Today is the Sunday in the Orthodox Church in which we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt. I had no idea who she was until I became Orthodox, though the Catholic Church also recognizes her. Anybody who thinks that Christianity is a nice, settled, bourgeois religion will have their minds blown by this story, and this woman, who died probably in the fifth century. Her life, written by St. Sophronius, a 7th century patriarch of Jerusalem, is read during matins on an appointed day in the Orthodox Church during Lent. It had been maintained as oral tradition in a Palestinian monastery since the events it recounts, until the patriarch wrote it down.

In brief, Mary was an extremely promiscuous Egyptian woman who traveled to Jerusalem on an anti-pilgrimage, to make fun of Christians. She entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and had a powerful mystical experience that drove her to live in the desert of Palestine, in penitence. She lived there alone, in the wild, for many years, as a hermit. One day, a monk saw a naked woman in the desert who barely looked human. It was Mary. She asked him to give her his mantle to cover herself with. She told him her life story. Another miracle followed, but you have to read her life, linked to above, to find out what it is.

I love this story and this saint. It’s so far beyond what we expect. God’s ways are not our ways.

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