food. Then all gathered in church, and after praying earnestly with prostrations, the elders kissed one another and asked forgiveness. And each made a prostration to the abbot and asked his blessing and prayers for the struggle that lay before them. After this, the gates of the monastery were thrown open, and singing, "The Lord is my light and my Saviour; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 26:1) and the rest of that psalm, all went out into the desert and crossed the River Jordan. Only one or two brothers were left in the monastery, not to guard the property (for there was nothing to rob), but so as not to leave the church without Divine Service. Each took with him as much as he could or wanted in the way of food, according to the needs of his body: one would take a little bread, another some figs, another dates or wheat soaked in water. And some took nothing but their own body covered with rags and fed when nature forced them to it on the plants that grew in the desert.
Zosimas did the same as all. And he went far, far into the desert with a secret hope of finding some father who might be living there and who might be able to satisfy his thirst and longing. And he wandered on tireless, as if hurrying on to some definite place. He had already walked for 20 days and when the 6th hour came he stopped and, turning to the East, he began to sing the sixth Hour and recite the customary prayers. He used to break his journey thus at fixed hours of the day to rest a little, to chant psalms standing and to pray on bent knees. And as he sang thus without turning his eyes from the heavens, he suddenly saw to the right of the hillock on which he stood the semblance of a human body. At first he was confused thinking he beheld a vision of the devil, and even started with fear. But, having guarded himself with the sign of the Cross and banished all fear, he turned his gaze in that direction and in truth saw some form gliding southwards. It was naked, the skin dark as if burned up by the heat of the sun; the hair on its head was white as a fleece, and not long, falling just below its neck. Zosimas was so overjoyed at beholding a human form that he ran after it in pursuit, but the form fled from him. He followed. At length, when he was near enough to be heard, he shouted: "Why do you run from an old man and a sinner? Slave of the True God, wait for me, whoever you are, in God's name I tell you, for the love of God for Whose sake you are living in the desert." "Forgive me for God's sake, but I cannot turn towards you and show you my face, Abba Zosimas. For I am a woman and naked as you see with the uncovered shame of my body. But if you would like to fulfill one wish of a sinful woman, throw me your cloak so that I can cover my body and can turn to you and ask for your blessing."
Here terror seized Zosimas, for he heard that she called him by name. But he realized that she could not have done so without knowing anything of him if she had not had the power of spiritual insight. He at once did as he was asked. He took off his old, tattered cloak and threw it to her, turning away as he did so. She picked it up and was able to cover at least a part of her body. Then she turned to Zosimas and said: "Why did you wish, Abba Zosimas, to see a sinful woman? What do you wish to hear or learn from me, you who have not shrunk from such great struggles?" Zosimas threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing. She likewise bowed down before him. And thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other's blessing. And one word alone could be heard from both: "Bless me!" After a long while the woman said to Zosimas: "Abba Zosimas, it is you who must give blessing and pray. You are dignified by the order of priesthood and for many years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries."
This flung Zosimas into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her: "O mother, filled with the spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent -- for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one's orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God's sake, for I need your prayers." Then giving way before the wish of the elder the woman said: "Blessed is God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls." Zosimas answered: "Amen." And both rose to their feet. Then the woman asked the elder: "Why have you come, man of God, to me who am so sinful? Why do you wish to see a woman naked and devoid of every virtue? Though I know one thing -- the Grace of the Holy Spirit has brought you to render me a service in time. Tell me, father, how are the Christian peoples living? And the kings? How is the Church guided?" Zosimas said: "By your prayers, mother, Christ has granted lasting peace to all. But fulfil the unworthy petition of an old man and pray for the whole world and for me who am a sinner, so that my wanderings in the desert may not be fruitless."
She answered: "You who are a priest, Abba Zosimas, it is you who must pray for me and for all -- for this is your calling. But as we must all be obedient, I will gladly do what you ask." And with these words she turned to the East, and raising her eyes to heaven and stretching out her hands, she began to pray in a whisper. One could not hear separate words, so that Zosimas could not understand anything that she said in her prayers. Meanwhile he stood, according to his own word, all in a flutter, looking at the ground without saying a word. And he swore, calling God to witness, that when at length he thought that her prayer was very long, he took his eyes off the ground and saw that she was raised bout a forearm's distance from the ground and stood praying in the air. When he saw this, even greater terror seized him and he fell on the ground weeping and repeating many times, "Lord, have mercy." And whilst lying prostrate on the ground he was tempted by a thought: Is it not a spirit, and perhaps her prayer is hypocrisy. But at the very same moment the woman turned round, raised the elder from the ground and said: "Why do thoughts confuse you, Abba, and tempt you about me, as if I were a spirit and a dissembler in prayer? Know, holy father, that I am only a sinful woman, though I am guarded by Holy Baptism. And I am no spirit but earth and ashes, and flesh alone." And with these words she guarded herself with the sign of the Cross on her forehead, eyes, mouth and breast, saying: "May God defend us from the evil one and from his designs, for fierce is his struggle against us." Hearing and seeing this, the elder fell to the ground and, embracing her feet, he said with tears: "I beg you, by the Name of Christ our God, Who was born of a Virgin, for Whose sake you have stripped yourself, for Whose sake you have exhausted your flesh, do not hide from your slave, who you are and whence and how you came into this desert. Tell me everything so that the marvelous works of God may become known. A hidden wisdom and a secret treasure -- what profit is there in them? Tell me all, I implore you. For not out of vanity or for self-display will you speak but to reveal the truth to me, an unworthy sinner. I believe in God, for whom you live and whom you serve. I believe that He led me into this desert so as to show me His ways in regard to you. It is not in our power to resist the plans of God. If it were not the will of God that you and your life would be known, He would not have allowed me to see you and would not have strengthened me to undertake this journey, one like me who never before dared to leave his cell."
Much more said Abba Zosimas. But the woman raised him and said: "I am ashamed, Abba, to speak to you of my disgraceful life, forgive me for God's sake! But as you have already seen my naked body I shall likewise lay bare before you my work, so that you may know with what shame and obscenity my soul is filled. I was not running away out of vanity, as you thought, for what have I to be proud of -- I who was the chosen vessel of the devil? But when I start my story you will run from me, as from a snake, for your ears will not be able to bear the vileness of my actions. But I shall tell you all without hiding anything, only imploring you first of all to pray incessantly for me, so that I may find mercy on the Day of Judgment."
elder wept and the woman began her story. "My native land, holy father,
And, resuming her story, she went on: "That youth, on hearing my shameless words, laughed and went off. While I, throwing away my spinning wheel, ran off towards the sea in the direction which everyone seemed to be taking. And, seeing some young men standing on the shore, about ten or more of them, full of vigour and alert in their movements, I decided that they would do for my purpose (it seemed that some of them were waiting for more travellers whilst others had gone ashore). Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.' I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once. How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.
last we arrived in
"Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be pushed, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart. And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the icon of the most holy Mother of God. And turning to her my bodily and spiritual eyes I said: `O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know, O how well I know, that it is no honour or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to thy icon, O ever-virgin, who didst keep thy body and soul in purity. Rightly do I inspire hatred and disgust before thy virginal purity. But I have heard that God Who was born of thee became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of thee suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before thy son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou wilt lead me.' Thus I spoke and as if acquiring some hope in firm faith and feeling some confidence in the mercy of the Mother of God, I left the place where I stood praying.
I went again and mingled with the crowd that was pushing its way into the
temple. And no one seemed to thwart me, no one hindered my entering the
church. I was possessed with trembling, and was almost in delirium. Having
got as far as the doors which I could not reach before -- as if the same
force which had hindered me cleared the way for me -- I now entered
without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I
saw the Lifegiving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord
accepts repentance. Throwing myself on the ground, I worshipped that holy
earth and kissed it with trembling. Then I came out of the church and went
to her who had promised to be my security, to the place where I had sealed
my vow. And bending my knees before the Virgin Mother of God, I addressed
to her such words as these: `O loving Lady, thou hast shown me thy great
love for all men. Glory to God Who receives the repentance of sinners
through thee. What more can I recollect or say, I who am so sinful? It is
time for me, O Lady, to fulfill my vow, according to thy witness. Now lead
me by the hand along the path of repentance!' And at these words I heard a
voice from on high: `If you cross the
on I passed the gates and still weeping went on my journey. Those I met I
asked the way, and after walking for the rest of that day (I think it was
nine o'clock when I saw the Cross) I at length reached at sunset the
asked her: "How many years have gone by since you began to live in this
desert?" She replied: "Forty-seven years have already gone by, I think,
since I left the holy city." Zosimas asked: "But what food do you find?"
The woman said: "I had two and a half loaves when I crossed the
she said to him: "Believe me, Abba, seventeen years I passed in this
desert fighting wild beasts -- mad desires and passions. When I was about
to partake of food, I used to begin to regret the meat and fish which of
which I had so much in
always I turned to the eyes of my mind to my Protectress, asking her to
extend help to one who was sinking fast in the waves of the desert. And I
always had her as my helper and the acceptor of my repentance. And thus I
lived for seventeen years amid constant dangers. And since then even till
now the Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by
the hand." Zosimas asked: "Can it be that you did not need food and
clothing?" She answered: "After finishing the loaves I had, of which I
spoke, for seventeen years I have fed on herbs and all that can be found
in the desert. The clothes I had when I crossed the
smiled at this and said to the elder: "Believe me, I have not seen a human
face ever since I crossed the
was amazed to hear that she know the rules of the monastery and could only
say: "Glory to God Who bestows great gifts on those who love Him." She
continued: "Remain, Abba, in the monastery. And even if you wish to
depart, you will not be able to do so. And at sunset of the holy day of
the Last Supper, put some of the Lifegiving Body and Blood of Christ into
a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait
for me on the banks of the
With these words she vanished in the depths of the desert. And Zosimas, falling down on his knees and bowing down to the ground on which she had stood, sent up glory and thanks to God. And, after wandering thorough the desert, he returned to the monastery on the day all the brothers returned. For the whole year he kept silent, not daring to tell anyone of what he had seen. But in his soul he prayed to God to give him another chance of seeing the ascetic's dear face. And when at length the first Sunday of the Great Fast came, all went out into the desert with the customary prayers and the singing of psalms. Only Zosimas was held back by illness - he lay in a fever. And then he remembered what the saint had said to him: "and even if you wish to depart, you will not be able to do so." Many days passed and at last recovering from his illness he remained in the monastery.
when again the monks returned and the day of the Last Supper dawned, he
did as he had been ordered. and placing some of the most pure Body and
Blood into a small chalice and putting some figs and dates and lentils
soaked in water into a small basket, he departed for the desert and
reached the banks of the Jordan and sat down to wait for the saint. He
waited for a long while and then began to doubt. Then raising his eyes to
heaven, he began to pray: "Grant me O Lord, to behold that which Thou hast
allowed me to behold once. Do not let me depart in vain, being the burden
of my sins." And then another thought struck him: "And what if she does
come? There is no boat; how will she cross the
as he was pondering thus he saw the holy woman appear and stand on the
other side of the river. Zosimas got up rejoicing and glorifying and
thanking God. And again the thought came to him that she could not cross
Having partaken of the Holy Mysteries, she raised her hands to heaven and sighed with tears in her eyes, exclaiming: "Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Master, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation." Then she said to the elder: "Forgive me, Abba, for asking you, but fulfill another wish of mine. Go now to the monastery and let God's grace guard you. And next year come again to the same place where I first met you. Come for God's sake, for you shall again see me, for such is the will of God." He said to her: "From this day on I would like to follow you and always see your holy face. But now fulfil the one and only wish of an old man and take a little of the food I have brought for you." And he showed her the basket, while she just touched the lentils with the tips of her fingers, and taking three grains said that the Holy Spirit guards the substance of the soul unpolluted.
she said: "Pray, for God's sake pray for me and remember a miserable
wretch." Touching the saint's feet and asking for her prayers for the
Church, the kingdom and himself, he let her depart with tears, while he
went off sighing and sorrowful, for he could not hope to vanquish the
invincible. Meanwhile she again made the sign of the Cross over the
Then on the opposite bank of the river, her face turned towards the rising sun, he saw the saint lying dead. Her hands were crossed according to custom and her face was turned to the East. Running up he shed tears over the saint's feet and kissed them, not daring to touch anything else. For a long time he wept. Then reciting the appointed psalms, he said the burial prayers and thought to himself: "Must I bury the body of a saint? Or will this be contrary to her wishes?" And then he saw words traced on the ground by her head: "Abba Zosimas, bury on this spot the body of humble Mary. Return to dust that which is dust and pray to the Lord for me, who departed in the month of Fermoutin of Egypt, called April by the Romans, on the first day, on the very night of our Lord's Passion, after having partaken of the Divine Mysteries." [St. Mary died in 522 A. D.]
this the elder was glad to know the saint's name. He understood too that
as soon as she had partaken of the Divine Mysteries on the shore of the
Zosimas said to the lion: "The Great One ordered that her body was to be buried. But I am old and have not the strength to dig the grave (for I have no spade and it would take too long to go and get one), so can you carry out the work with your claws? Then we can commit to the earth the mortal temple of the saint." While he was still speaking the lion with his front paws began to dig a hole deep enough to bury the body. Again the elder washed the feet of the saint with his tears and calling on her to pray for all, covered the body with earth in the presence of the lion. It was as it had been, naked and uncovered by anything but the tattered cloak which had been given to her by Zosimas and with which Mary, turning away, had managed to cover part of her body. Then both departed. The lion went off into the depth of the desert like a lamb, while Zosimas returned to the monastery glorifying and blessing Christ our Lord. And on reaching the monastery he told all the brothers about everything, and all marvelled on hearing of God's miracles. And with fear and love they kept the memory of the saint.
Abbot John, as St. Mary had previously told Abba Zosimas, found a number of things wrong in the monastery and got rid of them with God's help. And Saint Zosimas died in the same monastery, almost attaining the age of a hundred, and passed to eternal life. The monks kept this story without writing it down and passed it on by word of mouth to one another. But I [adds Sophronios] as soon as I heard it, wrote it down. Perhaps someone else, better informed, has already written the life of the Saint, but as far as I could, I have recorded everything, putting truth above all else. may God Who works amazing miracles and generously bestows gifts on those who turn to Him with faith, reward those who seek light for themselves in this story, who hear, read and are zealous to write it, and may He grant them the lot of blessed Mary together with all who at different times have pleased God by their pious thoughts and labours. And let us also give glory to God, the eternal King, that He may grant us too His mercy in the day of judgment for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, to Whom belongs all glory, honour, dominion and adoration with the Eternal Father and the Most Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and always, and throughout all ages. Amen.
The End and Glory Be to God
Troparion, Tone 8
In thee, O Mother, was preserved unimpaired that which is according to Godís image; for thou didst take up the Cross and follow Christ. By thine actions thou hast taught us to despise the flesh for it passes away, but to care for the soul which is thing immortal. Wherefore thy spirit holy Mary rejoices with the angels.