The Word Among Us

January 2011 Issue

Not Your Typical Sinner-Turned-Saint

Mary of Egypt’s Strange but Revealing Path to Holiness

By: Kevin Perrotta

Not Your Typical Sinner-Turned-Saint: Mary of Egypt’s Strange but Revealing Path to Holiness by Kevin Perrotta

If the Guinness Book of World Records had a section on extreme conversions, Mary of Egypt would probably be the lead story. She went through one of the most astonishing conversions in the history of the church. Her conversion was extreme for three reasons.

First, her life before conversion was extremely bad. Second, her turnaround was lightning fast. And third, her life after her conversion went to an extreme as well. To be honest, Mary’s whole Christian life was unusual.

Clearly, Mary of Egypt isn’t the easiest saint to relate to. In fact, some people find her hard to take. Others, however, find a powerful message in her life.

X-Rated Beginnings. Mary was born in an Egyptian village around the year 500. Her parents were Christians and had her baptized. But as she grew up, she grew away from her parents and her faith.

In those days, Egyptian parents would arrange a marriage for their daughter when she reached her teens. But Mary had other ideas. It was not that she wanted to enter a convent. No, Mary wanted to stage her own little sixth-century sexual revolution. First, she ruined her chances for a respectable marriage in the village by getting intimate with a boy. Then she went off to Alexandria, Egypt’s port city, where she supported herself by spinning thread and devoted her free time to a seemingly endless series of sexual exploits.

We might say Mary had a sexual addiction, but there was no twelve-step program back then to help her. It wouldn’t have mattered, either: Mary didn’t feel she needed any help.

After wasting her twenties this way, Mary became restless. One day at the harbor, she met some sailors headed for Jerusalem. On a whim, Mary asked them to take her along. “I don’t have money,” she said, “but I can pay the fare with my body.” They laughed, then took her on board and enjoyed an X-rated cruise with her from Egypt to Palestine.

But upon arriving in Jerusalem, something unexpected happened.

“Help Me Enter!” Every year on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Jesus’ cross would be displayed in the church built at Calvary. Her curiosity aroused, Mary decided to take a look and joined the crowd heading into the church. But when she got to the door, an invisible force stopped her from entering. Even with the pressure of the crowd behind her, she could not get through. She tried over and over, but the barrier remained.

Frustrated and shaken, Mary paced the courtyard in front of the church. She had come out of curiosity, but now she really wanted to see the cross. And she was frightened. “I began to see why I was being prevented from going in,” she later recounted. “My sins were keeping me out.”

In the courtyard hung an icon of the mother of Jesus. Mary went up and addressed the image as though she were speaking directly to that other Mary. “Your son came into the world to save sinners,” she said (she hadn’t entirely forgotten her religious upbringing). “Dear Mother, receive my confession and help me enter the church. Don’t deprive me of the sight of the cross! I promise you, I will turn from lust and go wherever you direct me.”

When she went back, the barrier was gone. She entered the church and venerated the cross. “I realized how God receives those who repent. I threw myself on the floor and kissed the sacred dust.”

Leaving the church, Mary returned to the icon. “I’ve come to keep my promise,” she said. In reply, a voice told her, “If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest.”

A Woman in the Wilderness. Heading off to an entirely new place was something Mary knew how to do. She went out to the street, bought some bread, and immediately walked the day’s journey from Jerusalem to the Jordan River.

Monks lived near the river, at the place where Jesus had been baptized. Mary visited them, and after a few days, she crossed the river and entered the hot, arid wilderness on the eastern side.

This is where the strange part begins.

In those days, monks would sometimes go off alone into the Jordan wilderness to pray in solitude. Like John the Baptist, who lived on locusts and wild honey, they would feed themselves with desert plants and seeds. Now, monks might do this for a few weeks at a time, but Mary lived this way for more than forty years.

Did she feel God was punishing her for her sins? Was she consumed with self-hatred? Had she lost her mind? The answers come to us through a monk who ran into Mary in the desert near the end of her life.

Zossima was his name. He had entered a monastery as a young man and had grown in discipline and wisdom until he became a guide to younger monks. Other monks took him as a model. This gave Zossima a sense of accomplishment—and that made him uncomfortable. One day in prayer, he felt God sending him into the desert, where he would discover “how many and varied are the ways of God’s salvation.” Thus, the following Lent found Zossima wandering and praying in the Jordan wilderness.

That Sweet Transforming Light. When he first caught sight of Mary—now old, sun-darkened, and shriveled—Zossima didn’t know what he was seeing. But he called to her in God’s name to tell him who and what she was, and frankly but tactfully, Mary told Zossima her life story.

But how, Zossima asked, had she lived in the desert alone for decades? And what had happened to her there?

Mary acknowledged the hardship of life in the desert, hinting that she had received miraculous assistance. For years, she said, she had felt almost irresistible urges to return to her former life. Then she would picture the icon of the Virgin Mary and beg for her help. She would throw herself on the ground, weeping, and after a while, she said: “I saw a light shining around me, and I would become calm. I did not get up from the ground until that sweet light drove away the thoughts raging in me.” Eventually, the temptations cleared away. Despite the harshness of the desert, she experienced great peace with God. She found the rest that the Lady of the icon had promised.

Zossima was awed. Mary seemed somehow to have become transparent to God’s presence. The old monk went away from their conversation thanking God for the opportunity to meet such a holy person.

Later, Zossima brought Mary Communion. But on his next attempt to visit her, he came upon her dead body. With the help of a lion who suddenly appeared (a legendary element in the story or a genuine miracle?), he buried her in the hard desert ground.

The Message Is Grace. In the sixth century, some monks went to extremes of asceticism. But even by their standards, Mary’s life in the desert was off the charts. From a modern perspective, it can only seem bizarre. But can we find a message in her life?

Zossima found one. From his youth, he had striven to do God’s will. Yet for all her waywardness, Mary had experienced God’s mercy in a deeper way. The witness of her life showed Zossima that no matter how vigorous or disciplined we may be in our Christian observances, in the final analysis it is God’s grace that transforms us. It was pure grace for Mary to realize that she really wanted God’s love, not the fleeting thrill of anonymous sex. It was only by God’s grace that she was able to turn and struggle against temptations. And finally, it was by the power of grace that she was able to live prayerfully in the harsh desert.

This is the crucial message for all of us “Zossimas,” all of us life-long, conscientious believers. No matter who we are—no matter how devoted we are—we are all sinners, and we all need God’s grace if we want to become more and more like Christ.

Repentance Opens the Way. And what about those of us who have not been life-long conscientious Christians? What about those of us who have fallen into serious sins and now struggle against temptations to return to them? We may feel ashamed at what we have done and what we are still tempted to do. We may feel disqualified from ever becoming holy.

But look at Mary. Her life shows us a profound paradox: God often uses our own sins to transform us. How can this be? Well, in Mary’s case, the memory of her sinful past kept her humble. It became a motivation for her to keep seeking the Lord, to keep begging him for more of his grace and power.

And consider, Mary was born to be a contemplative. This was her vocation. This was the life God made her for. It was the life that she would be happy to live if she ever discovered it. And she did discover it—by spending long years in the desert confronting the evil tendencies that had taken root in her. Only through that particular process of repentance did she arrive at the contemplative phase of her life. We might even say that her sins, once she rejected them, became the means by which God brought her close to himself.

Mary’s experience is especially relevant for anyone who, like her, has found himself or herself mired in sexual sins and finds the path to freedom longer than they would like. Her witness has left us a tremendously hopeful gift: proof that God can use our sins, and even our struggles against our particular temptations, to lead us to happiness and to holiness.

Kevin Perrotta writes and teaches about the Bible. His latest book is Moved by the Spirit (The Word Among Us Press). Mary of Egypt’s story can be found in Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources (Cistercian Publications).