When you have become God's in the measure he desires, then he himself will bestow you upon others, unless, to your greater glory, he choose to keep you all to himself.
—Saint Basil the Great
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March 31, 2015
The Real Point of “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt,” Part III
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In Part I, I examined the context in which Saint Sophronius wrote “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt.” He draws on a long tradition of monastic literature in which there are several similar stories which he amplifies in his tale. In Part II, I briefly summarized the tale as Sophronius tells it, and I examined the character of Saint Zosimus. Sophronius describes Zosimus as a nearly perfect monk, the “monk’s monk,” so to speak, who begins to be tormented by thoughts that he is perfect and there is no one on earth who could teach him anything further. He enters the desert as a temporary hermit, according to the custom of his monastery for Lent, “hoping to find a holy father dwelling there, who could help him to find what he longed for,” someone to teach him some new ascetic discipline, so that he can attain even greater heights of ascetic perfection.
When first we encounter Mary, Zosimus wonders if she might be a demonic phantasm, evoking Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, but from the beginning she is shown to be an ascetic who charismatically earns the authority to be a spiritual guide. She is characterized as a thaumaturge—a wonder-worker—who unselfconsciously commands the created order: by clairvoyance and by levitating a cubit (a foot and a half) above the ground. So before she begins narrating her life, the story within the story, we already know she’s a living saint (whereas we may have wondered about Zosimus’ sanctity, since he is described as being precipitously close to succumbing to pride).
Once she begins telling her story, however, she reveals herself to have been a harlot among harlots—the “sinner’s sinner,” as it were. Read the rest of “The Real Point of “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt,” Part III”
- Lynda L. Coon, Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) 86. ↩
- The ability to work miracles is a common way to indicate sanctity in the lives of the saints. ↩
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March 30, 2015
The Real Point of “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt,” Part II
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In the previous installment, we examined the context for the story as told by Saint Sophronius and saw that Saint Mary’s story becomes progressively more magnified. In Sophronius’ version, both the monk who finds Mary and Mary herself become magnified to almost unbelievable proportions.
Sophronius begins by introducing Zosimus, who we are told has been in the monastery since being weaned. After many years of obeying the rule of his monastery, ceaselessly singing psalms and studying the scripture, and acting as spiritual father or guide to many monks far and wide, he begins to be “disturbed, as he said, by certain thoughts, namely, that he had become perfect in all practices and did not need anyone else’s teaching at all.” Zosimus moves to a monastery by the river Jordan which has a custom whereby all the monks leave the monastery during Lent and live as anchorites or hermits in the desert. Zosimus journeys into “the innermost part of the desert,” a key ideal for monasticism, and a key phrase for our story, “hoping to find a holy father dwelling there, who could help him to find what he longed for,” which is a father either to instruct him in some new discipline or to confirm that he has reached perfection.
Read the rest of “The Real Point of “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt,” Part II”
- In the summary that follows, quotes are from the translation by Maria Kouli unless other wise noted. Sophronius of Jerusalem, “The Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot, Who in Blessed Manner Became an Ascetic in the Desert of the <River> Jordan.” Translated by Maria Kouli, in Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in Translation, edited by Alice-Mary Talbot. Byzantine Saints’ Lives in Translation.(&C: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996). I have omitted the brackets with which Kouli notes her interpolations. Greek text of Sophronius is found in Patrologia Graeca (PG) 87:3697–3726. ↩
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March 29, 2015
Teaser for the Next Installment
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I said yesterday that I would begin analyzing the role of Saint Zosimus in Saint Sophronius’ “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt.” I greatly underestimated the toll that assisting my parish in hosting Lenten vespers this evening would take, or how late I would be arriving back at my dormitory. I must beg your forgiveness—I will not be fulfilling that stated goal. Even so, as not to leave you entirely empty of hand, I offer some questions as teasers.
What clue does Saint Sophronius give us early in his story that foreshadows the advent of Saint Mary? He paints a very rosy picture of Zosimus’ life as a monk. Are there any problems? What is Zosimus looking for in the desert?
Tune in tomorrow.
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March 28, 2015
The Real Point of “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt,” Part I
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“The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt” by Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem comes to us in a form that is, to put it bluntly, very inefficient. When I was first investigating the Orthodox Church, I tried to download a copy of “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt.” This was the late 1990s, and finding information on the internet was often feast or famine. What I got was not right at all. It started out talking about some guy named (Saint) Zosimus, and it kept going on and on about him. Obviously not the life of Mary. So I deleted it and tried again. Finally, I realized that Saint Mary’s story does not start until somewhere between one third and one half of the way into what is ostensibly her Life!
Who cares about Zosimus? Sure, he’s the monk who finds St Mary out in the desert, but does that mean a third to one-half of the Life of Mary needs to be taken up with his story? I thought for a very long time that “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt” needed an editor. More Mary—no Zosimus. On closer inspection, though, the whole point of this story lies in the contrast between Zosimus and Mary, and it’s a surprise ending.
Read the rest of “The Real Point of “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt,” Part I”
- That is, according to the version of the story told by Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem. ↩
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