Saint of the Day – 1 April – Saint Mary of Egypt (c 344-c 421) Desert Mother, Penitent, Recluse, Born in c 344 in Egypt am died in c 421 in the desert near the River Jordan of natural causes. Also known as Maria Aegyptica, Maria Egiziaca. Patronages – Penitents, Chastity (warfare against the flesh; deliverance from carnal passions), demons (deliverance from), fever, skin diseases, reformed fallen women.
The primary source of information on Saint Mary of Egypt is the Vita written of her, around 100 years after her death, by St Sophronius, the Bishop of Jerusalem (634–638). Most of the information in this section is taken from this source. The complete Vita is available to read here (from an Orthodox Church source): https://stmaryofegypt.org/files/library/life.htm
Saint Mary, was born somewhere in the Province of Egypt. At the age of twelve she ran away from her parents to the City of Alexandria. Here she lived an extremely dissolute life. In her Vita, it states that she often refused the money offered for her sexual favours, as she was driven “by an insatiable and an irrepressible passion” and that she mainly lived by begging, supplemented by spinning flax.
After seventeen years of this lifestyle, she travelled to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. She undertook the journey as a sort of “anti-pilgrimage,” stating, that she hoped to find, in the pilgrim crowds at Jerusalem, even more partners in her lust. She paid for her passage by offering sexual favours to other pilgrims and she continued her habitual lifestyle for a short time in Jerusalem.
Her Vita relates that when she tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the celebration, she was barred from doing so by an unseen force. Realising that this was because of her impurity, she was struck with remorse and upon seeing an icon of the Mother of God Blessed Virgin. outside the Church, she prayed for forgiveness and promised to give up the world. Then, she attempted again to enter the Church and this time, was permitted in.
After venerating the relic of the True Cross, she returned to the Icon to give thanks and heard a voice telling her, “If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest.” She immediately went to the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist on the bank of the River Jordan, where she received absolution and afterwards, Holy Communion. The next morning, she crossed the Jordan and retired to the desert to live the rest of her life as a hermit in penitence. She took with her only three loaves of bread and once they were gone, lived only on what she could find in the wilderness.
Approximately one year before her death, she recounted her life to Saint Zosimas of Palestine (c 460-c 560), who encountered her in the desert. When he unexpectedly met her in the desert, she was completely naked and almost unrecognisable as human. She asked St Zosimas to give her his mantle to cover her nakedness and then she narrated her life’s story to him.
She then asked him to meet her at the banks of the Jordan, on Holy Thursday of the following year and bring her Holy Communion. When he fulfilled her wish, she crossed the river to get to him by walking on the surface of the water and received Holy Communion, asking him to meet her again in the desert the following Lent.
The next year, St Zosimas travelled to the same spot where he first met her, some twenty days’ journey from his Monastery and found her lying there dead. According to an inscription written in the sand next to her head, she had died on the very night he had given her the Blessed Sacrament and had been somehow miraculously transported to the place he found her. Her body was preserved incorrupt.
He buried her body with the assistance of a passing lion. On returning to the Monastery, he related her life story to the brethren and it was preserved among them, as oral tradition, until it was written down by St Sophronius.
There is disagreement among various sources regarding the dates of Saint Mary’s life. The dates given above correspond to those in the Catholic Encyclopedia. The Bollandists place her death in 421, or 530. The only clue given in her Vita, is the fact that the day of her repose was 1 April which was stated to be Holy Thursday, meaning ,that Easter fell on 4 April that year, 421.
St Mary’s relics lie in various Cathlic Churhes, the Italian Churches are named below- Rome, Naples, and Cremona in Italy and in Antwerp, Belgium. In Italy, Mary became associated with the Patronage of fallen women much like Mary Magdalene, to whom similar traits were associated. There are a number of Churches or Chapels dedicated to Saint Mary of Egypt, among which are:
Temple of Portunus (Santa Maria Egiziaca, Rome)
Church of Santa Maria Egiziaca a Forcella, Naples
Church of Santa Maria Egiziaca a Pizzofalcone, Naples
Chapel in Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, commemorating the site of her conversion
Many literary works commemorate her within various formats, both fictional, stage and music.