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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Mary of Egypt: A Heart in the Wilderness

Whatever the monk Zosimas expected to encounter when he [1]ventured into the Jordanian wilderness, what he discovered instead was something he could not have anticipated. There among the rocks and sand in front of him squatted a woman, emaciated and completely naked with dark leathery skin, her matted, straggling hair making her barely recognizable as anything human. Apparently reassured by the fact that her unexpected visitor was a monk, the woman gestured to Zosimas that she wished to use his cloak to cover herself. Then having wrapped herself in this makeshift garment, the woman asked the astonished monk to sit down with her, and she began to tell her story.

My painting of Mary portrays her as she might have appeared some ten years into her solitary retreat. Rather than portraying the Saint Mary of the Church, I wanted to be true to Mary’s humanity, to grant her the dignity of a very human soul living in harsh self-imposed exile from her own kind.
What we know of the woman’s story, and what she told to the monk Zosimas, we can learn in the account of her life written down by Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem during the 7th-century. Her name was Mary, and she had run away from her home in Egypt at the young age of twelve to journey to Alexandria. In the city she had lived a dissolute life, selling her sexual favours on the streets for the next seventeen years, or simply giving herself away for the sake of the experience. Apparently driven by a need to satisfy a carnal craving in new surroundings, she boarded a ship carrying pilgrims bound for Jerusalem. The pilgrims, both during the voyage and in Jerusalem itself, proved to be as willing as the residents of Alexandria, and she continued her wanton lifestyle within the city walls. Until the day that she found herself at the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Sophronius’ account of Mary’s life does not provide us with the details of her journey, but using maps of the period it is possible to surmise that the ship on which she embarked from Alexandria would have sailed for the port of Joppa, which had a well-trodden connecting road to Jerusalem. The actual location of Zosimas’ monastery is unknown, but calculating its distance from Jerusalem and its location near the west bank of the River Jordan gives us its likely location. From the monastery Mary would have crossed the Jordan and travelled eastwards into the trans-Jordanian desert. 
Intending to enter in the hope of finding more clients among the congregation, she felt her way barred by some unseen force. Interpreting her impure lifestyle as the cause of her being unable to set foot in the church, she experienced a deep inner remorse. At this the withholding force seemed to vanish, and she entered the church and prayed by the relic of the [2]True Cross. Emerging once more into the sunlight, she felt that she heard a voice say to her: “If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.” Renouncing the life which she had led, she journeyed to a monastery by the Jordan to receive Holy Communion before crossing the river to begin the life of a [3]recluse – a life that she would follow for the rest of her days.

Having related her story to Zosimas, Mary asked the monk to meet her in a year’s time to give her Holy Communion. At the appointed time Zosimas arrived at the banks of the Jordan to see Mary walking towards him across the waters. A further meeting was arranged for the following year, and this time Zosimas returned to the place where he had first encountered Mary, only to find her dead. It is said that a lion helped him to bury her, digging with its claws into the dry desert earth which had been Mary’s home for so many years, and which now would be her last resting place.

Two traditional icons of Mary. An anonymous Russian artist has surrounded Mary with scenes from her life (left), beginning with her kneeling in prayer before the relic of the True Cross, and ending with her burial by the lion. Gregory of Sinai monastery has chosen to depict the moment (right) when Mary walks across the River Jordan to meet Zosimas.
This, briefly, is the story of Mary – Mary of Egypt as she became known. It was preserved as an oral tradition by the monks of Zosimas’ monastery before being recorded by Sophronius a century later. In it we recognize elements similar to the life of [4]Thecla: a remarkable life of a turn to faith interwoven with the supernatural elements of legend. For the orthodox faithful, it provides a textbook example of repentance and redemption, and the mercies of the Spirit which such redemption ensures. But because these aspects of her story are the focus for the faithful, what is glossed over in such orthodox accounts is another central aspect of Mary’s story. It is a story of astonishing practical survival.

A popular 13th-century account of the lives of the saints apparently confused Mary’s story with that of Mary Magdalene. The story that Mary Magdalene spent her final years as a solitary naked penitent is wholly erroneous, but it nevertheless was seized upon by artists who were willing enough to portray the penitent naked Magdalene, as in this romanticised 19th-century version by Alfredo Valenzuela Puelma, which depicts an improbably healthy-looking Magdalene swooning before the cave in which she was supposed to have lived.
We do not know the exact years of Mary’s life, but if we assume that she must have been almost thirty when she crossed the Jordan, then her death in her late seventies means that she still must have lived for some forty-seven years in the wilderness. The legend relates that when she left for the desert she took only three loaves of bread with her. For the rest, she lived on whatever her unforgiving surroundings provided her with. This is a feat of endurance which leaves the achievements of even the most radical hard-core survivalists looking like a Sunday afternoon picnic. Given that the basic practical events of Mary’s story actually happened, we must marvel at the survival skills which she must have developed just to stay alive, and with them the mental and emotional commitment needed to sustain her existence of utter solitude. Zosimas mentions that she prayed in a near-unintelligible whisper, with all her words running together. And yet she apparently retained enough of her language skills to communicate her story to the monk.

The unforgiving harshness and haunting grandeur of the Jordanian desert. Mary somehow managed not only to survive, but to live in this hostile landscape, and not just for months or for years, but for several decades. Faith is a wondrous thing in itself. To add miracles to her story perhaps diminishes what she achieved on a human level.
We might or might not accept the supernatural elements of the story – the unseen force at the doors of the church, Mary walking on the waters of the Jordan, and the [5]helpful lion – for such elements remain a matter for individual faith. Such miraculous occurrences were needed to confirm Mary’s sainthood by the Church, and in any case remain a distant and unverifiable hearsay. My painting of Mary which heads this post does not need them: I find Mary’s commitment of faith and feat of survival sufficient marvels in themselves. The Church might have need of such miracles and mysteries, but there in the wilderness beyond the Jordan beat a heart in quiet solitude, and the human heart holds mysteries far greater than these.

Between Truth and Legend: Is Mary's story true? The circumstances of her life existed as an oral tradition before being set down in writing a century after the events. Faith is the criterion for us accepting the supernatural elements of her story, but what of the story itself? We know from documented examples that ten years is enough time for a human to revert to a feral state and lose the faculty of speech. And yet after some forty-seven years Mary was articulate enough to relate her story to Zosimus, even though the monk described her manner of praying as near-incoherent. I personally believe the substance of Mary's story, although that substance might have been embroidered upon over the years, as stories typically are.

[1] It was expected of each monk at the monastery that he should make an annual sojourn into the desert to fast in prayerful contemplation.

[2] Please see my post Helena and the True Cross to read more about the veracity of this holy relic.

[3] A medieval tradition seems to have confused Mary Magdalene with Mary’s story. This tradition has a post-Resurrection Magdalene also living for many years as a repentant naked recluse, for which there is no evidence whatever. The source of this erroneous tradition was The Golden Legend, a 13th-century compilation of the lives of saints. The Legend freely mixed historical facts with fanciful fiction and hearsay miracles: a dubious literary cocktail which only increased its popularity. Later scholasticism treated the Legend more critically – although even up to the 19th-century artists were still portraying Mary Magdalene as a naked recluse (left, by Hans Olaf Heyerdahl) in the style of Mary of Egypt. Please see my post The Gospel of Mary.   

[4] Please see my post Thecla: A Woman between Rain and Fire to read Thecla’s remarkable story.

[5] Whether the intervention of the helpful lion could be considered as miraculous is perhaps questionable. I tend to think of it as a typical storybook element: unlikely and improbable, but not actually defying the laws of physics and nature, as miracles appear to do. 

The original account by Sophronius on which my post is based can be read here. My post necessarily condenses or omits many of the details purportedly related by Mary to Zosimas, including the fact that she prostituted herself on board the vessel bound for the Holy Land specifically as a way of paying for her passage, and also includes an extended and detailed account of her first meeting with Zosimas, which is moving in itself.

Jordanian desert adapted from a photo by criscris1. Map and portrayal of Mary created for this post by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved.


  1. I can't begin to imagine how it must be to live in the desert for over forty years with no other soul for company. You wrote a very compelling story, David.

    1. Thank you, Emma. I think that I write about something, not because I understand it, but because I'm trying to understand it. Sometimes what I write brings me closer to an answer, and sometimes it draws me into a greater mystery. I felt that happen when I was writing about Mary, and her story continues to draw me to her.

  2. Can I have more information as to the first painting in your article? The crouching golden woman! Thanks


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