The life of the holy nun, St. Mary of Edessa, also known as St. Mary the Harlot, is one where tragedy turned into spiritual triumph. Much of what we know of her and her life is from legends, legends written with a particular bias, but we can read between the lines and discern things today which others would likely have missed. According to what is said of her, she was orphaned around the age of seven, and her uncle, the monk St. Abraham, was made her guardian. She was given a cell in the outer room of his abode, where she was raised to follow the ascetic principles which Abraham knew and understood. What he did not know was how to properly raise her. He did what he could, and he loved her, but he really was not the most qualified person to take care of a child.
For twenty years, Mary followed the way of life given to her, but, through it all, it seems she was rather innocent and naïve. This is why, when a monk who had come to visit her uncle, came to know of her and desire to make his way with her, he was, over the course of a year, able to overcome her resistance to her charms and fulfill his desire. But as soon as that happened, she felt bad about what she had done, indeed, she fell into a state of despair and fled from her cell to a nearby city, where she hoped to make a new life for herself. She did not have the ability to survive on her own, so, she did what many women did in her situation, which was to became a prostitute so she would have the money she needed to survive. Her uncle did not immediately know she had left her cell, because she had her own independence, but when he found out, he made his way to find her and bring her back to where she belonged.
The story is mostly told to show the heroic journey Abraham went to bring back his niece. When Mary is brought into it, we are often told how she became penitent and through years of penance, a holy saint. Nonetheless, we can, and should, see something else going on with the story – instead of seeing it as a story of Mary falling into sin and, afterward, needing to repent for what she had done, it is a story of spiritual and sexual abuse, and the harm which such abuse can and does bring to those who suffer from it. The monk who lusted after her used his spiritual authority, using it as the means by which he could talk to her and slowly break down her resistance to his desire to dominate and control her. The monk was not alone in this. What we see here is a story which can be and is told time and time again, indeed, we find it being told in our era when we look at how clergy and other religious authorities use their background to abuse people. Mary was devastated by sexual abuse, and, as is common with those suffering from such abuse, she was made to feel as if she was to blame for it. Even as a prostitute, she was a victim making her way through her victimization; once she had suffered at the hands of the monk, she did not know how to move on and get the healing she needed. Her uncle went to her to let her know she did not have to conflate the abuse, and what she did while being abused, dominate her; she did not have to identify herself based upon her abuse. Thus, the story of her should not be seen merely as a story of repentance, but rather, of healing. We should learn from it that people who abuse, especially religious abuse, should not be blamed for what they suffer; they need love and care, not more religious trauma, if they are to be healed.
Paul understood the way religious people like to use spiritual authority as an excuse to abuse others. It was one of the things he was fighting against, such as when he resisted those who insisted everyone must follow rigorous rules in order to be a Christian. Christianity is not about such rules; those who like to focus on them and compel others to follow them to the letter, without any mercy, without any exception, without any consideration about the situation one is in, are far from the Christian ideal. They are abusing religion, and most of the time, they do so in order to feel superior to those whom they abuse. Paul saw this happening with those who demanded Gentile believers to follow the strictest, most rigorous interpretation of the Torah, observing the Torah in a way which most Jewish people did not do. His response was to make it clear: their rigorism was not the Christian way. Christianity teaches us to have an authentic relationship with Christ, to find that it is in and through that relationship, we can find the path to true holiness, as it is Christ, not religious rules, who makes everyone new:
See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh. But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God (Gal. 6:11-16 RSV).
Spiritual abuse looks for ways to dominate others, and through such domination, cause its victims to experience great pain and sorrow. Those with spiritual authority should use it to bring grace to others, so that through grace, they experience spiritual freedom. Legalists use spirituality in the same way as sexual abusers do, which is why there is often a crossover between the two. Those who are innocent or naïve will often fall for one or the other, or both, and as such, suffer great harm both in their temporal livelihood and also in their proper spiritual development. They will be in a state of confusion, not knowing what to do. Many, upon realizing the harm they experienced, will become so conflicted they will find it difficult to return to the religious faith they had. When this is the case, we should be understanding of them and trust in God’s greater grace and love will take care of them. Some, like Mary, will be able to return, but when they do, we should understand why, and not use their story to demand others to be just like them. Moreover, we should not use their stories as providing justification for other kinds of spiritual abuse. Sadly, as the problems of sexual abuse and how it occurs was not understood in the ancient world, the way Mary’s story was told implied she was at least partially at fault for what happened to her; this is why she is remembered as a repentant prostitute instead of what she truly was, a woman who suffered greatly in her life and who, finally, was able to find a way to be healed from all the abuse she suffered with the help of God’s grace. Sadly, sexually abused people know what it is like to be made ashamed for the abuse they suffered, indeed, to be made to believe they were at fault for such abuse. Blaming the victim only makes things worse. We must, therefore, avoid doing so if we want Christianity to finally reform itself and move beyond its legacy of sexual and spiritual abuse.
Stay in touch! Like A Little Bit of Nothing on Facebook.
If you liked what you read, please consider sharing it with your friends and family!
N.B.: While I read comments to moderate them, I rarely respond to them. If I don’t respond to your comment directly, don’t assume I am unthankful for it. I appreciate it. But I want readers to feel free to ask questions, and hopefully, dialogue with each other. I have shared what I wanted to say, though some responses will get a brief reply by me, or, if I find it interesting and something I can engage fully, as the foundation for another post. I have had many posts inspired or improved upon thanks to my readers.