I didn’t know about Saint Mary of Egypt until this past year. What is known about her primarily comes from a biography written by the Patriarch of Jerusalem after her death. She was born in Egypt in 344 AD. At 12 years old she ran away to Alexandria and entered into a life of promiscuity and prostitution. She was not forced into this. This is what she wanted. She would regularly refuse money for having sex, mostly living off of begging or spinning flax. She lived this way for 17 years with no regrets.
At that time she joined a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to attend some religious feasts, although her main goal was to seduce other pilgrims on the journey.
Something remarkable happened when she tried to approach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the feast day. While other pilgrims entered – she was held back. It was a force that she couldn’t see, but she realized that she was not allowed to enter because of her sin, because of her impurity. She saw the icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) and cried out to it, begging for forgiveness and promising that she would give up this life that she knew, give up the “world”. When she tried again to go into the church she was allowed inside. When she came outside again and went before the icon to give thanks, she heard a voice saying “If you cross the Jordan, you will find true rest and peace.” She went then to a monastery on the banks of the Jordan river and received holy communion. The next morning she crossed over the Jordan and went to live the rest of her life as a hermit, ever penitent. It is said she took three loaves of bread with her and after they were gone ate whatever she could find.
One year before she died she told her life story to a priest who, on going into the desert, saw a naked figure who hardly looked human. She asked him for his robe to cover her body and sat down with him telling him her story. She had remarkable insight and perception into the life of this priest. She asked him to meet her a year later and bring her Holy Communion. He returned a year later and found her and gave her communion. A year later he returned and found her body in the place he had last seen her.
The story was preserved for generations through oral tradition until finally recorded by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. And, as in all our lives, there is more to the story. This is a condensed version.
Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
The words of Oscar Wilde are oft quoted. But there’s nothing like a story to remind me of their truth and Mary’s is that story.
There was a time when I wanted a past like Mary’s of Egypt – when I wanted to know that Grace stretched far and deep rescuing me from a life of sin. Instead I grew up in a home that nurtured my faith. I never ran off to Alexandria, Egypt to seduce men. I was never turned away from entering a church. But here’s the problem – there was a time I believed when it didn’t take a miracle of Grace to reach me, when I thought I could do this Christianity thing pretty well, that repentance was for the “difficult to save.” And me? I was easy to save. Perhaps I even thought God was ‘lucky’ to have me in his little group.
But that Pharisaic stance put me in the most dangerous of postures. For Christ offered forgiveness to prostitutes and saved harsh words for the Pharisees. He was friend to sinners, Saviour to the truly repentant.
Saint Mary of Egypt above all teaches me of repentance. What it means to live life, marked first by sin, but remembered for repentance. If I don’t believe it took just as much of a miracle of Grace to reach me as it did to reach her then I have a twisted theology. If I believe that I am ‘easier to save’, if I arrogantly and sinfully pat myself on the back and look up to Heaven believing that the trinitarian Godhead is lucky to have me on their side, then I am the worst kind of Pharisee.
So I am learning more and more about the saints. And I am learning more and more about a sinner – me.
And as I learn I am confounded by the same thing that confounded Saint Mary of Egypt — the Mystery of Grace.
For Mary it was the unseen force, Holy Communion on the banks of the Jordan, years in the desert. For me it was the unseen hand on my 6-year old self in boarding school, the heritage of a family of faith, years of feeling alien yet knowing God’s presence. For both of us, along with a host of other saints and sinners “Those nail-scarred hands stretch out to us in unlikely spaces and places and we marvel at the mystery of Grace.” from The Hard Questions.