Imagine living the life of a prostitute from age 12 to 29! Prostitution leaves a woman hardened and scarred. It must surely turn the heart into a stone because sex, which is a God-ordained gift of vulnerable union, has been turned into a crass money-making abuse of the body.
So who is the 17-year-prostitute and why should we care? Mary of Egypt is the woman. She lived from approximately 344-421. That was the era of St. Augustine (354-430) in Africa. St. Patrick (387-461) was in Ireland. The Virgin Mary was about to be definitively proclaimed as the Theotokas, the Mother of God, at the Council of Ephesus in 431.
But paganism, atheism and self-indulgent immorality were widespread around the world (not unlike today). According to the earliest stories of Mary of Egypt she left home, with dreams of becoming an actress and singer. She succumbed to the temptations of the flesh instead and after that sold her body to survive. At age 29 she thought she would join the pilgrims who were flocking to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. She paid her way with her body.
As the pilgrims entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Mary joined them. But an invisible force blocked her entrance. Try as she might, the door would not open for her. Mary retreated to a nearby spot to consider what was happening.
There she felt the presence of the one who bore the same name. Mary, the Mother of Jesus and our spiritual mother, came to the troubled young woman. Mary of Egypt knew her sins and in that moment repented. She promised to reform her life if she would be allowed to enter the Church. Perhaps, in the travel to this spot she had learned enough to want what those believers had.
Imagine her going again to the door of the Church that had, only moments before, barred her from entrance. Inside, the people are singing. The sweet smell of incense is filtering from the bottom of the door.
She hesitates. But this time the door swings open easily. Later that day, Mary hears the Blessed Mother tell her to cross the Jordan River and “there you will find true rest, true peace.”
Mary of Egypt spent the rest of her life in prayer. She lived as a hermit in the desert, with little to eat and no companions. One can imagine that God gave her the promised peace and that she was able to help many of her former “customers” through deep prayer and intense fasting.
Once a year a priest came to her to bring her Holy Communion, until one year he found her dead.
The story of this Mary, reminds me of another Mary, the Magdalene. Both of these women had a connection with the Holiest Virgin, because they had the same name. “Mary” derives from Miryam, who, in the Old Testament, was the one who led the rejoicing after the Israelites left Egypt. The name itself means “beloved.”
The two Marys of this essay did not live like Mary but both of them learned to say “yes” to God! (All we know for sure form the Gospels is that Mary Magdalene had “seven demons which were driven out by Jesus.” Possibly these demons were “the seven deadly sins.” After this transformation she served our Lord.)
The lives of these two Marys demonstrate the power of REPENTENCE and conversion. Both of them received special gifts as a result of their faith.
Mary of Egypt’s conversion led to courage. She lived a life of austerity, purity and deep prayer. We can only imagine that she experienced a great freedom to be away from the drama and anxiety of her previous life. She must have also experienced a purgatory on earth as she lived the life of a hermit, but she was promised “peace.”
For Mary Magdalene, the blessing she received was a wondrous gift. She was the first person to see the risen Lord!! Undoubtedly, she too, received the gift of fortitude, in order to proclaim the Good News to a world that was resistant.
Both of these two women are saints. They are guides for chastity and for repentance. They are good reminders for the modern world where modesty, sexuality and virtue are under constant assault.
They fell into sin… but, God always helps those who ask for help. And Mary, our generous Heavenly Mother is watching over us as well!! She understands the world’s temptations.
Joy comes from knowing that we are the “beloved of God,” like all the Marys.
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