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Saint Mary of Egypt

Feast Day: April 2

The following story appeared in the March 24 Idaho Catholic Register.


By Emily Woodham

Staff Writer


The story of St. Mary of Egypt is at least 1500 years old. It was handed down orally until the seventh century, when monastic communities began to record her story in writing.


Although the different stories about her have some discrepancies in details, the general story remains the same: She was a hermit in the 500s (some say 400s), who was discovered by pilgrims in the Judean desert during their Lenten penances. In each story, she was found old, naked and miraculously kept alive. After being begged by the pilgrims to bless them, St. Mary tells her story of conversion before dying.


St. Sophronius, Bishop of Jerusalem, recorded the most accepted of the stories of St. Mary. It is used by the Byzantine Rite of the Catholic Church and in the Orthodox

Churches in their liturgy for St. Mary, which is celebrated on the Fifth Sunday of Lent.


Mary was born to a Christian family in Egypt in the early fifth century. Although her family cared for her, she was rebellious and ran away to the great city of Alexandria when she was 12. She lost her virginity as soon as she could and sought sexual pleasures at every opportunity. However, she refused to be paid for her favors. She spun wool as her occupation, only working enough so that she could afford food and clothes.


For 17 years, she lived a dissolute life of alcohol and sexual revelry, seeking only to please herself. Then one day, she became curious about the droves of people going

to the harbor. She found out from a passerby that they were pilgrims going to Jerusalem for the celebration of Holy Week.


Excited by the challenge to satiate her lust on a pilgrimage, she went to a group of men at one of the boats. She proposed that if they took her with them, they would have

pleasure and entertainment. Seeing that she was serious about her shamelessness, they eagerly took her with them.


Mary continued her partying in Jerusalem until Good Friday. She noticed people flocking into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to venerate a relic of the True Cross and decided it was worth the spectacle to join them. She shoved her way through the crowd and walked up to the open doorway. She attempted to step over the threshold, but was met with an indescribable force. She tried to push her way through the empty space, but every effort failed. Then she ran at the entrance with all her might, but to no avail. Exhausted, she went to the church courtyard and wept.


Mary looked up and saw an icon of the Mother of God on the courtyard wall. Filled with hope, she looked into the eyes of the icon and repented. She begged the Blessed Virgin Mary to help her and allow her to venerate the Divine Cross. She also vowed to the Blessed Mother to live a penitent life with her help and to follow wherever the Blessed Mother led her for penance and salvation through her Son.


After praying, Mary’s heart filled with a burning faith. She boldly went back to the church’s threshold and entered. In the story, she says, “Thus I understood the promises of God and realized how God receives those who repent. I threw myself on the floor and kissed the sacred dust. Then I went out and ran back to her who was my mediator.”


Following the prodding of the Mother of God, Mary went to the Jordan River. After washing herself, she went to the Church of St. John the Baptist for Mass. She then went into the desert with a jug of water from the Jordan and two-and-a-half loaves of bread she had bought with alms.


The first years of Mary’s life in the desert were torment. She went through severe withdrawals from her addictions to sex and alcohol. She was constantly tempted to return to her old life. She fought despair that she would ever be free from her sinful appetites. Through her many fears and temptations, she continually returned to the Mother of God. Mary would recall the icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary and cling to the reassurance of Mary’s help as mother and mediator. She also clung to the hope of the grace of her baptism. After 17 years of battling through her sin and the assaults of the devil, Mary finally found herself at peace.


When she had been in the desert for 47 years, a priest named Zosima found her. He had joined a strict monastic community that went into the Judean desert during Lent to fast and pray. After figuring out that Mary was not a demon, Zosima ran after her to meet her. However, she kept running away from him because all her clothes had worn away and fallen off. At last, she shouted to him to throw her his cloak. After covering herself, she allowed him near her.


She pointed out to him that as a priest, he was entrusted with the most Holy Eucharist and should not look for a blessing from her. Instead, he should be the one blessing others. But Zosima pleaded with her all the more because he knew she was the answer to his prayers to find spiritual direction. She relented, blessed him and shared her story.


Zosima returned the next year on Holy Thursday and brought Mary communion, which she had not consumed since she first entered the desert. He returned the following year with communion again, but found she had died. According to the legend, a lion helped dig her grave. Then Zosima buried her.


She is the patron saint of penitents, chastity, deliverance from demons and temptations, healing of fever and skin diseases.


If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it, please consider buying a subscription to the Idaho Catholic Register. Your $20 yearly subscription also supports the work of the Diocese of Boise Communications Department, which includes not only the newspaper, but this website, social media posts and videos. You can subscribe here, or through your parish, or send a check to 1501 S. Federal Way, Boise, ID, 83705: or call 208-350-7554 to leave a credit card payment. Thank you, and God bless you.

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