Why you should care
Because 17 years of urban pleasures can lead to salvation in the desert.
It’s never too late to repent! Even some of the most venerated saints have had a naughty past. Explore the fine line between sin and sanctity in this original OZY series — Before They Were Holy: Saints Gone Wild.
After weeks of wandering the wilderness near the Jordan River, Abba Zosimus saw the silhouette of what he thought was a demon. He had set out into the barren landscape for Lent, as it was customary for the monks in his monastery to spend the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday in meditative isolation. He had hoped to find a man who would lead him closer to God. Instead, he encountered a naked creature with leathery skin, wild hair and a crazed look.
When Zosimus peered more closely, he realized that he was seeing not a demon but an old, disheveled hermit. He ran toward her, happy to find company, but the stranger fled. When he caught up with her, she called him by name and asked for his cloak. Though frightened, Zosimus thought this woman must be blessed with spiritual powers. His suspicions were confirmed when she turned to the east, extended her hands toward heaven and began to pray. As she did, her body levitated a forearm’s length off the ground, or so the legend goes.
As she knelt and prayed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, a voice told her that if she crossed the Jordan, she would find “glorious rest.”
The monk fell to his knees and asked the old woman to bless him. To his surprise, the holy ascetic knelt beside him and spent the next few hours telling him how she had lived a debauched life of sensuality and sin. The woman that Zosimus came across in the desert is known today as St. Mary of Egypt.
The most detailed account of Mary’s life is a biography, Saint Mary of Egypt, written by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem (634-638). Born around 344 to a Christian family, Mary knew from a young age that a life in the sticks was not for her. At age 12 she ran away to the 4th-century equivalent of Sin City: Alexandria, capital of the Roman Empire’s Egyptian province and one of the most cosmopolitan metropolises in the ancient world. Home to philosophers, libertines and mystery cults that engaged in ecstatic orgies, Alexandria would have been a remarkable city in any era, and Mary took full advantage of it.
Like other young people down through the ages, she was drawn to the big city by an “unrestrained and insatiable sensuality,” according to her biographer. She loved sex of all kinds and gave herself to her desires with wild abandon. “Some lives of the saints describe Mary of Egypt as a prostitute,” says Thomas Craughwell, author of Saints Behaving Badly and This Saint Will Change Your Life. “She was not. She was a seductress who derived great satisfaction from seducing men — especially young, innocent men.” Though she probably could have made a lot more money as a prostitute, Mary never charged for her favors, earning a living instead by spinning flax.
After 17 years of this lifestyle, Mary happened upon pilgrims who were about to set sail for the Holy Land and Jerusalem. There, they would attend the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which commemorates St. Helena’s discovery of the cross upon which Christ was crucified, according to tradition. (St. Helena was the mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire.) If there was anything Mary loved it was a party, so she slept her way onto the vessel and made her way to the holy city, intent on corrupting as many “young, innocent men” as possible.
Mary filled her days in Jerusalem with feasting and fornicating. Toward the end of the festivities, the pilgrims headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built on two of Christendom’s holiest sites — Calvary, where Christ was crucified, and his nearby tomb. Mary, who went alone to the church, was baffled to find some otherworldly force barring her way, preventing her from entering the sacred place. Frustrated, she retreated to the church portico, where she stood alone.
When the realization came over her that sin was blocking her way, Mary began to weep and repent. Once she had gathered her composure, she discovered that she was able to enter the holy sanctuary. As she knelt and prayed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, a voice told her that if she crossed the Jordan, she would find “glorious rest.”
So Mary set out over the Jordan with three coins and three loaves of bread, which she was able to ration for years, according to legend. For the first 17 years in the desert Mary struggled in penitence for her 17 years of lustful abandon. She fought off wild animals, endured thirst and hunger and, perhaps most difficult of all, mourned the loss of her life in Alexandria — the wine, the food and the “lewd songs” that she once danced to with lovers. Eventually, God began to help her, and she found peace in her life as a hermit, according to her biographer, St. Sophronius.
St. Mary died one year after meeting St. Zosimus. He found her body remarkably well-preserved in death — making her one of the incorrupt saints — and buried her, in a weird twist of the legend, with the help of a passing lion.
St. Mary of Egypt remains a fascinating figure, given the current climate of sexual acceptance. Those encountering her story today may find it regrettable that in her era a life of passion was demonized. After all, the young men she claimed to have “ensnared” probably did not all go to her bed unwillingly.