Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mary of Egypt: Desert Solitary

Photo of My Personal Icon*
Early in my graduate education as a social psychologist, I read the newly published THE DESERT A CITY  by Delwas J. Chitty.  It became a classical study in the field of desert Christian monasticism and the beginning of my life-long interest in this topic(1).

I  quickly realized I was a solitary, but in a social rather than a physical desert.  Two years as a Jesuit novice after high school told me I was a contemplative in action, but destined not to live in the Society of Jesus.  Undergraduate years at Saint John's University, Collegeville Minnesota convinced me I was Benedictine; the Divine Office is the center of my life. These three strands of DNA like a triple helix form the backbone of my spiritual life.

The proportion of Americans who live alone has grown steadily since the 1920s, increasing from roughly 5 percent then to 27 percent in 2013. This  Growing Number of People Living Solo Can Pose Challenges.  Pew says they are mainly young or elderly. Pope Francis  has been especially concerned both groups may suffer in a throw away economy.  While isolation can pose challenges Pew points out that many people prefer to live alone.

Mary of Egypt: Icon of the solitary life.

Since the LIFE OF OUR HOLY MOTHER MARY OF EGYPT exists in multiple versions, it may have been formed through a slow process of polishing as it was retold in oral and written forms. Maybe that is why It overflows with the spirituality of the desert solitaries.

The Greek word for desert is not limited to dry places; other wild areas without cultivation and social structures are included.  These environments  bring both freedom and danger, encounters with angels and devils.  Israel  was tested and transformed by revelation as it passed through the desert. 

Most of the solitaries in the physical desert were men.  There were far fewer solitary women. Women withdrew into the solitude of the inner rooms of houses in urban environments; they were often categorized as virgins and widows.  The Life of Anthony describes the desert as a city because so many men had gone there. However women solitaries in the cities were far more numerous. 

Most of the written literature on desert solitaries exists in two forms. These spiritual leaders gave brief wisdom sayings as hospitality to visiting solitaries who then circulated them when visting other solitaries. In time these became written collections. They were often alphabetized by the name of solitary, e.g. Anthony. The sSecond form consists of lives written by admirers. These were often fantastic. However evidence from the sayings is that solitaries were simple and down to earth at least in their advice. 

The Life of Mother Mary of Egypt is a good brief introduction to desert solitary spirituality. Her treatment by the Church as an Icon of Repentance should not obscure that.  Her potential significance as a model for solitary life and solitary leadership reaches far beyond Lent.  I will give some interpretive approaches to reading the Life as well as suggestions for personal and group spiritual practices.

Some Interpretive Perspectives

A  Romeo and Juliet impossible love affair.  Father Zosimas is a renowned  monk.  He is tempted to think he has become superior to every one else in the spiritual life.  Therefore he goes to a renowned Palestinian desert monastery seeking a greater spiritual guide. Like the other monks from other monasteries he journeys further into the desert solitude during Lent in imitation of Christ. Will he find his mentor? What he finds is a naked former prostitute who has been living there for decades.

The art of spiritual discernment   Mary of Egypt first appears as a mirage, then a naked women.  Zosimas discovers she is a spiritual mother, then a woman of extraordinary prayer, of  deep penance, and even deep learning acquired without books and mentors. At the highpoint of the story after making the sign of the cross, she walks upon the waters of Jordan to meet Zosimas He falls to his knees before this living icon of Christ even though he is carrying the Eucharist.  However he never finds out her name until the end of the story.

"A primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life" is how Merton describes desert spirituality in this introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert. “ More than mere sentiment and token favors.  An  interior and spiritual identification  with one’s brother.  Love takes one’s neighbor as one’s other self and loves him with immense humility, and discretion and reserve and reverence.“ Read the details of their interactions from Merton's perspective. 

Typology (symbolic patterns that repeat). Mantles are signs of prayerfulness,  divine power and spiritual leadership.  When Elijah is taken up to heaven Elisha receives his mantle. Elisha then parts  the waters to cross the Jordan just as Elijah had done. Monastic leaders passed their mantles to their successors. Mary receives Zosimas’ mantle to cover her nakedness.  After making the sign of the cross (a type of baptismal initiation) and covered with her mantle, she walks upon the Jordan ( another type of baptism) to meet Zosimas for the last time.

Confession: two sides to the same coin. The author begins by saying “it is glorious to reveal and preach the works of God" (Tobit 12:7). He warns against the skeptical reader who might consider  impossible the wonderful things accomplished by holy people. Mary introduces one side of the coin by narrating her R-rated life "I am ashamed, Abba, to speak to you of my disgraceful life, forgive me for God's sake! But as you have already seen my naked body I shall likewise lay bare before you my work, so that you may know with what shame and obscenity my soul is filled.” Zosimas sees only the other side coin of confession, the mercy of God. "Blessed is God Who creates the great and wondrous, the glorious and marvelous without end. Blessed is God Who has shown me how He rewards those who fear Him. Truly, O Lord, Thou dost not forsake those who seek Thee!"   

Relationship between institutional (priestly) leadership and  inspired  spiritual leadership by lay women and men. When they meet, Zosimas and Mary both kneel  asking each other for a blessing. Mary protests he is priest; yet she accedes to his command to give the blessing because he perceives her spiritual leadership.  Recognizing her prayerfulness he asks her to lead the prayer; he is dumfounded when she levitates and prays in a language he cannot understand. He is in awe at the superiority of her wisdom; yet she had never read a book; nor had mentors. Mary obeys Zosimas  directions, but also gives him a lot of direction which he willingly accepts. The walking on the waters of the Jordan as an Icon of Christ clearly grounds Mary's authority on baptism. The narrator respects both as a part of the divine plan both for them personally and for the good of the church at large. 

Mary of Egypt: Icon of repentance.

Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources  by Benedicta Ward. In the Old Testament Israel was depicted as an unfaithful spouse and harlot to other gods. There are other harlot stories in the monastic literation that influenced Medieval society. In the West Mary Magdalene became assimilated to this typology, and became the primary model of repentance. Several persons in the New Testament were combined with Mary of Egypt. Only recently Mary Magdalene's role as apostle to the apostles has begun to be restored most notably by Pope Francis upgrading her feast

In the Byzantine tradition, Mary of Egypt is one of the saints whose feast day is always observed on Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent (April 2, 2017). Her life is read on the Thursday before (March 30, 2017) as the fifth part of the Great Penitential Canon of Lent. The first four parts of the Canon are sung during the first four days of Lent (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday). There the constant refrain is "Have Mercy on Me O God, have mercy of me". In the fifth part of Canon the refrain changes to "Glory to you, O God, glory to you." These refrains reflect the two sided coin of the experience of confession.

Suggested Spiritual Practices

Have Mercy On Me, O God: The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is a beautiful  CD length presentation by Liturgical Press. Now available only on iTunes, it is a perfect  background to reading and meditating on Life of Mary of Egypt.

 As a small group exercise, I gave everyone the text to read and mediate upon while the music played. We imaged ourselves as a group of monks;  as the host monk I retold the story of Mary during breaks in the music. This allowed me to condense the text while elaborating its understanding as above (embedded my perspectives is a thumbnail version of the story). The music allowed them to think about the text and my presentation. A scholarly host is not needed.  Have group members read the text before hand using the perspectives outlined above out as a starter. Encourage them to find much more, and relate it to their own experience. Ask them to identify the parts which were particularly meaningful and relevant to them; divide the retelling of the story among them. You will be bringing into the twentieth century something of the practice of visiting among the desert solitaries.

As a personal exercise I use the CD of Great Canon for morning prayer during Lent. While the Great Canon is done in the evening as Great Compline, the Odes which form its background are a part of morning prayer in the Byzantine tradition. The inclusion of the morning  psalm and the emphasis upon giving glory to God in the CD give it a great morning flavor. Of course its penitential flavor makes it suitable for evening too.


Mary of Egypt has inspired many very different icon presentations, sample them here.

As either group or personal exercise, choose icons that express a deeper understanding of the story of Mary of Egypt, or her role as spiritual leader (mother), or desert spirituality, or the solitary lifestyle, or the personal experience of these aspects.

* Purchased at  Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church, Mentor, Ohio  It has an attendance between 100 and 150 adults at Sunday Divine Liturgy. I often attend  Vespers there on Saturday evenings and evenings of Feast days.  It is has the flavor of a small Benedictine monastery full of liturgy and hospitality toward visitors. 
Their Uganda Children's Fund is a voluntary ministry led by a retired couple who spend half the year in Uganda with the children and half here in the US raising money for the children. Now in its twelfth year, the Fund is supporting over 250 children in school (now up to college level) and provides assistance to their needy families. Check out their newsletter for the children's stories. Peter and Sharon have great relationships with them something like "foster parents" or later "big brothers/big sisters" all with the style of love among the desert leaders that we see in this story. 


  1. (1) I am developing a website on voluntary spiritual leadership. It integrates voluntary leadership and spirituality from a psychological and sociological perspective (my disciplinary backgrounds).

    It will be a web book rather than a blog. I have a life long interest in Liturgy and commented at PrayTell blog for four years almost daily. I wrote the equivalent of a book but unorganized, inaccessible, etc.

    Most of the web pages on my web book will be the length of four page pdf that will be available for download. This post is about three of four pdf pages.

    My web book is designed around seven dimensions: Leadership, Capital, Time, Spirituality, Voluntarism, Bible, Prayer. All pages will be designed to bring readers to resources on other dimensions

    This post is a draft of my page on Mary of Egypt. It will go on the SPIRITTUALITY dimension. The theme of her leadership needs to developed and related to materials on the LEADERSHIP dimension. The theme of single person households needs to be developed related to materials on the CAPITAL dimension. The exercises at the end will be greater developed but placed on the PRAYER dimensions. So their space on this page will be replaced by links.

    In the mental health system I was always a just a catalyst, using data and planning processes to create visions but leaving a lot of scope for managers and others to work out the details . Like the director in the Spiritual Exercises I tried make brief points and let people be alone with reality of life. I view myself as a conceptual leader whose job is to point then put my hand over my mouth.

    FutureChurch based here in Cleveland has done an excellent job of promoting Mary Magdalene as a model of women’s spiritual leadership. This post is designed to challenge them or anyone else to do the same for Mary of Egypt. My website will have a lot of materials that could be helpful in working out the details.

  2. It does seem like the church really likes holy women as repentant prostitutes who become celibate thereafter. So few sexually active women saints ;)

    "Relationship between institutional (priestly) leadership and inspired spiritual leadership by lay women and men" ... I think this is a really interesting subject and it comes up in Ignatian spirituality. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises tells people God wants to work with them directly and he gives them rules of discernment so they can figure out for themselves when they're on the right spiritual path ... no gatekeeper church standing between people and God. I guess there's always a tension between religious experience and religious authority.

    1. This is what got Ignatius into deep trouble with the Inquisition before his ordination and the founding of the Jesuits. He was accused of being a Protestant and was told that without the priesthood he should not be helping people to discern between mortal and venial sins.

      Merton was also profoundly interested in discernment and recognized its importance among the solitaries in his book on the Wisdom of Desert which he thought was one of his best.

      That book will be the subject of my post next week. Be sure to read the life of Mary before then; it will help you to understand that Ignatius was not simply a modern innovator but went back deep into the tradition begun by the desert solitaries.

      After all they not only withdrew from the city, they withdrew from the urban church and built their own church in the desert. The Divine Office rather than the Eucharist became the center of their lives.

      They discouraged priests from joining them. Priests who did were told they would be subject to the authority of the non-priest abbot. This same principle was enshrined in the Rule of Benedict which was written at a time when most monks were not priests.

      Mary of Egypt lived in the desert for decades without benefit of the sacraments, priests, mentors, or books. She only receives communion at the end of her life, yet Zosima recognizes she was the more advanced, and that divine providence had brought him to the desert to reveal this to the whole world.

  3. I look forward to reading more about her.

  4. I read about Mary of Egypt as a child in my grandmother's book of lives of the saints. I was kind of fascinated by some of the more bizarre (to me) lives such as hers, but didn't really see anything to draw me to her, I was rather put off by her degree of asceticism and self-mortification. I hadn't really thought about her since then until I read your post. Thank you for making me aware that there really is more to know and appreciate about her, such as her wisdom sayings, and the spiritual practices you suggest.