of the desert
FEast: April 2nd
fever, temptations, solitude, new beginnings, skin diseases
Also known as St. Mary of Egypt, Mary was born in Egypt and ran away from home around the age of 12, settling in Alexandria. She took a position as a sex worker, possibly spinning flax and acting in addition. Apparently, she often refused payment for her work, and lived this way for 17 years. This changed when she witnessed a group of pilgrims heading out on a boat to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. She saw many attractive young men on board, which convinced her to go, and she even paid for her passage through sexual favors.
She continued this way while in Jerusalem for a short while until she tried to join the crowd processing into the Church on the day of the feast. Though she tried 3 or 4 times to enter, she was repelled by an invisible force that would not let her inside. She retreated to the Church courtyard and as she believed she was unable to enter because of her sinful choices, she fell to her knees and cried with remorse, praying for forgiveness when she glimpsed a statue of St. Mary. She promised to give up “the world”, and when she next tried to enter the Church, she had no problem doing so. She was able to see the relic of the Cross and heard a voice say, “If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest”. A stranger offered her three coins as she left, with which she purchased three loaves of bread, and then headed for the desert. She passed the monastery of St. John the Baptist near the river and was absolved and given Communion there. She continued to the desert and was not seen again for 47 years.
Around the year 430, a priest named Zosimus who was wandering the desert for 40 days as a customary fast, and planning to return home on Palm Sunday, was shocked when he discovered a person, thin, with white hair, alone in the desert. Though she was naked, Zosimus apparently could barely tell at first that she was even a human, let alone a woman. But she called his name, though they had never met before, and she told him her life story. She asked him to meet her along the Jordan the following year and bring her Communion then. When he did so, she walked on the water to cross the river to get to him, and asked him to do this once more, another year later.
When he arrived at the spot he first met her another year later, she was there, dead, with an inscription in the sand next to her that she had died the year before on the night he had brought her Communion. Her body was incorrupt, and as he began to take to burying it, a lion appeared and helped him to do this. He returned to his monastery and told her story to everyone, with St. Sophronius eventually writing it down.
Should we ever wonder about God’s grace, we need only look to you. Your life story is proof that God values repentance over perfectionism, growth over stagnancy, and individual agency over a maintained social order. Your ability to control the immense power you had at all times gave you even greater blessings despite your intense suffering. Amen.
The colors for this image and the designs for Mary's tattoos come from the desert itself. Since she basically merged herself with the landscape, it was so integral to her being in the second half of her life that it needed to be the focus here. She has messy, graying hair and is very thin as in traditional icons of her. She also holds a pose that is found in the same traditional icons, as she reaches out to and tells her story to both Zosimus and the viewer.