Fifth Sunday of Lent – Saint Mary of Egypt
It is celebrated 14 days before Holy Easter.
The life of Saint Mary of Egypt was written by Saint Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem (honored on March 11), who wrote various ascetic and hymnographic texts imbued with the spirit of Orthodox theology and ascetic tradition.
Osia Maria was born in Egypt and lived during the time of Emperor Justinian (527 – 565 AD). From the age of twelve she spent a life of promiscuity in Egypt, since from that early age she corrupted her virginity and had an unrestrained and insatiable passion for carnal intercourse. Living this life she did not collect money, but simply satisfied her passion. She herself admonished Abba Zosimas that she was: “a public source of promiscuity, burning, not giving to anyone, but the truth, eneken”, that is, doing her work for free, “carrying out my katamyon”. And as she revealed to him, she had an insatiable desire and an uncontrollable love to wallow in the tumult that was her life and she thought so, putting human nature to shame.
Because of the profligate life and carnal desire he had, he once followed the pilgrims who were going to Jerusalem to worship the Holy Cross. And this she did, not to worship the Holy Cross, but to have many lovers who would be ready to satisfy her passion. She also realistically describes the way she boarded the ship. And, as she herself revealed, during her journey there was no species of indolence of what was said and unsaid, of which she did not become a teacher to those suffering travelers. And she herself expressed her wonder as to how the sea suffered her debaucheries, and why the earth did not open her mouth and bring her down to hell, because she had ensnared so many souls. During this journey he did not content himself with corrupting the youths, but also corrupted many others of the townspeople and foreign visitors. And in Jerusalem, which he went to on the feast of the Holy Cross, he roamed the streets “spirits of young people”.
But he felt deep repentance from a miraculous event. While entering the temple to venerate the Wood of the Holy Cross, some force prevented her from proceeding. He then stood in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary, showed great repentance and asked for the guidance and help of the Virgin Mary. With the help of the Mother of God, he entered the holy temple unhindered this time and worshiped the Holy Cross. Then, after thanking the Virgin Mary, she heard a voice urging her to go to the desert, beyond the Jordan. She immediately asked for the assistance and protection of the Virgin Mary and made her way to the desert, having previously passed through the holy monastery of the Baptist on the Jordan River and received communion of the Immaculate Mysteries. He lived in the desert for forty-seven years, without ever meeting a human being.
During the first seventeen years in the desert, she fought very hard to defeat her thoughts and desires, essentially to defeat the devil who was fighting her with past life memories.
Osia lived for seventeen years in the desert “the wild beasts of the horses’ desires”. She had many desires for food, drink and “fornication” and many thoughts that pushed her towards prostitution. However, when a calculus came to her, she fell to the ground, showered it with tears and did not rise from the earth “until that sweet light enveloped and chased away the calculus that was bothering me”. He constantly prayed to the Virgin Mary, whom he had as a guarantor of the life of penance he did. Her robe was torn and destroyed and she remained naked ever since. He was burning from the heat and shivering from the frost and “as many times they fell with a hammer, they breathed and were still and immobile”.
After a hard struggle, with the Grace of God and the continuous protection of the Virgin Mary, she was freed from calculations and desires, so the logical and passive part of her soul was transformed, as well as her body was divined.
Because of the great spiritual state that Saint Mary reached, she received from God the clairvoyant gift.
She was naked but her body exceeded the needs of nature. She herself says: “I am a woman, and naked, as you can see, and I had the weight of my body uncovered.” The body was nourished by the Grace of God: “For I am nourished and meditate on the word of God, holding the universes”. In her case, as in the case of other Saints, we notice that the energies of the body are suspended. This suspension of bodily energies was due to the fact that her soul received the energy of the Triune God and this divine energy was channeled into her body as well: “It was enough for me to say the grace of the Spirit, so as to preserve the essence of the soul as asbestos.”
At that time, Hieromonk Abba Zosimas (honored on April 4), who was decorated with holiness of life, was ascetic in a monastery. He saw divine visions, as he had been given the gift of divine luminaries, on account of which he lived to the age of fifty-three with great practice and was famous in his region. Then, however, a calculation of some spiritual pride entered into him, that is, if there was another monk who could benefit him or teach him some new kind of practice. God, to teach and correct him, revealed to him that no man can reach perfection. And then he instructed him to go to a monastery that was near the Jordan river.
Abbot Zosimas obeyed the voice of God and went to the monastery of Saint John the Baptist, which was indicated to him. There he met the abbot and the monks, and saw that they radiated the Grace and love of God, living an intense solitary life with austerity, with great exercise and unceasing prayer.
In this monastery there was a rule. According to him, on Tyrian Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent, after the monks had partaken of the Immaculate Mysteries, they prayed and embraced each other, and then they each received some food and left for the desert beyond the Jordan, to fight in the period of Lent the struggle of asceticism. They returned to the monastery on Palm Sunday, to celebrate the Passion, the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ. They had as a rule that no one should meet the other brother in the desert and not ask him, when they returned, about the kind of practice he was doing during that period.
Abba Zosimas also applied this rule. After receiving a little food, he left the monastery and set out into the desert, desiring to enter as deeply as he could into it, in the hope that he might meet some ascetic who would help him to attain what he longed for. He went about praying and eating little. He slept wherever he was.
He had walked a march of twenty days when, at one point when he sat down to rest and chant, he saw in the distance a shadow that resembled a human body. At first he thought it was a demonic ghost, but then realized it was human. This being he saw was naked, he had a black body – this body came from the sun’s rays – and he had a few white hairs on his head, which did not reach below the neck. Abbot Zosimas saw Holy Mary while she was praying. Saint Mary of Egypt practiced continuous prayer, and Abba Zosimas actually saw her when she raised her eyes to heaven and stretched out her hands and “whispered my blessing, but her voice was not heard.” And at some point, while he was sitting in fear, “he saw her lifted up like a pillar from the earth and suspended in the air, and thus she prayed.”
Abba Zosimas tried to get closer to see what he was seeing, but the human being was moving away. Abba Zosimas was running, he was also running. And Abba cried with tears to it to stop, to receive his blessing. But that didn’t respond. As soon as Abba came to a stream and came down, that human being, after calling him by his first name, which made a great impression on Abba, told him that he could not turn and see him face to face, for she was a woman naked and she has uncovered her body parts. She begged him, if he wished, to grant her his wish and throw her a rag from his clothes, to cover her naked body. Abba did as he was told and then she turned to him. Abba immediately knelt down to receive her wish, and she did the same. And they both remained on their knees, “Each one must bless the other”.
Because Abba was wondering if he saw an immaterial spirit in front of him, she discerning his calculations, told him that she is a sinner, who has been walled off by holy Baptism and is dust and ashes and not an immaterial spirit.
During this meeting, Osia Maria, after revealing her whole life, asked Abba Zosimas to come on Maundy Thursday of the following year, to a certain place on the bank of the Jordan River, near a residential area, to commune with her , after many years of great penance that transformed her existence. “And now that man I am restraining from love,” he said to him, that is, he had uncontrollable love to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Abbot Zosimas returned to the monastery without telling anyone exactly what he encountered, in accordance with the rule that existed in that holy monastery. But he kept begging God to grant him to see “the longed for face” again next year and he was even sad because the time did not pass, as he wanted all that time to be one day.
The following year Abbot Zosimas, due to some illness, could not leave the monastery in the desert, as the other fathers did at the beginning of Lent, and so he remained in the monastery. And on Palm Sunday, when the other fathers of the Monastery had returned, he prepared to go to the place that Osia had indicated to him, to receive her communion.
On Maundy Thursday he took with him the Body and Blood of Christ in a small glass, took some figs and dates and some wet lentils and left the monastery to meet the Holy Mary. But because she was late in coming to the appointed place, Abba prayed to God with tears that he would not, because of his sins, deprive him of the opportunity to see her again.
After the fervent prayer he saw her from the other side of the Jordan River, making the sign of the Cross, stepping on the water of the river “they were walking on the waters above and they were marching towards him”. Then Osia begged him to say the Creed and “Pater ἠμῶν”. Then he embraced Abba Zosima and received communion of the animal-making Mysteries. Then she raised her hands to heaven, sighed with tears and said: “Now you dismiss your servant, O Despot, according to your will in peace, because my eyes have seen your salvation.”
Then, after begging him to come the following year to the stream where he had met her the first time, she asked for his prayer. Abba touched Ossia’s feet, he also asked for her prayer and let her go “weak and sore”, because she dared to “hold her temper”. She left in the same way she came, that is, stepping on the waters of the Jordan River.
The following year, according to Ossia’s request, Abba was in a hurry to reach “that paradoxical sight”. After marching for many days and arriving at that place, he sought “like an experienced hunter” to see “the sweetest prey”, the Osia of God. But he could not see her anywhere. Then he began to pray to God fervently: “Show me, Despot, your treasure, the asylum, which you have hidden in this desert, show me, I pray, the angel in the body, the world is not unworthy.” For Abba Zosimas, Holy Mary was an untouchable treasure, an angel in a body, which the world was not worthy of having. And praying with these words, he saw “the Osia lying there, dead, and the hands in the same way as he saw them print, and towards the east they saw the shape lying there.” She also found her own writing that said: “Bury, Abba Zosimas, in this place the remains of the humble Mary, surrendering the body to the body, praying for me for everything to the Lord, be finished, do not Farmuth (according to the Egyptians, as it is Aprilius according to the Romans), and on this night of the passion of the savior, after that of the divine and secret supper he partakes”. That is, he found her dead, lying on the ground, with her arms crossed and looking towards the east. At the same time he also found a writing that begged him to bury her.
Osia slept on the same day that she received communion, having crossed in one hour a distance which Abba Zosimas covered in twenty days the following year. Agios Sophronios writes: “and when Zosimas had led the way for twenty days of labor, in one hour Maria was healed and straight to God she redeemed herself”. Her body had acquired other properties, it had transformed.
Then Abba Zosimas, after crying a lot and saying psalms suitable for the occasion, “he said eucharistic epitaph”. And then with great joy, “wetting the body with tears” he took care of the burial. But because the earth was hard and he himself was advanced in age, therefore he could not dig it and was in perplexity. Then “he saw a huge lion present at the relic of Ossia and her tracks disappearing”, i.e. he saw a lion standing next to the relic of Ossia and licking her tracks. Abba was frightened, but the lion itself “not only moved, but also intended”, that is, the lion itself caught Abba and motivated him, both with his movements and with his intentions, to proceed with her burial. Taking courage from the lion’s tameness, the Abbot begged it to dig this very pit, in order to bury the holy relic of the Blessed Mary, because he was growing weak. The lion obeyed. “Euthys dek ama tês tặm tiết một ảpụm”, that is, with his front legs he dug the pit, as much as was necessary, in order to bury the body of Osia Maria.
The burial of Ossia took place with Abba Zosima praying and the lion “present”. After the burial, they both left, “the lion gave way to the wilderness like a sheep. But Zosimas returned, blessing and praising our God”.
And Saint Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, concludes that he wrote this life “according to power” and “they do not prefer the truth”.
The life of Saint Mary of Egypt shows that a prostitute can become a god by Grace, that a man can become an angel in a body and that the hope of Christ can replace the despair that comes from the devil. In the face of Saint Mary of Egypt we see the man who seeks pleasure and chases people for their satisfaction, but yet with the Grace of God he can be purified so much that he reaches the point where the Saints chase after him to receive the her blessing and that her desecrated body be picked up, as well as that the wild animals also respect her.
Saint Mary of Egypt with her repentance, her deep humiliation, the transcendence in Grace of her mortal and suffering body, on the one hand offers a consolation to all people, on the other hand does not humiliate those who are proud of their ascetics feats. He not only tamed the wild beasts within her, that is, the horse passions, but he transcended all the limits of human nature and tamed even the wild beasts of creation.
This is the purpose and the wealth of the humanization of Christ, which is kept within the Church. With apocalyptic theology and life in Christ, man can be completely transformed.
The Church honors the memory of Saint Mary of Egypt and the Fifth Sunday of Lent.