Mary of Egypt is one of the best-known desert mothers. She left her Alexandria home and family at the age of 12 for reasons unknown. As the story goes, she was a sex worker for 17 years, sometimes selling her body for money and other times seducing men just for the fun of it.
Pilgrimage to Jerusalem
One day Mary was intrigued by a ship heading out of Alexandria taking people on a pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, so she sold sexual favors to pay her way to Jerusalem. Once there, she was curious to enter the church and see the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. But when she tried, a mysterious invisible force held her back. So, she sat down outside the church and began to reflect on her life, and she felt a great sense of remorse. Mary noticed an icon of the Virgin Mary, and prayed for forgiveness, promising to live a pure and holy life. At that moment, the unseen force allowed her into the church, where she then heard a voice telling her to cross the Jordan River and live as a hermit.
As soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross, I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever you will lead me, Lord.
For over 50 years, Mary roamed the desert, naked, skin wrinkled and darkened by the sun and hair turned white from age. She must have been quite the sight when a desert father named Zosimas of Palestine stumbled upon her while on his annual Lenten desert experience. Embarrassed by her nudity, Zosimas gave her a cloak and began a conversation. She told him her life story, calling him by name even though they had just met. He realized he was in the company of either a saint or an apparition.
Deciding she was a saint, Zosimas asked Mary to pray with him and when she finished, he saw her hovering about a foot above the earth. He also claims to have seen her walk on water. Abba Zosimas visited Mary one other time after that initial encounter, and she asked him to visit her again one year later. When he arrived that following Lent, he found her dead in the spot they first met, with a note scratched into the sand asking him to bury her. Zosimas didn’t have a shovel on him, and another miracle took place. As the legend goes, a lion passed by, pawed the ground to create a grave then placidly walked away.
Legends and Rumors
These vivid tales of 4th century mystic Mary of Egypt were handed down orally until about a hundred years after her death. Mary holds a place of honor in the Orthodox Church’s Lenten tradition, with her story read aloud in worship the week before Palm Sunday. She is the Roman Catholic patron saint of penitents. Some scholars believe her story was conflated with the biblical stories of Mary Magdalene, which is how the (non-biblical) rumor about Mary Magdalene being a prostitute may have developed.
These vignettes of desert mystics can be found on the backs of the Exploring the Depths: Desert Mothers and Fathers edition. The cards are ink drawings by spiritual director and artist Trey Everett and are designed to be colored with pens or pencils. To purchase a set, visit Trey’s store at www.treyeverettcreates.com.