The story of Mary of Egypt, taken from "The Glories of Mary" by St. Alphonsus Liguori.
(Note: If you want to read the story of Mary of Egypt immediately, scroll to the end of this chapter.)
Chapter II. Our Life, Our Sweetness
Section II: Mary is also our Life, because she obtains us Perseverance.
Final perseverance is so great a gift of God, that (as it was declared by the Holy Council of Trent) it is quite gratuitous on His part, and we cannot merit it. Yet we are told by Saint Augustine, that all who seek for it obtain it from God; and, according to Father Suarez, they obtain it infallibly, if only they are diligent in asking for it to the end of their lives. For, as Bellarmine well remarks, 'that which is daily required must be asked for every day.' Now, if it is true (and I hold it as certain, according to the now generally received opinion, and which I shall prove in the fourth chapter of this work) that all the graces that God dispenses to men pass by the hands of Mary, it will be equally true that it is only through Mary that we can hope for this greatest of all graces,--perseverance. And we shall obtain it most certainly, if we always seek it with confidence through Mary. This grace she herself promises to all who serve her faithfully during life, in the following words of Ecclesiasticus, and which are applied to her by the Church, in the Feast of her Immaculate Conception: "They that work by me shall not sin. They that explain me shall have life everlasting." (Ecclus. 24, 30).
In order that we may be preserved in the life of grace, we require spiritual fortitude to resist the many enemies of our salvation. Now this fortitude can be obtained only by the means of Mary, and we are assured of it in the book of Proverbs, for the Church applies the passage to this most Blessed Virgin: "Strength is mine; by me kings reign." (Prov. 8, 14). Meaning, by the words "strength is mine," that God has bestowed this precious gift on Mary, in order that she may dispense it to her faithful clients. And by the words, "By me kings reign," she signifies that by her means her servants reign over and command their senses and passions, and thus become worthy to reign eternally in heaven. O, what strength do the servants of this great Lady possess, to overcome all the assaults of hell! Mary is that tower spoken of in the sacred Canticles: "Thy neck is as the tower of David, which is built with bulwarks; a thousand bucklers hang upon it, all the armor of valiant men." (Cant. 4, 4). She is as a well-defended fortress in defense of her lovers, who in their wars have recourse to her. In her do her clients find all shields and arms, to defend themselves against hell.
And for the same reason the most Blessed Virgin is called a plane-tree in the words of Ecclesiasticus: "As a plane-tree by the waters in the streets was I exalted." (Ecclus 24, 19). Cardinal Hugo explains them, and says that the 'plane-tree has leaves like shields,' to show how Mary defends all who take refuge with her. Blessed Amedeus gives another explanation, and says that this holy Virgin is called a plane-tree, because, as the plane shelters travelers under its branches from the heat of the sun and from the rain, so do men find refuge under the mantle of Mary from the ardor of their passions and from the fury of temptations. Truly are those souls to be pitied who abandon this defense, in ceasing their devotion to Mary, and no longer recommending themselves to her in the time of danger. If the sun ceased to rise, says St. Bernard, how could the world become other than a chaos of darkness and horror? And applying his question to Mary, he repeats it. 'Take away the sun, and where will be the day? Take away Mary, and what will be left but the darkest night?' When a soul loses devotion to Mary, it is immediately enveloped in darkness, and in that darkness of which the Holy Ghost speaks in the Psalm: "Thou hast appointed darkness, and it is night; in it shall all the beasts of the woods go about." (Ps. 103, 20). When the light of heaven ceases to shine in a soul, all is darkness, and it becomes the haunt of devils and of every sin. Saint Anselm says, that 'if anyone is disregarded and contemned by Mary, he is necessarily lost;' and therefore we may with reason exclaim, Woe to those who are in opposition with this sun! Woe to those who despise its light! That is to say, all who despise devotion to Mary. St. Francis Borgia always doubted the perseverance of those in whom he did not find particular devotion to the Blessed Virgin. On one occasion he questioned some novices as to the saints towards whom they had special devotion, and perceiving some who had it not towards Mary, he instantly warned the master of novices, and desired him to keep a more attentive watch over these unfortunate young men, who all, as he had feared, lost their vocations and renounced the religious state.
It was, then, not without reason that St. Germanus called the most Blessed Virgin the breath of Christians, for as the body cannot live without breathing, so the soul cannot live without having recourse to and recommending itself to Mary, by whose means we certainly acquire and preserve the life of divine grace within our souls. But I will quote the Saint's own words: 'As breathing is not only a sign but even a cause of life, so the name of Mary, which is constantly found on the lips of God's servants, both proves that they are truly alive, and at the same time causes and preserves their life, and gives them every succor.' Blessed Allan was one day assaulted by a violent temptation, and was on the point of yielding, for he had not recommended himself to Mary, when this most Blessed Virgin appeared to him; and in order that another time he might remember to invoke her aid, she gave him a blow, saying, 'If thou hadst recommended thyself to me, thou wouldst not have run into such danger.'
On the other hand, Mary says in the following words of the Book of Proverbs, which are applied to her by the Church: "Blessed is the man that heareth me, and that watcheth daily at my gates, and waiteth at the posts of my doors." (Prov. 8, 34). --as if she would say, Blessed is he that hears my voice and is constantly attentive to apply at the door of my mercy, and seeks light and help from me. For clients who do this, Mary does her part, and obtains them the light and strength they require to abandon sin and walk in the paths of virtue. For this reason Innocent III beautifully calls her 'the moon at night, the dawn at break of day, and the sun at mid-day.' She is a moon to enlighten those who blindly wander in the night of sin, and makes them see and understand the miserable state of damnation in which they are; she is the dawn (that is, the forerunner of the sun) to those whom she has already enlightened, and makes them abandon sin and return to God, the true Sun of justice; finally, she is a sun to those who are in a state of grace, and prevents them from again falling into the precipice of sin.
Learned writers apply the following words of Ecclesiasticus to Mary, "Her bands are a healthful binding." (Ecclus. 6, 31). 'Why bands?' asks Saint Lawrence Justinian, 'except it be that she binds her servants, and thus prevents them from straying into the paths of vice.' And truly this is the reason for which Mary binds her servants. Saint Bonaventure also, in his commentary on the words of Ecclesiasticus, frequently used in the office of Mary, "My abode is in the full assembly of saints," (Ecclus. 24, 16), says that Mary not only has her abode in the full assembly of saints, but also preserves them from falling, keeps a constant watch over their virtue, that it may not fail, and restrains the evil spirits form injuring them. Not only has she her abode in the full assembly of the saints, but she keeps the saints there, by preserving their merits, that they may not lose them, by restraining the devils from injuring them, and by withholding the arm of her Son from falling on sinners.'
In the books of Proverbs we are told that all Mary's clients are clothed with double garments, "For all her domestics are clothed with double garments." (Prov. 31, 21). Cornelius a Lapide explains what this double clothing is: he says that it 'consists in her adorning her faithful servants with the virtues of her Son, and with her own;' and thus clothed they persevere in virtue. And therefore St. Philip Neri, in his exhortations to his penitents used always to say: 'My children, if you desire perseverance, be devout to our Blessed Lady.' The venerable John Berchmans, of the Society of Jesus, used also to say: 'Whoever loves Mary will have perseverance.' Truly beautiful is the reflection of the Abbot Rupert on this subject in his commentary on the parable of the prodigal son. He says, 'That if this dissolute youth had had a mother living, he would never have abandoned the paternal roof, or at least would have returned much sooner than he did;' meaning thereby that a son of Mary either never abandons God, or, if he has this misfortune, by her help he soon returns. O, did all men but love this most benign and loving Lady, had they but recourse to her always, and without delay, in their temptations, who would fall? Who would ever be lost? He falls and is lost who has not recourse to Mary. St. Lawrence Justinian applies to Mary the words of Ecclesiasticus, "I have walked in the waves of the sea,' (Ecclus. 24, 8), and makes her say, 'I walk with my servants in the midst of the tempests to which they are constantly exposed, to assist and preserve them from falling into sin.'
Bernardine de Bustis relates that a bird was taught to say 'Hail Mary!' A hawk was on the point of seizing it, when the bird cried out 'Hail Mary!' In an instant the hawk fell dead. God intended to show thereby, that if even an irrational creature was preserved by calling on Mary, how much more would those who are prompt in calling on her when assaulted by devils, be delivered from them. We, says St. Thomas of Villanova, need only when tempted by the devil, imitate little chickens, which, as soon as they perceive the approach of a bird of prey, run under the wings of their mother for protection. This is exactly what we should do whenever we are assaulted by temptation; we should not stay to reason with it, but immediately fly and place ourselves under the mantle of Mary. I will, however, quote the Saint' s own words addressed to Mary. 'As chickens when they see a kite soaring above, run and find refuge under the wings of the hen, so are we preserved under the shadow of thy wings.' 'And thou,' he continues 'who art our Lady and Mother, hast to defend us; for, after God, we have no other refuge than thee, who art our only hope and our protectress; towards thee we all turn our eyes with confidence.'
Let us then conclude in the words of Saint Bernard: 'O man, whoever thou art, understand that in this world thou art tossed about on a stormy and tempestuous sea, rather than walking on solid ground; remember that if thou wouldst avoid being drowned, thou must never turn thine eyes from the brightness of this star, but keep them fixed on it, and call on Mary. In dangers, in straits, in doubts, remember Mary, invoke Mary.' Yes, in dangers of sinning, when molested by temptations, when doubtful as to how you should act, remember that Mary can help you; and call upon her, and she will instantly succor you. 'Let not her name leave thy lips, let it be ever in thy heart.' Your hearts should never lose confidence in her holy name, nor should your lips ever cease to invoke it. 'Following her, thou wilt certainly not go astray.' O no, if we follow Mary, we shall never err from the paths of salvation. 'Imploring her aid, we shall be inspired with perfect confidence. 'If she supports thee, thou canst not fall; if she protects thee thou hast nothing to fear, for thou canst not be lost. With her for thy guide, thou wilt not be weary; for thy salvation will be worked out with ease. If she is propitious, thou wilt gain the port.' If Mary undertakes our defense, we are certain of gaining the kingdom of heaven. "This do, and thou shalt live." (Lk. 10, 28).
The history of St. Mary of Egypt, in the first book of the lives of the Fathers, is well known. At the age of twelve years she fled from the house of her parents, and went to Alexandria, and there led an infamous life, and was a scandal to the whole city. After living for sixteen years in sin, she took it into her head to go to Jerusalem. At the time the feast of the holy cross was being celebrated, and, moved rather by curiosity than by devotion, she determined on entering the church; but when at the door, she felt herself repelled by an invisible force. She made a second attempt, and was again unable to enter; and the same thing was repeated a third and a fourth time.
Finding her efforts in vain, the unfortunate creature withdrew to a corner of the porch, and there, enlightened from above, understood that it was on account of her infamous life that God had repelled her even from the church. In that moment she fortunately raised her eyes, and beheld a picture of Mary.
No sooner did she perceive it, than, sobbing, she exclaimed, 'O Mother of God, pity a poor sinner! I know that on account of my sins I deserve not that thou shouldst cast thine eyes upon me. But thou art the refuge of sinners; for the love of thy Son Jesus, help me. Permit me to enter the church, and I promise to change my life, and to go and do penance in whatever place thou pointest out to me.'
She immediately heard an internal voice, as it were that of the Blessed Virgin, replying: 'Since thou hast recourse to me, and wishest to change thy life, go--enter the church, it is no longer closed against thee.' The sinner entered, adored the cross, and wept bitterly. She then returned to the picture, and said, 'Lady, behold I am ready, where wilt thou that I should go to do penance?'
'Go,' the Blessed Virgin replied, 'cross the Jordan, and thou wilt find the place of thy repose.'
She went to confession and communion, and then passed the river, and finding herself in the desert, she understood that it was in that place she should do penance for her sinful life. During the first seventeen years the assaults of the devil, by which he endeavored to make the saint again fall into sin, were terrible. And what were her means of defense? She constantly recommended herself to Mary, and this most Blessed Virgin obtained her strength to resist during the whole of the above time, after which her combats ceased.
After fifty-seven years spent in the desert, and having attained the age of 87, she was by a disposition of providence met by the Abbot Zosimus; to him she related the history of her life, and entreated him to return the following year, and to bring her the holy communion. The saintly Abbot did so, and gave her the bread of angels. She then requested that he would again return to see her. This also he did, but found her dead. Her body was encompassed by a bright light, and at her head these words were written, 'Bury my body here--it is that of a poor sinner, and intercede with God for me.' A lion came and made a grave with his claws. St. Zosimus buried her, returned to his monastery, and related the wonders of God's mercy towards this happy sinner.
O compassionate Mother, most sacred Virgin, behold at thy feet the traitor, who, by paying with ingratitude the graces received from God through thy means, has betrayed both thee and him. But I must tell thee, O most blessed Lady, that my misery, far from taking away my confidence, increases it; for I see that thy compassion is great in proportion to the greatness of my misery. Show thyself, O Mary, full of liberality towards me; for thus thou art towards all who invoke thy aid. All that I ask is that thou shouldst cast thine eyes of compassion on me, and pity me. If thy heart is thus far moved, it cannot do otherwise than protect me; and if thou protectest me, what can I fear? No, I fear nothing; I do not fear my sins, for thou canst provide a remedy; I do not fear devils, for thou art more powerful than the whole of hell; I do not even fear thy Son, though justly irritated against me, for at a word of thine He will be appeased. I only fear lest, in my temptations, and by my own fault, I may cease to recommend myself to thee, and thus be lost. But I now promise thee that I will always have recourse to thee; O, help me to fulfill my promise. Lose not the opportunity which now presents itself of gratifying thy ardent desire to succor such poor wretches as myself. In thee, O Mother of God, I have unbounded confidence. From thee I hope for grace to bewail my sins as I ought, and from thee I hope for strength never again to fall into them. If I am sick, thou, O heavenly physician, canst heal me. If my sins have weakened me, thy help will strengthen me. O Mary, I hope all from thee; for thou art all powerful with God. Amen.