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

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Written by Basil on 03/30/2015 10:28 PM. Filed under:


Icon of Ss Mary of Egypt and ZosimusIn 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.[1] 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.

After several days, he comes across Mary. Mary clairvoyantly calls him by name; when they pray together, she levitates. Zosimus begs her to tell her story. She begs him not to make her tell it, but he insists, no doubt expecting to hear about her ascetic exploits. She relents and describes her life: She came from Egypt. At twelve she ran away from home to Alexandria, and engaged in every sort of licentious and lustful activity. “For more than seventeen years—please forgive me—I was a public temptation to licentiousness, not for payment, I swear, since I did not accept anything although men often wished to pay me.” One day, she saw attractive young men running down to the seaport, and she follows hoping for more sexual adventure. She trades the use of her body in exchange for passage; the ship is bound for Jerusalem, where the pilgrims will take part in the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In transit, her lust knows no bounds, and at Jerusalem she continued “hunting after the souls of young men” until she was swept away with the crowd on its way to the Church of the Resurrection for the Exaltation of the Cross. On arriving, she was miraculously prevented from entering by “some kind of divine power [which] held me back.”

In the courtyard—the space allotted for penitents—she wept before the icon of the Mother of God, begging to be allowed into the church and venerate the relics of her Son’s Passion, promising to repent of her sins and abandon her former life. “As soon as I spoke these words, I received the fire of faith,” she tells Zosimus, and, “[t]hus I found myself inside the holy [place],[2] and I was deemed worthy to see the life-giving cross, and saw the mysteries of God and knew that He is always ready to accept our repentance.” She heard a voice telling her, “If you cross the river Jordan, you shall find a fine place of repose.”

Mary bought three loaves of bread and headed for the Jordan. Once there, she washed her face and hands in the sacred waters and received communion before crossing the Jordan. She spent seventeen years fighting her passions (equal to the number she spent a slave to them).[3] When her battle against her passions was complete, she saw “light shining everywhere around” her, an allusion connecting her autobiographical narrative to the Life of Saint Anthony written by Saint Athanasius.

Mary correctly predicts that Zosimus will be too ill the following year to sojourn in the desert according to the custom of the monastery, but will be able to bring to her holy communion on the Thursday of Passion Week (Maundy Thursday). They rendezvous at the Jordan, which she is able to cross by walking on the water. However, when next he sees her, she has reposed, inscribing her name in the sand along with a message to Zosimus (perhaps intended to be miraculous, as she earlier professed to be completely illiterate).

Zosimus weeps over the reposed Mary, “bath[ing] the feet of the blessed woman with his tears, for he did not dare to touch any other part of her body.” Instructed by her message to bury her, he tries in vain to dig in the dry ground with a small piece of wood. At this point, the parallels to Jerome’s Life of Paul the Hermit are unmistakable, as a lion appears from out of the desert and digs a grave for her body.[4] Zosimus returns to the monastery, now free to tell the brothers what has transpired, a story passed orally up until Sophronius’ time, so the narrator tells us, which he commits to writing for our benefit, that we may imitate this blessed lady.

The first notch in the key unlocking the meaning of Sophronius’ story are the thoughts: Zosimus is being disturbed “by certain thoughts.” Thoughts (logismoi), their destructive power, and the weapons with which to fight them, form the heart of the monastic spiritual tradition. Evagrius of Pontus, Saint John Cassian, and the sayings of the desert fathers exemplify this tradition.[5] Thoughts (particularly disturbing, intrusive thoughts such as the ones attacking Zosimus in Sophronius’ story) do not arise from within; they are not within our control, according to the monastic psychology. “Intense conflict with demons, …especially in the form of thoughts, lay at the heart of the early Egyptian monk’s struggle for virtue, purity of heart, and thus for salvation,” writes David Brakke in his introduction to Talking Back, his translation of Evagrius’ Antirrhetikos, “In Talking Back we find the thoughts, circumstances, and anxieties with which the demons assailed the monk, and we observe a primary strategy in the struggle to overcome such assaults: antirrh?sis, the speaking of relevant passages from the Bible that would contradict or, as Evagrius puts it, cut off the demonic suggestions.”[6] This undergirds the heavy use of scriptural allusions and quotations throughout the Sophronian tale.

The second notch in our key to understanding Sophronius’ vita of Mary is the content of the thoughts that torment Zosimus: That he has surpassed every other monk and there is no one to guide him. The thought of pride attacks experienced monastics by tempting them to trust in their own efforts and think of themselves as better than others.[7] Pride is particularly destructive because it destroys and contaminates any good work an ascetic has accomplished. Robert Sinkewicz, in his introduction to The Greek Ascetic Corpus, writes, “The monk overcome by pride is abandoned by God and has left himself open to demonic fantasies, terrifying visions, and nightmares, which can destroy his mental and emotional balance, driving him to madness.”[8]
In the Antirrhetikos, one of the scriptural quotes Evagrius provides for use against pride is “Against the demon that said to me, ‘Look, you have become a perfect monk’: There is hope because a living dog is better than a dead lion (Qo [Eccl.] 9:4).”[9] Or, “Against the proud thought that considered me pure and victorious: Who will boast that he has a pure heart? Or who will boldly say that he is pure from sins? (Prov 20:9).”[10]

Cassian also has strong words against the thought of pride. In The Institutes 12.7, he writes,

How great the evil of pride is, that it deserves to have as its adversary not an angel or other virtues contrary to it but rather God himself! For it must be noted that it is never said of those who are caught up in the other vices that the Lord resists them, or that the Lord is set against the gluttonous, or fornicators, or the angry, or the avaricious; this is true of the proud alone. For those vices only turn back upon wrongdoers or seem to be committed against those who have a part in them—that is, against other human beings. This one [pride], however, of its very nature touches God, and therefore it is specially worthy of having God opposed to it.

The desert fathers and mothers, too, had strong words against pride. Two examples are Abba Isidore and Amma Syncletica. “[Abba Isidore] also said, ‘If you fast regularly, do not be inflamed with pride, but if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflamed with pride and to glorify himself.’” The desert attracted female ascetics, too: “[Amma Syncletica] also said, ‘As long as we are in the monastery, obedience is preferable to asceticism. The one teaches pride, the other humility.’”[11] (No doubt some poor sister objected to having her zeal for ascetic feats be tempered by her abbess.)

Returning to Evagrius, in On the Eight Thoughts, his final word on pride reads, “Humility is the parapet of a housetop, and it keeps safe the one who gets up upon it (Deut. 22: 8). When you ascend to the height of the virtues, then you will have much need of security. He who falls at ground level gets up quickly, but he who falls from a high place is in danger of death.”[12] The monastic audience hearing Sophronius’ story would have immediately understood the danger in the proud thought that begins to torment Zosimus. It would have been a bright red Chekhov’s gun placed over the mantlepiece—someone will need to take it down by the final act.[13]

Although we have seen that the “certain thoughts (logismoi)” of pride that disturb Zosimus are a red flag, Sophronius carefully avoids characterizing Zosimus as a proud monk: He’s disturbed by these thoughts, and though he does not dismiss them—in the manner of the Antirrhetikos—neither does he precisely give in to the temptation to pride. Several other aspects of Zosimus’ characterization merit a similar examination. Zosimus moves from his original monastery to a new one, seeking a more perfect asceticism and a more perfect guide or spiritual father, but he does this out of obedience. While one can detect the hint of rebuke in the words of his new abbot, he never openly reproves Zosimus.

So, although Zosimus’ character rides a razor’s edge, a thin line between perfect monk and deluded monk, he generally comes off as remaining on the side of a perfect monk. He has been a monk since he was a young boy; he has been perfectly obedient, and he has mastered the monastic disciplines such that he is a sought-after spiritual guide. We are tempted to think that Zosimus represents the ideal of monastic life—the monk’s monk, so to speak. In fact, therein lies the deception, and it will be unmasked in a shocking way.

Tomorrow, I explore the role of Mary’s character and the transformation of Zosimus.


  1. 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.
  2. Kouli has “holy <of holies>,” but the Greek only has “the holy”; the noun is understood. Kouli’s interpolation strikes me as more likely to refer to the area set off by the templon, the architectural feature corresponding to the modern icon screen.
  3. Seventeen is also the number of years that the anonymous woman in John Moschus’ tale spent in the desert (see the previous installment). – Probably, Sophronius made Mary’s years of enslavement to vice mirror the number of years in Moschus’ earlier, very similar tale. It also is possible that there is a numerological significance to the number seventeen. It is the seventh prime number, and (for reasons related to Osiris and the lunar calendar) it is considered an abomination by Pythagoreans (mentioned by Plutarch, Moralia 42).
  4. Virginia Burrus, The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) 154.
  5. Evagrius, upon arriving in the Egyptian desert, found a wealth of knowledge, drawn from practical experience battling passions and thoughts. He organized the teachings on the thoughts into eight categories—eight thoughts that the ascetic battles. Saint John Cassian translates Evagrius’ work and presents it to the nascent Western monastic tradition. The monastic tradition was born in the deserts of Egypt, according to the standard narrative, so the monastic tradition holds the fathers and mothers of that desert tradition in high esteem. See John Eudes Bamberger, “Introduction,” in Evagrius: The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer. (Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publications, 1970) lxviii.
  6. David Brakke, “Introduction,” in Talking Back: A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons. (Trappist, KY: Cistercian Publications 2009) 2.
  7. Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) xxx.
  8. Ibid. xxxi.
  9. Evagrius, Antirrhetikos, 839. Qoheleth (Qo) is the Hebrew name for the book known in Greek, Latin, and English as Ecclesiastes.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Benedicta Ward, SLG. Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Cistercian Studies Series. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987) 106–107.
  12. Evagrius, On the Eight Thoughts, 8.32.
  13. Chekhov’s gun – A narrative device that draws attention to itself which must be used or resolved by the story’s end.


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