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The Real Point of “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt,” Part I

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Written by Basil on 03/28/2015 2:29 PM. Filed under:


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Icon of Ss Mary of Egypt and Zosimus“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,[1] 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.

“The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt” fits in a genre known as monastic literature. It is not history. It is neither the style of modern history we are used to (Henry Chadwick or John Julius Norwich would not narrate the facts of Mary’s life this way) nor the kind Josephus or Eusebius wrote. It is certainly not a news story or an affidavit. It is a story written by a monastic for other monastics. For Christian monasticism, the origins of monastic literature grow out of the famous Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.[2] Other early monastic literature includes the writings of Evagrius of Pontus, Saints Jerome, Basil, and John Cassian.

It is also important to recognize that over the centuries many, if not most, Eastern Christians have encountered this Life in the context of the Fifth Thursday of the Great Fast (Lent). This was not the original context in which Sophronius expected his tale to be read, though he certainly did expect that his hearers would be monks or nuns. On the Fifth Thursday of Lent, at matins, the entire Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete is read. The Great Canon alludes to the stories of the Scripture, mostly from the Old Testament, but also from the New, and weaves them into an allegory about the imperfection of our lives on earth and the need for repentance and conversion. Here is a tiny quote to give you the sense:

Refrain: Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me.
Rise up and make war against the passions of the flesh, as Joshua against Amalek, ever gaining the victory over the Gibeonites, your deceitful thoughts [logismoi]. …
Refrain: Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me.
O savior, I am the coin marked with the king’s likeness, which you lost of old. But light your lamp, your Forerunner, O Word, and seek and find again your image.
Refrain: Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us.
Your soul on fire, O Mary, you ever shed streams of tears, to quench the burning of the passions. Grant the grace of these, your tears, also to me, your servant.[3]

These verses are then followed by this hymn, the kontakion, which concisely presents the theme of the canon and of the entire service:

My soul, O my soul! Rise up! How long will you sleep? The end draws near and anguish will soon overwhelm you. Rouse yourself, then; watch and be ready, that you may win mercy from Christ, who is everywhere present and fills all things.[4]

The story is read in two parts: First, the character of Zosimus is introduced. Shortly after he first encounters Mary, the narration is paused while the service proceeds. When the narration resumes, Mary tells her own story.

All of the important elements of this story appear in earlier monastic literature. Prior to Sophronius, at least three other versions of the story exist.[5] The earliest version comes to us via Cyril of Scythopolis, who tells the tale of a young Maria in his Life of Saint Cyriacus. Cyril’s Maria is a canoness[6] or a psaltria[7] in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem who flees to the desert to avoid scandal. Efthalia Makris Walsh writes of this Maria, “[F]earing that she might be found responsible for the devil’s ensnarement, through her, of many men, [she] left Jerusalem and lived for many years in a cave.”[8] The translation in Benedicta Ward, however, paints a slightly graver picture: “[B]y the fault of the devil I became an object of scandal to many. Fearing that, although I had already done penance for the cause of the scandal, I would add sin to sin (Eccl 3.29) I prayed to God that He would remove the cause of the scandal.”[9] In this version, Maria has performed a penance for causing scandal, which may indicate her complicity in it, though not necessarily. Walsh notes that Roman law under Justinian provided that a deaconess who was assaulted against her will (i.e., she was innocent) was still to be sent to a monastery for several years.[10] The Maria in Cyril’s tale may not be a deaconess, but as an ecclesiastical singer, she is an ecclesiastical functionary and some similar discipline may have been at work.

In the version found in John Moschus’ Spiritual Meadow, the woman is an anonymous nun of Jerusalem who discovers that she has become the subject of “a satanic desire” implanted in “a certain young man.” She withdraws to the desert in order to avoid being the cause of his temptation. Whereas Cyril’s Maria is found somewhat by accident, Moschus’ nun is revealed “by the providence of God, so that her virtuous conduct should not remain unknown….”[11]

Yet another version lengthens considerably the tale which Cyril and Moschus relate. Benedicta Ward provides a translation of an anonymous vita included in the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca. In this account, the nun (a “consecrated virgin living in the Holy Sepulchre”) has progressed from being an innocent source of temptation to being complicit in an affair with a monk. Upon coming to the monk’s cell and being ignored, compunction pierces her conscience when she hears him (rather conspicuously) bewailing his sins and begging God for mercy. Spurred by his repentance, she flees to the desert to do the same.[12]

All of these stories feature several shared elements, many of which are also shared by Sophronius’ story of the Egyptian Mary:

Two of the three share the following tropes (they are absent from Moschus’ version):

One other antecedent story deserves explicit notice: Saint Jerome’s “Life of Paul the Hermit.” Sophronius’ story shares so much in common with Jerome’s life of Paul, that it must be said that Sophronius uses Jerome’s narrative as a model for his own.[13]

Sophronius magnifies the basic elements of these stories into a gripping and majestic story. If you have not read it, do so now. (I recommend Maria Kouli’s translation, to which she provides an excellent introduction.) Tomorrow, I begin to analyze why Zosimus takes up so much of Sophronius’ story. The reason may surprise you.

Linknotes:
  1. That is, according to the version of the story told by Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem.
  2. Most volumes include sayings and stories from several mothers, including Syncletica, Pelagia, Thais, and Maria, among others.
  3. Andrew of Crete, Great Canon, Ode V. Translation adapted from Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary, The Lenten Triodion. (South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002) 398.
  4. Kontakion for the Fifth Thursday of Lent. Translation from the Monks of New Skete, Troparia and Kondakia. (Cambridge, NY: Monks of New Skete, 1984) 20.
  5. Efthalia Makris Walsh, “The Ascetic Mother Mary of Egypt,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 34, no. 1 (1989): 61.; cf. Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources, Cistercian Studies Series (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987) 28–32.
  6. Ward 28.
  7. Walsh 61.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ward 28, emphasis added. The “Eccl 3.29” reference should actually be Sirach/Ecclus 3.27.
  10. Walsh 62.
  11. John Moschus, Spiritual Meadow 179.
  12. Ward 29–32.
  13. Lynda L. Coon, Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 87.


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