When the monk Zosimas arrives at a monastery near the Jordan, the abbot asks, Who are you and where do you come from? When Zosimas encounters Mary in the desert, he asks her the same questions.
Writer and actor Sam Shepard has mused that one of the strangest and most terrifying things about being human is the need to come up with an identity, an answer to these questions. “It has always bewildered me…” he writes. “Who am I?”
These questions are almost trite in their ordinariness. Answers focus on occupation, family, accomplishments. But isn’t there more to it? How do we find ourselves, and how do we know who we are?
St. Mary of Egypt provides the “theme” for the 5th Sunday of Lent. She is commemorated as an inscrutable image of repentance and conversion. She is the strong assurance that no sin is beyond the power of God’s mercy.
But this woman is more than a bad girl saved from evil ways. In fact, her story is really the story of two sinful people who enter the unknown and find themselves together in an experience both terrifying and transcendent.
St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 to 638, narrates this story based on recollections of a “holy man” named Zosimas. Age 53 at the time, Zosimas had spent over 50 years in a monastery. He had become famous, known for his speaking and his way of life. He was even thought worthy of experiencing ”a divine vision.” But Zosimas was also in danger. He had begun to think he was perfect. In the midst of this spiritual dilemma, he is told he should leave his community and go to a monastery on the edge of the desert near the Jordan River. This meant leaving the security of his home and entering the unknown. Did he hesitate? We don’t know. What we know is that he decides to take the risk.
Near the Jordan, Zosimas finds a humble monastery. The abbot receives him asking, Where are you from and why are you here? Zosimas’ reply is evasive and a little arrogant: “I do not need to answer. I have come for my own benefit.”
Zosimas finds that the new community meets his needs. He is especially happy that a Lenten retreat to the desert is part of its discipline. This was the answer to his prayers. In spite of the monastery’s rule that this time be spent alone, Zosimas told himself that the retreat to the desert was actually his opportunity to seek a holy father who could guide him to perfection.
Entering the desert, a mysterious place on the edge of what is known and unknown, Zosimas begins to move toward an encounter that will shatter everything that has been constant in his life. Instead of finding a holy father, Zosimas encounters a holy mother.
The encounter begins when Zosimas sees a movement out of the corner of his eye. Is it person or delusion? No, it is a naked person, with black skin and white, wooly hair. Zosimas is filled with “pleasure.” He senses the approach of a “great marvel.” The suspense builds as Zosimas runs after the fleeing figure, but he is outrun. Exhausted, he falls to the ground, crying out for a blessing.
The figure stops, calls his name, and asks for forgiveness. Then Zosimas hears, “I am a woman and naked…throw me your cloak so I can turn to you and receive your blessing.” These words terrify him, but he obeys her command. Overcome, he prostrates before her, while she, out of respect, bows to him. Both remain on the ground, debating who should bless whom, providing more than a touch of comic irony amid the drama. The monk is, perhaps for the first time in his life, face to face with a woman; and the woman, who has retreated to the desert from the world of men, must decide how to respond. Zosimas has encountered the woman who will become known to the world as St. Mary of Egypt.
The encounter surprises them both, but more astonishing than the encounter is the role reversal that occurs. The monk receives a blessing from the woman. Boldly, Mary asks, “Why did you come to see a sinful woman?” She adds to his distress when she tells him who he is, reminding him he is a priest, who ought to pray for her and others.
Speechless and in a sweat, Zosimas becomes nearly apoplectic when he catches a glimpse of Mary rising above the ground, ostensibly in prayer. He had begun to fear that he was seeing a demon in the form of a woman. Sensing this, Mary confronts him with a dose of reality: “Father, why do these thoughts about me disturb you as though I pretend to pray. Be assured, my good man. I am a sinful woman, altogether earth, ashes, and flesh.” Crossing herself, she provides a context for this extraordinary encounter, saying, “Let God lead us away from the devil and his snares, for his power against us is great.”
Did Mary’s words stun or reassure Zosimas? One thing is certain. This encounter is uncharted territory. But Zosimas not only remains in Mary’s presence, he is drawn to her. When he is able to speak, he tearfully pleads with her to tell him who she is and where she came from. Believing God had led him to her, but probably not expecting to hear the details of a sordid life, Zosimas asks for every last bit of her story.
Yielding to the weeping monk’s plea, Mary begins her story. Leaving little to the imagination, she describes a life of uncontrollable passion. Though typically labeled a prostitute, Mary says she did not accept money for sex. She just liked it, and survived by begging and spinning flax.
Mary is direct about who she is and where she came from. No pretense, no excuses. She does not hide anything. She confesses her sins, but she cannot and does not deny that she is a woman. There is no hint that she sees her femininity as the cause of her shame. She is who she is. And Zosimas, in his retelling of Mary’s story, respects her femininity. He does not describe her as manly or say that she has shed her womanly weakness. Neither is she presented as a “female” man of God, a term sometimes used to describe women ascetics. Even when he gives her his cloak, it is not to disguise her, but rather a gift that implies the transcendent intimacy that engulfs them. In what can only be imagined as a dispassionate voice, she relates the events of her life of sin culminating in her attempts to enter the church in Jerusalem. Exhausted by her attempts to enter the church, Mary says that a “salvific word touched the eyes of her heart.” She said she looked straight at the icon of the Mother of God, asked for her help, and gave up her sins. The monk listens to Mary describe how the Mother of God enabled her to withstand horrific temptations and to survive in the desert for 47 years.
Why isn’t Zosimas repelled by Mary and her story? Why does he accept and love her for who she is, even though she, or maybe because she, without intending to, upends his world? Has Mary, in confessing her sins to the priest, enabled him to realize his own imperfection? Her teaching, it seems, has touched the eyes of his heart and rescued him from delusion. In the middle of the desert, a repentant woman teaches a monk the true meaning of perfection.
Rarely in our tradition are women presented as Christ-like figures, but Mary of Egypt turns this tradition upside down. Like our Savior, she enters the wilderness to do spiritual combat. Like Christ, who knows Nathaniel, Mary knows who Zosimas is and calls him by name. She walks on the water of the Jordan in order to receive the Eucharist from Zosimas; and like Christ, Mary wants her identity kept secret until she passes from this world.
Often the veracity of this story is questioned, its meaning controversial, so it is fair to ask if this story is fantasy or real, and what is its meaning.
Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. But what can surely be said about this story is that a startling truth is revealed. In finding each other, Mary and Zosimas find fulfilment. Mary’s solitary existence is given new life in the presence of Zosimas, while his desire to find perfection is revealed in Mary. Transformed by repentance, they create paradise in the desert.
Maybe this begins to answer the terrifying question that Sam Shepard and many others have asked.
Our hearts harden, even against our will sometimes, when we find ourselves up against someone who pushes us to see who we are, or who threatens the way we have organized our world. And yet we know that, in spite of ourselves, there are encounters when God touches the eyes of our heart, as He touched the hearts of Mary and Zozimas.
And that changes everything.
Icon photographed by the author at the « Chrétiens d’Orient. Deux mille ans d’histoire » exhibit at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
Susan Arida is a member of Holy Trinity Cathedral (OCA) in Boston, where her husband serves as the rector. She is also a founding member of St. Catherine’s Vision and a former instructor at Hellenic College and St. Herman’s Seminary.