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

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Written by Basil on 03/31/2015 3:37 PM. Filed under:


Icon of Ss Mary of Egypt and ZosimusIn 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,[1] 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[2] (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. From her own youth, she too left her home, but to seek sexual adventure. In embodying the archetypal “sinful woman,” Lynda Coon writes, “By classical standards, Mary was the worst kind of harlot because she engaged in intercourse not from financial need but to satisfy lust. She always carried a spindle, as if to mock the distaffs of the chaste, charitable women of sacred and classical discourse.”[3] Virginia Burrus concurs: “She is not a prostitute but something still worse: ‘I did not accept anything although men often wished to pay me.’ She thereby converts her lust into ‘a free gift,’ as she puts it. Nor does she refuse money because she does not need it: ‘You should not think that I did not accept payment because I was rich, for I lived by begging and often by spinning coarse flax fibers.. The truth is that I had insatiable passion.’”[4]

When Mary says that Zosimus will “run from her as from a snake,” Sophronius connects Mary to the fallen Eve.[5] Her travels to Jerusalem are “a perverted pilgrimage”; her lascivious acts “invert the Christian apostolic mission.”[6] She is the exact opposite of Zosimus; Coon writes, “Before narrating the miraculous conversion of her sinful existence, the saint warns Zosimus that her life has been the exact opposite of priests, God’s chosen vessels, for she had been the ‘chosen vessel of the devil.’”[7] She is even his exact opposite in gender; yet, despite her protestation, she herself becomes God’s chosen vessel for Zosimus’ redemption.

At the center of both her story and the entire narrative, we find Mary repenting and consecrating her life to the Mother of God, and by extension to her Son, the relics of whose Passion she venerates at the center of this chiastic narrative. Chiastic structure is a rhetorical device in which a text or oration repeats certain ideas or themes with the form ABB’A’ or AB…X…B’A’; it is called chiastic because it is shaped like the Greek letter Chi (X).[8] Because the Chi is also the shape of a cross, it was a favorite of scriptural and patristic writers to refer to Christ and his cross. That is exactly what we see here, with the center being Mary’s repentance at the Exaltation of the Cross. Her repentance is so complete, her appearance changes; she is hailed as an amma[9] and given alms by a pious Christian. At the Jordan, she washes herself, evoking baptism[10] and Saint Thecla’s self-baptism.[11]

Sophronius carefully and skillfully uses subtle biblical allusion to tie Mary to biblical figures, including prophets and wonder-workers,[12] and ultimately characterizes her as a Christ figure. The initial contact between Mary and Zosimus invokes the image of the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the desert but ultimately inverts it—who is tempting whom? The initial description of her as dark complected with hair “white like wool” alludes to the image of the son of man, the apocalyptic Messiah, in Saint John’s Apocalypse or Revelation (1.14)[13] and, by extension, to the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7.9). She leaves home at twelve (the age at which Christ abandoned his parents and taught in the temple [Lk 2.41–49]), and she spends thirty years in the desert after seventeen years battling her passions, possibly a reference to the age at which Christ is traditionally thought to have begun his preaching ministry.[14]

Coon notes that Sophronius consciously places Mary and Zosimus in a master-disciple relationship (after all, this is what he has been seeking throughout the entire story, as we are reminded explicitly immediately prior to their first encounter). After describing her conversion and repentance in the desert,

the hagiographer employs the rhetoric of inversion from the gospels in order to make a spiritual point about miraculous power. A favorite motif of the evangelists uses spiritual doubters to prove the wonder-working abilities of Christ. In the Life of Mary of Egypt, it is not the ex-harlot who functions as the “doubting Thomas,” but a priest, Zosimus. In Matthew (6.31-34) unfaithful men ask Jesus: “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?” Zosimus, in like fashion, asks the holy woman: “What have you been able to find to eat? Have you passed this length of time without suffering? Did you not have any food or vestments?” Mary, like Christ, convinces the doubting Zosimus that God has mandated her ascetic and charismatic life. In her vita, Mary becomes confessor, absolver, and prophet….

At the end of the narrative, the hagiographer provides a second significant gender reversal. Zosimus journeys again to the desert to administer communion to Mary, only to find her dead. Zosimus responds to this discovery by expressing for Mary the same piety Mary Magdalene demonstrates for Christ (Matthew 26.6-13; Mark 14.3-9; Luke 7.36-50; John 12.1-8): “He saw the holy one lying dead, her hands folded and her face turned to the East. Running up to her, he watered the feet of the blessed one with tears; otherwise he did not dare to touch her. He wept for some time.” The hagiographer emphasizes the intense feelings of Zosimus by framing him in the evangelical role of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary at the cross. Zosimus anoints Mary with his tears, weeps for her, covers her with his monastic cloak, and buries her with maternal care; he dares not touch her, just as the Magdalene was instructed not to touch the risen Christ (John 20.17). The hagiographer represents Zosimus emotionally identifying with the saint to the extent that he is seen to assume the persona of both Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt.[15]

While Coon’s argument focuses more on the gender stereotypes being subverted here, her excellent insights support my argument that Zosimus has been chastened, subtly, and transformed into a disciple of Mary, the Christ figure. Sending Zosimus back to his monastery mimics St Paul’s dismissal of Anthony (cf. Life of Paul 12), and Mary crossing the Jordan by walking on the water invokes Jesus coming to his disciples,[16] emphasizing that Zosimus is now the disciple; Mary is the master.

At the center of the double narrative, as mentioned above, is Mary’s repentance. The inversion and characterization of Zosimus as ambiguously perfect monk and Mary as chief among sinners (echoing the Apostle’s self-identification) leads to that center: The perfect ascetic—whether tonsured monk or para-ecclesial anchorite—is the ascetic who perfectly repents. At the end of the story, Zosimus is a disciple of Mary, the mistress of perfect repentance. As Saint Mary says when she describes her encounter with the precious and life-giving cross: “As soon as I spoke these words [of repentance], I received the fire of faith…. Thus I found myself inside the holy [place], 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.”


  1. Lynda L. Coon, Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) 86.
  2. The ability to work miracles is a common way to indicate sanctity in the lives of the saints.
  3. Ibid. 86–87.
  4. Virginia Burrus, The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) 150.
  5. Coon 86.
  6. Ibid. 87.
  7. Ibid. 86. Emphasis added.
  8. See the Wikipedia entry for chiastic structure.
  9. “Amma” is the Aramaic for “mother”; so this visible transformation indicates that Mary is immediately and charismatically a true ascetic.
  10. Coon 87. The baptismal imagery is particularly strong since she immediately goes and receives the sacrament of communion.
  11. Burrus 196 n55; cf. The Acts of Paul and Thecla 9.
  12. Coon 84.
  13. Ibid. 85.
  14. Burrus 196 n53. Burrus actually identifies thirty as the age of Christ’s death. It seems more likely that a Christic reference to thirty would be to the beginning of his ministry. Either way, a Christic reference is likely.
  15. Coon 88.
  16. Burrus 153.


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