The Life of St. Mary of Egypt is read in its entirety during matins on the 6th Thursday of Great Lent. This is the week that precedes the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, which is the 6th Sunday of Great Lent. By anticipation, this service is usually served Wednesday night. During this service, the Great canon of St. Andrew of Crete is chanted in its entirety. This canon is also serialized during Great Compline the first four evening in Great Lent.
St. Sophronius of Jerusalem wrote the life of St. Mary. He transcribed it from the oral story, which had been passed down in the Monastery of Father Zosimas. He considered the story to be so valuable that it needed to be set down in writing. St. Mary's story is such a quintessential display of the power of repentance that the church began reading her story during Great Lent.
Besides St. Mary, Abbot Zosimas is mentioned the most in her story. Incidental "creatures" include:
Abba Zosimas was already old, and was troubles by thoughts that he had reached the pinnacle of monasticism. He was led by God to a Monastery in Palestine which had a custom that all the monks, save only a few, would go out into the desert for the whole of the Great Fast, where their labors and fasting would be known only to God. The first year that Abba Zosimas followed this rule, he found St Mary in the desert, a twenty days journey from the Monastery.
Abba Zosimas had been travelling in the trackless desert for twenty days when he saw a black skinned naked person some distance from him. He pursued her, not knowing who she was, or anything else about her identity. Eventually the Abba realized his objective, when St Mary called him by name and requested that she throw her his cloak so that she could cover her nakedness. The Saint knew his name, because God had revealed it to her. At the end of their first meeting, she also mentioned the name of the Abbot, John.
After they spoke for a while (after insistent urging by Abba Zosimas), St Mary prayed at his behest. After a little, the Abba looked and saw that the Saint was praying in mid air. She had become like an angel in the flesh. Let him hear who has ears to hear.
St Mary defiled her virginity at a very early age, in Alexandria Egypt. She lived as a prostitute for many years, until she was thirty.
One day, she saw a boat being made ready to sail to the Holy Land, so that pilgrims could venerate the precious cross. She wished to go, and having no money, shamelessly sold herself in order to make the voyage. Upon reaching Jerusalem, she went with the crowd to see the cross, but was held back from entering the church by the power of God. After struggling several times, she was exhausted, and rested in the portico, in front of an icon of the Mother of God. Divine grace visited her, and she realized her great impurity, from which she had been blinded so many years. She prayed to the Mother of God, begging her to allow her, the impure one, to venerate the cross. She also promised that she would go wherever and do whatsoever god willed after this.
God allowed her to venerate the cross, and she left the temple, almost delirious. On the way out, she was met by a stranger, who gave her 3 loaves, "for the journey", and she made her way to a Monastery on the Jordan river. In the morning, she confessed, and communed the holy mysteries, made her way into the wilderness across the Jordan, and disappeared from human society until her meeting with Abba Zosimas
For 17 years St. Mary struggled against the passions of lust and fornication and the desire for sumptuous foods and wines. The demons would appear to her and tempt her to despair of God's mercy and forgiveness. At these times she begged the Theotokos with tears to help her and strengthen her against her passions. She would throw herself prostrate on the ground, praying and weeping, sometimes lying there for a day and a night, until peace and calm descended upon her soul.
St. Mary was 78 when she died. She was 12 when she left her parents to go to Alexandria, and she lived as a prostitute until she was 30. After her repentance she lived 48 years in the desert: 47 before Abba Zosimas found her and one additional year, after which she received Communion and reposed. She died in the year 522 on Holy Thursday, the first of April.
The year after St. Zosimas first saw Saint Mary, he was ill just before Great Lent began, and unable to go out into the wilderness, just as the Saint had predicted. He recovered by Palm Sunday, and in obedience to the Saint, brought the Holy Mysteries, along with a basket containing some lentils, to the bank of the Jordan, and awaited her arrival.
She appeared on the other side, and, having no boat with which to cross, walked across the water. Abba Zosimas was so much in a flutter that he prostrated himself in fear, but Mary rebuked him, and told him to stand up, as he was carrying the holy mysteries. St. Mary instructed Abba Zosimas to say the Symbol of faith, and the Our Father, and communed the holy mysteries. After this, she said "Now lettest thy servant depart..." and the rest.
She told the Abba to meet her again next year in the place they had met the first time. At Abba Zosimas' insistence, she merely touched her finger tips to the lentils, and ate three grains, then walked across the river and disappeared. The Abba reproached himself because he had not remembered to ask St. Mary her name, and resolved to ask her the next year.
The year after Abba Zosimas gave St. Mary the Mysteries, he hastened to the spot where he had first seen her, as she had instructed. Upon reaching the place, he did not see the saint, so he beseeched God to allow him to behold one more time the blessed one. After his prayer, he saw her body lying a small distance away, with her face turned towards the east and her hands crossed on her breast. For a long time he wept over the body. After reciting the appropriate prayers and psalms, he began to wonder whether he should bury the Saint's relics or if this would be against her wishes. Then he saw, traced on the ground beside Mary's head, these words: "Abba Zosimas, bury on this spot the body of humble Mary." "Return to dust that which is dust and pray to the Lord for me, who departed in the month of Fermoutin of Egypt, called April by the Romans, on the first day, on the very night of our Lord's Passion, after having partaken of the Divine Mysteries." Abba Zosimas was glad to be told the saint's name. He understood that after partaking of the Mysteries Mary had in one night traversed the distance it had taken the elder 20 days to cover, then had given her soul to God.
The elder then wondered how with only his hands he would dig a grave for the saint. Seeing a small piece of wood nearby, he began to dig with it, but the ground was hard and dry, and the elder could not dig a hole. Lifting up his eyes, he saw a lion licking the saint's feet and was first afraid, but after protecting himself with the sign of the Cross he contemplated that the relics of the saint lying close by would guard him from harm. When the lion approached him, he said to the beast: "The Great One ordered that her body was to be buried. But I am old and have not the strength to dig the grave (for I have no spade and it would take too long to go and get one), so can you carry out the work with you claws? Then we can commit to the earth the mortal temple of the saint." Immediately the lion dug with his front paws a grave large enough for the body of the saint. The elder reverently placed in the grave Mary's body, covered only with the ragged cloak he had thrown her 2 years earlier, and covered it with earth.
Then the lion departed into the desert and Zosimas returned to his monastery, praising God. He told all the brethren of St. Mary's wondrous life and the marvels wrought by God.
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