The life of our Blessed Mother Maria of Egypt
Commemorated on the 1st of April
Source: The Synaxarion of April
“She received spirit, having discarded the flesh long ago;
Conceal, o earth, the osseous remains of Maria;
On the first of April did Maria the desert prayer die.”
Our blessed Mother Maria was from Egypt, having lived during the years of the great Justinian, who ruled between 527 and 565. She had originally lived a debauched life and had caused spiritual ruin to many people through her unbridled lust for 17 whole years, given that, even from her youth, she had fallen into wicked acts of the flesh and had remained in them during all that time. She later dedicated herself to strict ascesis and virtue, such that she had been elevated superhumanly, walking on waters and rivers without sinking into their depths; when praying, she stood above the ground, suspended in mid air. The cause of her transformation was as follows.
On the 14th of the month of September, when the Elevation of the Precious Wood of the Life-giving Cross was taking place, many Christians had swarmed from everywhere to Jerusalem, to see the Precious Wood of the Cross. This Maria also went there at the time, together with dissolute and lecherous young men; however, on seeking to enter the Church of the Holy Resurrection in order to see the Life-giving Cross, she found herself being hindered invisibly, so that she could neither enter, nor see what she wanted. So she placed the Holy Mother as her guarantor, promising that if she would be allowed to see the Lord’s Cross, she would thereafter remain prudent and would never again pollute her body with desires and lusts.
Thus, having secured her desire, she did not go back on her promise, but instead proceeded to cross the Jordan river, went deep into the desert, and there spent 40 years without seeing another person, having only God as her onlooker. And she struggled so intently, that she not only transcended human nature, but also attained an angelic and superhuman life on earth, and thus departed in peace to the Lord.
In the land of Palestine there lived a certain Priest-Monk, Zosimas by name; he was an elderly but extremely virtuous man, and was so renowned for his virtue, that many Monks from neighbouring Monasteries often went to hear the words from the mouth of that Elder. Anyway, he spent 53 years in that Monastery; one day, a thought crossed his mind, which said: “I wonder, is there anyone who knows how to teach me the task of monastic living? Is there anyone who makes no faults in anything, but is complete in everything? I wonder, is there anyone in the desert who surpasses us Cenobites (Communal living monks) in virtue?”
An angel of the Lord appeared to him and said: “Zosimas, even though your own virtue is outstanding, nevertheless, go to the Jordan River, to the Monastery that is near there; you will see others who are far greater than you in virtue.” So the Elder Zosimas rose and immediately left for that Monastery; and, after paying his respects, remained there.
All the Monks there were accustomed to exiting the Monastery on Clean Monday of Lent and departing for the desert – each one separately from the others – and would remain there until Palm Sunday. So, in compliance with the custom of that Monastery, the Elder Zosimas likewise exited the Monastery and crossed the River Jordan with the other Monks. After parting from them, a thought crossed his mind to go even deeper into the desert, in the hope of finding another ascetic Elder and hearing divine words from him. As he was walking along, it was nearing time to read the Service, so he paused and turned to face the East and pray. From where he stood, he saw a human-like shadow appear nearby. Thinking that it may be a demonic phantom, he instinctively crossed himself.
After completing his prayers, he noticed that the human figure was walking towards him from the right. Its body looked extremely dark, because its hair was as white as cotton, except it was short, only shoulder length. As soon as the Elder saw it clearly, he rejoiced immensely, because he had at last found what he was hoping for, and began to run behind the fleeting figure. But as soon as the figure realized that Zosimas was running after it, it ran even faster. Despite his age, the Elder also ran faster; however when he had approached within earshot, the Elder began to weep, and beseeched the figure, saying: “Why are you avoiding me, the sinner, o servant of God? Why do you show disdain to this old man, and do not stop to give me your blessing? Stop, for the love of Christ, because I am old and I cannot follow you.”
Having said these things as he ran, the Elder reached a spot by a small dry riverbed. Then the figure he had seen descended the riverbank then ascended on the other side, but the Elder just stood where he was, unable to also go across, and he wept even more…
Then the figure that had appeared apologized, and addressed the Elder: “Forgive me, Abba Zosimas, for Jesus Christ; I cannot stand still for you to see me, because I am a naked woman as you can discern. If you want me to stay in place, throw me your mantle so I can cover myself, and then I will come over so you can give me your blessing.”
When Zosimas realized he had been called by his name, he was amazed, and realized that this was a far-sighted person. So Zosimas threw her his mantle, and she then went over to him and prostrated herself before him. They both remained prostrated opposite each other for a very long time, with each of them saying to the other “Bless me, o servant of God.” After quite some time had passed, the woman spoke: “Abba Zosimas, it is you who must bless me, because you are a Priest of God Almighty and you stand before the Holy Altar regularly, beseeching God for the sins of others; that is why it is you who should bless me.”
Zosimas replied: “O Saint of God, your gift is obviously greater than mine, because you are far-sighted and not only knew my name, but also that I am a Priest; for this, I beseech you to bless me instead!”
Seeing how he would not bless her, the woman stood up on her own and said: “May the Most Holy God, Who desires the salvation of sinners, bless you.” Then the Elder Zosimas stood up, and the woman continued: “Abba Zosimas, why did you trouble yourself and come this far to see a sinful woman? However, since God has brought you this far, tell me please: How are Christians? How is the world? How are the kings? How is the Church of Christ?”
The Elder replied: “Everything is fine, with your blessings, holy Mother; but I beg you to beseech God for them, but also for me, since this is the reason I, the sinner, took the trouble to travel this far.”
Then that woman said: “Abba Zosimas, it is you who should beseech God for my sake, but, since you require me to do so, I will do obeisance to your instruction.”
The woman then remained standing in prayer for a long while, but no voice could be heard coming from her mouth. The Elder had fallen to the ground, face down, repeating the prayer “Lord have mercy…”. After many hours, he raised his eyes and saw the woman hovering about half a metre above the ground. On seeing this, he immediately said to himself that it must have been a demonic phantom pretending to be praying. Then the woman turned to him and said: “What kind of thoughts are you thinking, Abba Zosimas, imagining that I am a phantom? I am a woman, and the most sinful one in the entire world.” Then, crossing herself over her entire body, she said to the Elder: “May God, Abba Zosimas, free us from the machinations of the devil.”
Then Zosimas fell prostrate before her once again and, touching the Saint’s feet, tearfully pleaded with her: “I want your oath, o servant of our true God and Lord Jesus Christ: tell me, how did you end up here, in the desert? Tell me about this, for the love of God, and hide nothing from me, for God had condescended that I may encounter you, so that I can benefit from your words. If God had not wanted me to meet with you, I, the old and feeble one - who was not even able to come out of his cell - would not have walked such a distance.”
When the Saint heard those words and saw his tears, she said to Zosimas: “Abba Zosimas, I, the sinner, am too ashamed to narrate my works, because they are filled with shame, but I will confess everything today, to your holiness. O precious Priest, I am from Egypt. When my parents were still living and I was twelve years of age, I left my parents and went to Alexandria, where I was a civilian for 17 years. And I wallowed so much in sin, that I did not ask for anything from all those that came to me; and I was so poor, that I lived by the work of my hands – at times spinning wool, and other times doing other work. Anyway, one day I went down to the shore, where I saw a huge crowd of people who were boarding a large ship. When I saw it, I asked one of those in the crowd where those people were going. He replied “They are going to Jerusalem, because the day of the Elevation of the Cross is near.” Then I asked him: “I wonder, could I go along with them?” He said: “If you have enough to pay for the voyage, no-one can stop you.” I said: “I do not have any money for the voyage, but I do have my body, to pay for my meals and the journey as far as Jerusalem, without the need to pay for my fare.” As soon as he heard my words, he walked away, laughing. As for me, Abba Zosimas, I did not have pure intentions for going to Jerusalem; I only intended to drag others down with me. As I said, Abba Zosimas, do not force me to say more, because I pollute the earth and the air with my words.” Having said this, the Saint fell silent.
Zosimas then said: “Tell me, o blessed Mother, everything, and hide nothing from me.” The Saint again replied: “Abba Zosimas, because you insist, I will tell you… Anyway, I immediately put aside my spinning wheel and ran to those ships that were ready to depart – because there were many ships that were about to depart – and I saw ten young men standing there, who were preparing to embark, and I said to them: ‘Take me with you, and pay for my fare, and I will be sure to repay you.’ As soon as they heard this proposal, they took me on board the ship, but the sins that I committed there, Abba, I am too ashamed to narrate to you. The only thing that makes me wonder is how the sea did not split open and swallow all of us who were on the ship; obviously God was waiting for my repentance. When I disembarked from the ship, as if my first sins weren’t enough, I sought other, even more lovers. The day of the Elevation arrived, and I was continuing with my usual sinning. I also observed the people who were swarming to the Church at night – but only to look at the young men. When I arrived outside the Church, I too tried to enter through the main entrance, but I was being pushed aside by others and they wouldn’t allow me to enter.
Thus, everyone entered the Church, but it was impossible for me to budge, and I was left outside; I tried three-four times to enter but I was not able to. So I stood near an external corner of the Church. As I stood there, I brought to mind that I was unable to enter, because of my sins; and while I stood there weeping over my sins, I noticed above me an icon of the Holy Mother. On seeing Her icon, I wept and said: “O Virgin Lady Theotokos, who gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ, I know I am not worthy of even looking upon Your icon because of my many sins; but, because it was for this that God became man – to invite sinners to repentance – help me to also enter the Church and look upon the holy Wood of the Cross on which Your Son was crucified for my sins and shed His holy Blood to save sinners. And if I am made worthy to see the Cross, I beseech You to become my guarantor to Your Son that I will no longer pollute my body, but that, upon leaving the Church, I will go wherever You lead me.”
After saying those things, it gave me a sense of some relief; I mingled with the others in the crowd and this time I entered the Church, without being hindered like my first attempts. When I confronted the most holy Wood of the Precious Cross, I was overcome by fear and terror; I fell to the floor and I prostrated myself before the Cross with tears. After having venerated the Cross, I hurried back to the place where I saw the icon of the Holy Mother Theotokos, and in tears I said to Her: ‘O Most Holy Virgin, You did not despise me the sinner and Your unworthy servant, but made me worthy of seeing that which I love and had desired. For this, my Lady Theotokos, show me the path that leads to my salvation. I ask You to become the guide to my salvation. You, who have become my guarantor, guide me so that I might be pleasing to God.’ While I was saying these things, I could hear a voice saying ‘If you cross the Jordan, you will find immense repose’. On hearing this, I cried out in a loud voice ‘My Lady, my Lady, do not abandon me!’ Having cried out those words, I departed and headed for the Jordan River. On the road, a Christian saw me and gave me three coins as alms in Christ’s name. I accepted them, and purchased three loaves of bread with them. I asked a passerby which road led to the Jordan River. He pointed the way, and I went in that direction, weeping along the way. Later on, towards dusk, I arrived at the Church of Saint John the Forerunner, near the Jordan River. I rested there, and the next day I received the Holy Sacrament at that Monastery, I ate a piece of one of the loaves and drank some water from the Jordan, then I went to sleep there. In the morning when the day had dawned, I went down to the river and after finding a boat, I crossed over to the other bank of the river and arrived here, where you see me, Abba Zosimas.”
Then the Elder asked her: “How many years have you been here, in the desert, holy woman?” The Saint replied: “Forty years I have been living here, Abba Zosimas.” He then asked her: “And where did you secure your food to this day? How did you spend all those years?” The Saint replied: “I had two and one half loaves when I crossed the Jordan, and they had dried out so much that they became like stones; however, by eating them little by little and with the grass of this desert, I managed to survive.” The Elder asked her once again: “How did you pass all this time here? Were you beset by any temptations, or not?” The Saint replied: ”Abba Zosimas, you have asked me something that I shudder even to recall, because if I tell you about all the temptations that I was subjected to and had withstood, I am afraid I might relapse into them again.” But the Elder again said to her: “I beg you, o servant of the true God, do not withhold anything from me, but tell me everything, for the love of Christ.” And the Saint replied: “Believe me, Abba Zosimas, I have been here in this desert for seventeen whole years, where I have been subjected to many temptations by the demon; because when I began to eat, I would bring to mind the meat and the fish of Egypt, I would remember the plentiful wine that I used to drink there and my heart would burn up because here, I did not even have water to drink. And I would remember again the songs that I knew and would begin to sing them, then I would immediately remember my sins and the Most Holy Mother and the promise I made to Her as my guarantor, and I would break down and weep – the wretch that I am. Then, as soon as I would call upon the Holy Mother, an excessively bright light would shine before me and all the bad thoughts would vanish.”
“How can I describe the fire that scorched my heart, Abba Zosimas, because of my fornicating? But, whenever any such thought came to me, I would fall down to the ground in tears, and would not get up unless I saw that light which could scatter those thoughts. So, Abba Zosimas, such were the temptations that hounded me during those seventeen years; but afterwards, and until this day, with the help of my holy Mother, I have no more temptations whatsoever.” Abba Zosimas again asked her: “And you no longer longed to have food or clothing?” The Saint replied: “The loaves of bread – as I told you – I ate during the seventeen years; after that, my sustenance has been the grass of this earth; as for my clothing, well, the one I wore was destroyed and fell off me, and I would feel extremely cold during the night, and during the day I would suffer from the extreme heat of the desert – so much so, that I often fell down as if dead - either from the extreme cold or the extreme heat. But God, Who had said “man shall not live on bread alone (Matth.4:4, Luke 4:4)” had nourished me and covered me, for He is the One who “surrounds the skies with clouds”.
When Zosimas heard her reciting verses to him from Holy Scripture, he asked her if she already had knowledge of those things, or if someone had taught her. The Saint replied: “Abba Zosimas, I have neither seen another person here after all this time, nor have I had any education. But God, who gives knowledge to mankind, is the One who teaches me these words; please therefore pray to God, Abba Zosimas, for me, the sinner.”
As soon as Zosimas heard those words, he attempted to prostrate himself before her, but the Saint would not allow him to prostrate himself; she only said: “Abba Zosimas, the things that I told you and you heard, take care that you do not tell anyone, until I have died. And now, go on your blessed way, and next year, you will see me again. Only, I beg you to do something that I will tell you: next year, do not cross the Jordan, as is your custom; instead, remain at the Monastery, because if you should wish to go outside it, you will not be able to. Then, late on Great Thursday, take the Holy Sacraments with you and come to the Jordan. Wait for me there, because ever since I came here, I have yet to receive Holy Communion. That is why I beseech you to bring me Holy Communion for me to partake; you should also tell Abba Ioannis, the Abbot of your Monastery, to pay close attention, because there are many bad things in the Monastery and it is necessary that they be corrected.”
As soon as the Saint said those words, she immediately departed for the desert, while the Elder remained wondering about how she had told him of the customs of the Monastery, and how she knew of the Monks’ errors. He dropped down on his knees and bent down to kiss the ground that the Saint had stood on. He gave thanks to the Lord, and returned to the Monastery.
The following year, in accordance with the Monastery’s custom, Zosimas wished to go out, but was not able to, because he was afflicted by a fever; and he immediately remembered how the Saint had told him he would not go out of the Monastery. So, after remaining in bed for a few days with the fever, he eventually recovered. When Great Thursday came around, he took the Holy Communion the way that the Saint told him; he also took a few figs with him, some dates and some lentils soaked in water, and went down to the river. While waiting to see the Saint, he began to weep, because the hours had passed and the Saint did not appear to be coming at all. Then a thought crossed his mind: how is the Saint going to cross the Jordan when she does come, since there was no ship there? As he pondered about this, he saw the Saint approaching, but he again remained pondering, how she was going to cross the river. Albeit night time, the moon shone very brightly and he could discern the Saint making the sign of the Cross and immediately finding herself on the opposite bank of the river.
On seeing such sights, Zosimas was preparing to prostrate himself, but the Saint called out to him: “Abba Zosimas! What are you trying to do? You are holding the Holy Sacraments and yet, you were going to prostrate yourself before me?” Having said those words, the Saint approached the Elder and said: “Bless me, Elder; bless me.” She then beseeched the Elder to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, then kissed him in accordance with the custom of Love, and thus received Holy Communion. Afterwards she said “And now, release your servant, o Lord, according to Your word, in peace, for my eyes have seen the salvation of Yours.”
Then she turned towards the Elder and said: “Forgive me, Abba Zosimas, and I beseech you, if it is blessed, to do me another favour; go to your Monastery with God’s help, and in the coming year, come again to the place where you first saw me, and you shall see me again, as God desires.” The Elder replied: “O servant of the true God, if only I were worthy enough to follow you… at least, take some of these foods that I brought for you.” The Saint then reached out her hand and took only three grains of the lentils and then made the sign of the Cross once again and crossed over the Jordan, walking upon the water like she had the first time. The Elder returned to his Monastery, glorifying God.
But he was deeply saddened, because he had not learnt the Saint’s name; however, he hoped to learn it, the next time he was to go to the desert. Thus, when the next year arrived and it was Cheesefare Sunday, he exited the Monastery in accordance with the custom, and walked about the desert, looking here and there in the hope of seeing the Saint. But, not seeing her, he began to weep and after many tears said to God: “My Almighty God, You, who made me worthy to witness such a mystery, do not deprive me of it to the end, so that I might complete it; make me worthy, my Christ, to once again savour the blessings of Your servant.”
While beseeching God with those words, he kept looking left and right in the hope of seeing her. And he indeed saw her – except that she was dead, with her arms crossed and her head turned and facing towards the west. He ran towards her, weeping; and as he reached the Saint’s feet, he dampened them with his tears. He wept as much as he could, then he proceeded to read the “Amomos” from the Book of Psalms.
Having finished reading, Zosimas found himself wondering what he should do. He suddenly noticed some letters etched on the ground, above the Saint’s head, which said: “Abba Zosimas, bury the body of humble Maria here, where you found it, and pray to the Lord for me. I passed away in the month of Fasmuthi (that is, April), on the night that I received Holy Communion.” As soon as Zosimas saw that writing, he was curious who had written it, given that the Saint had told him that she was not educated. He also wondered how the Saint had walked a 20-day long distance in one hour….
Then he was stumped, as to how he was supposed to dig the earth to bury her. He spotted a small piece of wood on the ground nearby, and began to scratch the soil with it. But he was unable to do anything, as he was too old and the earth was too dry. Then he suddenly noticed a lion, which began to lick the Saint’s feet when it approached her, and he was overcome with fear; however, he recalled that the Saint had told him she had not seen a single beast during her 40 years there, so he made the sign of the Cross, hoping he wouldn’t be harmed by the lion, and addressed the animal: “O beast of the wild, seeing that the power of God must have brought you here to help me, dig the earth here so that we may bury the Saint’s Relic, because I am far too old and can neither dig, nor go back to fetch digging tools; therefore go, and prepare the Saint’s grave.”
No sooner had the Elder spoken those words, than the lion immediately began to dig the earth with his front paws; he in fact dug the earth only as deep as was necessary to cover the Saint’s body. After it finished digging, the lion prostrated itself before the Elder and went off, into the desert. The Elder then buried the Saint’s Relic where he had found it, and returned to the Monastery, glorifying and praising God.
Furthermore, in accordance with the Saint’s instructions, and after Abbott Ioannis had looked into –and discovered– the many problems in the Monastery, he struggled to correct them. It was at this same Monastey that the Elder Zosimas passed away, at the age of 100.
May we all have her blessings!