(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saint Mary of Egypt
A woman whose breathtaking beauty made her the center of all eyes experienced divine presence in time to find not only salvation in the Lord, but eternity as a saint of the Church as well. Except for this chance encounter with the power of God, Mary of Egypt might have been just another pretty face in the society of man and a nonentity in the spiritual kingdom. Instead she came to reveal a purity of soul that overshadowed her physical beauty, and by way of a simple act of repentance, the gates of heaven were opened to her.
Born and raised in Egypt during the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-565), Mary was unaware that her great beauty was the curtain which screened her from knowledge of the Christian lifestyle. In great demand among pleasure-seeking pagans, she knew only the clamor of the banquet hall. Pampered by those who sought her company, flattered by men whose wine flowed too freely, she lived a narrow world of meaningless phrases and empty praises. She seemed destined to walk in eternal spiritual darkness, but that fate was never to be sealed.
It was not clear what brought Mary to the Holy Land. Nevertheless, she found herself in Jerusalem with the usual entourage of pilgrims who were anxious to visit the holy places and take part in the various holy days. Not one to avoid any kind of celebration, Mary joined a group of Christians whose solemnity she thought strange. Nevertheless, out of curiosity she joined the line of march into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, erected on the site of Christ’s tomb. She experienced a peculiar delight in the silence of the procession, which was a departure from the orgies to which she was accustomed. Mary was enjoying herself, but at that moment her life was completely transformed.
At the threshold of the church entrance, Mary found herself powerless to enter, held back by some unseen force. For the first time in her life, she was stricken with the fear of something supernatural. As she turned to look upon her former companions, she now saw them as wretched and fled down the street in confusion. Pausing at last to regain her composure, she suddenly recalled another Mary of whom she had heard, the one the Christians called the Virgin Mary. At that moment, she realized that her follies had prevented her entrance into the church. In a fervent act of penance, Mary vowed to atone for her sins and to seek the way of Jesus, the Son of God.
This about-face is not new to those who have made the sudden discovery of the Lord, but Mary’s case was unique not only for the way in which it came about, but also for the revelation of the beautiful soul exquisite enough to surpass her great physical beauty. From that moment on, Mary delighted in the work of the Lord whereas before she had delighted in the vain pleasures of the flesh.
With her newfound faith in Jesus, she turned her back on the sensual world to enter a convent in the desert. There she served as a nun in a sanctuary located on the banks of the Jordan River. To her lovely face was added the new dimension of the Holy Spirit and even in her stern garb she was a vision upon which all looked with pleasure. Her noble spirit, however, was to emerge as her real beauty, and for forty years her spirit was one of the most compelling forces in sixth-century Christendom. With the zeal of the martyrs, Mary was a source of comfort and inspiration to many who sought her, for they found the serenity of the divine in her exemplary service.
With the memory of the unseen barriers of the church entrance ever-present in her mind, she lived in gratitude for her deliverance from sin. Mary of Egypt has become known as the “Penitent Saint,” one whose name is synonymous with the sacrament of holy penance. This is why the fifth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to her.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.