Augustine Sokolovski, doctor of theology, priest
The fifth Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to the memory of Mary of Egypt. The life of Mary reflects a certain time, its mentality, but also contains certain ideas and beliefs. However, it contains them so minimally that it could be equally perceived by each time as contemporary. In order to understand the vita of Mary it is important to pay attention to the little that relates to the biography and history.
According to the vita, Mary left home at the age of 12. In the Roman Empire, twelve was the age of civil majority for girls, when it became possible to conclude contracts and marry. For 17 years Mary lived in Alexandria. The main city of Egypt, Alexandria was the largest metropolis of the eastern part of the Roman Empire and had more than 300,000 inhabitants. At that time, such a population was incredibly huge.
From early youth – as the vita says - "Maria had an insatiable desire and an uncontrollable passion." Medieval imagination called her a prostitute. The French language preferred to call Mary a courtesan. In modern terms, she was a nymphomaniac. That is, she was attracted with incredible force to intercourse with men. The vita testifies to this in the text. She was not rich, moreover, money, as such, did not interest her. An interesting detail of the same vita says that Mary "lived by alms, often by yarn of linen."
At the age of 29, Mary went with pilgrims to Jerusalem. The vita admits that she undertook this journey by ship from Alexandria to Jerusalem, not out of religious interest, but for the sake of entertainment. “But I wanted to go in order to have more lovers to satisfy my passion.” There were many young men among the pilgrims. According to the text, this pilgrimage was to take place in the autumn since it was timed to coincide with the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.
Mary could not enter the church. “The temple did not accept me alone, the unfortunate one. As if a detachment of warriors was placed (...), so some mighty force kept me. In the porch of the temple, Mary turned to the Virgin Mary, standing in front of her icon. “If, as I heard, God, born of Thee, became a man to call sinners to repentance.” This “if”, preserved in the text of the vita, is very interesting. Most likely, before that, Mary knew about Christianity, but in fact she was not a believer. The fourth century was a time of great conversions. The renunciation of her former life meant for Mary the beginning of a new life. This difficult path had to lie through asceticism. Mary vowed not to return to her former life. After praying, she was finally able to enter the temple. In the evening of the same day, she took communion in the church of John the Baptist, in the morning she crossed the Jordan and headed for the desert. After all, female monasticism, in the form in which it is known to us, did not yet exist. Separate pious, wealthy ladies of Roman society consecrated themselves to God, but usually stayed in the monasteries, as a rule, together with men who, like Jerome or Rufinus in Palestine of that time, could spiritually guide them. It is impossible to imagine Mary in such a convent, or in the midst of young virgins, whose small communities then also existed in the cities.
According to the vita, Mary spent 17 years in torment and opposition to her own passionate desire to return. And then, another 30 years in ascetic exercises. It is understandable why the Life of Mary of Egypt for many centuries struck the imagination of pious Christians.
“Mary lived in the desert”. In fact, this desert, starting near Jerusalem, covers an area of 22 square kilometers. In this relatively small area at that time there were about five dozen monasteries. Hence, another name for the desert: "The Desert of Fifty Monasteries." But the very word "monastery" should not deceive, since in most cases it was about small communities of monastics.
It turns out that the refusal of human cohabitation, was not easy for Mary. She constantly had to run in order to avoid any contact with human beings.
The life of Mary brings to us a very interesting dialogue between Mary and Zosima, who by the will of God found her in the desert:- Tell me, Zosima, how does the Christian people live today? How are the kings? How is the Church grazing?He answered to Mary:- “Through your holy prayers, mother, Christ gave lasting peace to everyone”.
Perhaps not wanting to disturb the ascetic, Zosima told Mary about a “lasting and prosperous peace”. In fact, the time of their conversation was a difficult and apocalyptic time. The fall of Rome was coming. The end of antiquity was coming too. The migration of peoples began. The apocalyptic time was approaching.
It is impossible to establish the exact time of Mary's life. There are several options. According to one possible dating for Mary's biography, around the year 383 she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where she experienced conversion…
If it is true, almost at the same time, another great convert to Christ of that time, the future Father of the Christian West, Augustine, in 384 in Milan, left his common-law wife in order to soon enter into a legal marriage with another person who was chosen by his mother. But since his supposed fate had not yet reached adulthood (remember the 12 years of Mary of Egypt!), Augustine got together with another woman. Obsessed with the desire of the flesh, he simply could not and did not want to wait.
In 386, when Mary was already in the desert, Augustine heard a story about the conversion of two Roman officials, which happened under the influence of reading the life of ... the great Egyptian ascetic Anthony. Like many other converts of that time, Augustine decided to devote himself to seclusion - a dream that would haunt him until he was forced, against his own will, to be consecrated as a priest in Hippo in 391 ... Together with friends, Augustine retired to northern Italy in Cassiciacum, where he lived in that most common type of joint solitude at that time - in that type of small community, which was just inaccessible to Mary. In 387 Augustine was baptized by Ambrose in Milan on Easter. Augustine and Mary never met, nor could they ever have. Mary was never in Rome, nor in that other African city of sin, Carthage, where Augustine spent his youth. Augustine never visited the Holy Land or Egypt. It is unfortunate that these two great converted saints never could, and never could, meet. Nevertheless, the details of their biographies, that is, what little is said in the life of Mary regarding chronology, and what we find in detail in the biography of Augustine, adjoin in an amazing way. In 401 Augustine completed his great work, testimony of repentance, called “Confessions”. At the same time, that is, 17 years later after her departure into the desert, Mary gained confidence that her repentance was accepted. According to this estimated date, Mary of Egypt passed away to the Lord around the year 430. This means that in the same year that the conversation between Mary and Zosima took place, in Hippo, besieged by vandals in Carthaginian Roman Africa, after the last repentance and communion, St. Augustine was dying in his cell. The great saints were not only contemporaries. They also ascended to Heaven at the same time. Besides this celebration on the fifth Sunday of the Great Lent, the date of which changes every year depending on Easter, the memory of Mary is also celebrated on April 14 every year. According to the vita, Mary died on Great Thursday. It was this date of the celebration of the last supper on the alleged day of the death of Mary that was entered in the liturgical calendar. Paraphrasing the title of the famous metaphysical thriller of G.K. Chesterton we can call Maria … “The Woman Who Was Thursday”.