April 20, 2021

The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt and Its Theological Messages (1 of 4)

 By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

Many people in our time, from various circumstances of a volatile life, are tormented by situations of guilt, which inevitably lead to existential pain, depression and despair.

The Church, however, comforts people, because it shows them ways to escape from frustration, which is the devil's greatest weapon in order to dismantle people, and it shows them the truth that they have enormous abilities to transform with the energies of divine Grace. It can be that from the worst state of being that they can attain to deification, to become, that is, according to Grace what God is by nature.

The Church, however, is not content only with the teaching of deification, but also presents examples, in which it shows how a person in the most miserable condition can experience blessed deification.

One of these examples is Saint Mary of Egypt, whose memory the Church determined to be celebrated, besides on the day of her repose on April 1st, also on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent to encourage everyone on their journey towards deification and sanctification.

1. The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt

The life of Saint Mary of Egypt was written by Saint Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, a great Father of the 6th-7th century, who wrote various ascetic and hymnological texts which are imbued with the "spirit" of Orthodox theology and the ascetic tradition, and together with Saint Maximus the Confessor he confronted the heresy of Monothelitism, which was condemned by the Sixth Ecumenical Synod.

He wrote the life of Saint Mary of Egypt from the stories of the fathers of the Monastery in which Abba Zosimas lived and they were transmitted by word of mouth. This text is preserved today in the edition of Migne's Patrology. There is circulation also in other independent publications, with translation.

According to the narration, the hieromonk Abba Zosimas, who was adorned with sanctity of life, and saw divine visions and was given the gift of divine radiance, lived up to the age of fifty-three with a great ascetic life and he was famous in his region. Then, however, a thought of some sort of spiritual superiority entered into him, that is, he wondered whether there was another monk who could benefit him or teach him a new kind of asceticism. God, in order to teach him and to correct him, revealed that no human being can reach perfection. And then He urged him to go to a Monastery located near the Jordan River.

Abba Zosimas obeyed the voice of God and went to the Monastery of Saint John the Forerunner, which received him. He met the abbot and the monks in whom he distinguished that they radiated from theoria and praxis, lived an intense solitary life without property, with great asceticism and unceasing prayer.

In this Monastery there was a rule according to which on Cheesefare Sunday, before the beginning of Great Lent, when the monks shared the immaculate Mysteries, they prayed and kissed each other, then each received some food and departed for the desert beyond the Jordan to struggle during the period of Great 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 a rule not to meet another brother in the desert and not to ask him when he was returning or what form of asceticism he had done.

Abba Zosimas practiced this rule. After receiving a little food, he left the Monastery and went to the desert, wanting to go as deep as he could into the desert, hoping to meet a father who would help him reach that which he longed for. He journeyed while praying and eating little. He would sleep wherever he could.

He had walked a course of twenty days and when he sat down to rest and chant, he saw in the background a shadow that resembled a human body. At first he thought it was a demonic spirit, but then he realized it was a human. This being, which he saw, was naked, had a black body, and this color came from the sun's rays, and it had on its head a few white hairs that did not reach below the neck.

Abba Zosimas tried to approach to find out what it was that he saw, but the human being had distanced itself. When Abba Zosimas would run after it, it would run as well. Abba Zosimas cried out with tears for it to stop so that he could receive its blessing, but it continued to keep a distance. As soon as the abba reached a torrent and felt weary, that human being, after calling him by his first name, which made a great impression on the abba, told him that he should not turn around because she was a woman whose body parts were uncovered. And she told him that if he would grant her a wish and to throw a rag from his clothes to cover her naked body she would come and receive a blessing. The abba did whatever she said and then she turned around towards him. The abba immediately knelt in order to receive her blessing, and she did the same. "And thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other's blessing." This is the first meeting between Abba Zosimas and Saint Mary of Egypt.

Because the abba asked for her blessing, she said to him, "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."

As Saint Mary conversed with Abba Zosimas in an atmosphere of compunction, she revealed to him her life.