Wednesday, 1 April 2015

St Mary of Egypt

       Today is the feast day of St Mary of Egypt (also celebrated on 2nd and 3rd April in some traditions). She is known as the patron saint of penitents. Most of what we know about her comes from the life written by St Sophronius in the 7th century. The dates of her own life are disputed, although she possibly lived to a very great age.
      It is said that when Mary was 12 years old she ran away to the city of Alexandria and lived there for seventeen years in the grip of sexual obsession, keeping herself through a mixture of begging and spinning flax.
       At the age of 29 she travelled to Jerusalem, paying for her passage by selling her body to pilgrims travelling there for the Great Feasts of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Mary too tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre but felt barred by an unseen force. She interpreted this as being caused by the 'dissolute' life she was living and felt filled with remorse. This led to a conversion experience. After venerating an icon of the Virgin Mary, Mary was able to enter the church and venerate a relic of the true cross.She returned to the icon to give thanks and heard a voice saying "If you cross the Jordan, you will receive glorious rest." She followed this voice and was baptised and then retired to the desert where she lived as a hermit until her death perhaps as much as 70 years later.
       I have always been fascinated by Mary, even though so little is known about her. What led her to leave her home at such a young age and become a street child in Alexandria? Was it her sense of adventure or was there something more sinister going on that she felt compelled to leave behind? She appears to have blamed herself for her 'shameful' lifestyle and sexual 'misconduct'. She certainly seems to have got caught up in an unhealthy dependence on sex as a way of coping with her situation. As recent events have shown, even today society remains ready to see sexually exploited young girls as the ones at fault, responsible for what happens to them, rather than holding to account those who exploit them. This seems to be very deep-rooted in the collective psyche and we are still early learners in understanding what is needed to address our blindness and lack of care.

       At the same time, twelve step programmes suggest that the way to recovery from any addiction is to take personal responsibility and surrender to a higher power. Another way of looking at Mary's conversion experience is to see it as the ultimate 'wake-up call', a manifestation of her inner Wisdom that the way she had been living was ultimately self-destructive. For me, Mary's act of penitence can be seen as a heartfelt Yes to the Divine, a decision to choose a better way, responding to the call of One who offers unconditional love and understanding. Her life experience still speaks to me powerfully today, perhaps especially in our extroverted world which so often seems to undervalue silence, solitude and stillness. I too seek 'glorious rest', appreciating times when I can become a hermit for a while, although grateful that it doesn't require me to live alone in the desert for 70 years!

1 comment:

  1. Ah. Mary of Egypt showing us the shift to what REALLY nourishes us. Thank you, Susanna, for this reminder.