This past week on April 1st (new calendar) Saint Mary of Egypt reposed more than 1500 years ago in the desert of Palestine. She led such an inspiring life that she is celebrated with her own Lenten Sunday today. Most Orthodox Christians know the basics of how such a great sinner became one of the Church’s most inspiring ascetics.
A prostitute from a young age, she had no scruples about hopping aboard a ship carrying pilgrims from Alexandria to Jerusalem in approximately 475 AD, and “working” her way across the Mediterranean. The pilgrims were on their way to attend the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross, and on the day of the Feast, Mary found herself drawn to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wood of the True Cross, but she was not permitted to enter the door with the other pilgrims. Held back by an unseen force she repeatedly tried to enter the door. In frustration she looked up and saw an icon of the Mother of God and appealed to her for an explanation. Whether it was the Mother of God’s reply pointing out her sinfulness or a God-inspired revelation, she suddenly became aware of the course of her sinful life and repented on the spot.
What follows is not your average salvation story – without hesitation she immediately left for the desert to live out her life in contrition and prayer, scavenging off the land, naked and alone for 47 years. Her skin was blackened from the sun, her clothing rotted off her body and she became skeletal on a diet of three dried loaves of bread she’d bought on the day of her flight into the desert and whatever she could find in the wasteland. She didn’t see or speak to anyone for 47 years until the priest monk Zosimus took a retreat into the desert during the Great Fast, improbably found her, learned her story and gave her communion and a promise to return the following year. Saint Zosimus was good to his word and returned during Great Lent in about the year 521, but only to miraculously find her dead body, which he buried with the help of a lion to dig the stony ground. Wow! And I think I’m doing good when I fast successfully for one week and make it to confession before mid-Lent. Do I regret and sincerely ask forgiveness for my sins? Are my past indiscretions reason for repentance or fond memories of wild oats sown and harvested?
It’s sad and ironic that a depressed, raging alcoholic, one of the 20th century’s defining poets, and the son of a suicidal father, should write a contemplative poem about Saint Mary of Egypt. John Berryman (1914 – 1972) lived with a lifetime of demons and never found the peace achieved by Saint Mary. Sad and broken, he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.
Dream Song 47: April Fool’s Day or Saint Mary of Egypt
-Thass a funny title, Mr Bones.
-When down she saw her feet, sweet fish, on the threshold,
she considered her fair shoulders
and all them hundreds who have them, all
the more who to her mime thickened & maled
from the supple stage,
and seeing her feet, in a visit, side by side
paused on the sill of The Tomb, she shrank: ‘No.
They are not worthy,
fondled by many’ and rushed from The Crucified
back through her followers out of the city ho
across the suburbs, plucky
to dare my desert in her late daylight
of animals and sands. She fall prone.
Only wind whistled.
And forty-seven years with our caps on,
whom God has not visited.