Zosimus and Mary of Egypt

In the reign of Theodosius the Younger, there lived in Palestine a holy monk and priest named Zosimus who, having served God with great fervor in the same house for 53 years, was divinely directed to leave his monastery for one near the river Jordan, where he might learn how to advance still further on the path of holiness. He found that the members of this community on the first Sunday in Lent after Mass used to disperse in the desert to pass in solitude and penance the time until Palm Sunday.

It was at that season, about the year 430, that Zosimus found himself a 20 days' distance form his monastery, and sat down one day at noon to say his psalms and to rest. Perceiving suddenly what appeared to be a human form, he made the sign of the cross and finished his psalms. Then, looking up, he saw a white-haired, sun-tanned naked figure, which he took to be a hermit, but which ran away as he went towards it. He had nearly overtaken it and was near enough to crave its blessing, when it exclaimed, "Father Zosimus, I am a woman: throw your mantle to cover me, that you may come near me."

Surprised that she should know his name, he complied, and they entered into conversation. In reply to his inquiries the woman told her strange story with many expressions of shame and penitence.

"My country," she said, "is Egypt. At the age of 12, while my father and mother were still living, I went without their consent to Alexandria. I cannot think without trembling of the first steps by which I fell into sin, or of the excesses which followed."

She then described how she had lived as a public prostitute for 17 years, not for money, but to gratify her lust. At the age of about 28, curiosity led her to join a band of people who were going to celebrate at Jerusalem the feast of the Holy Cross—and even on the journey she continued her evil courses, corrupting some of the pilgrims. Upon their arrival in Jerusalem, she tried to enter the church with the rest of the congregation, but an invisible force held her back. After two or three ineffectual attempts, she withdrew into a corner of the outer court, and for the first time a full realization of her sinfulness swept over her.

Raising her eyes to an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she besought with tears the help of the Mother of God, vowing herself to a life of penance. With a lightened heart she was now able without any difficulty to enter the church to venerate the cross, and as she returned to the icon to give thanks to our Lady, she heard a voice which said, "Go over the Jordan, and thou shalt find peace."

At a baker's where she bought loaves she inquired the way to the Jordan, and started off forthwith, arriving that same night at the church of St. John the Baptist on the bank of the river. Here she made her communion and crossed the Jordan into the wilderness, where she had remained ever since—about 47 years, as far as she could judge.

She had seen no human being, and had lived on edible plants and on dates. The winter cold and the summer heat had sorely afflicted her unprotected body, and she had often been tortured by thirst. At such times she had been tempted to regret the luxuries and the wines of Egypt in which she had formerly indulged. These and other assaults beset her night and day almost unremittingly for 17 years, but she had implored the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, and the divine assistance had never failed her.

She could not read, and had never had any human instruction in holy things, but God Himself had taught her the mysteries of faith. At her request, Zosimus undertook not to divulge what she had said until after her death, and promised to meet her again beside the Jordan on Holy Thursday of the following year, to give her holy communion.

The next Lent, Zosimus made his way to the selected meeting-place, bearing the Blessed Sacrament, and that same holy Thursday evening beheld Mary standing on the opposite bank of the Jordan. After she had made the sign of the cross, she proceeded to walk upon the water until she reached dry ground beside the astonished priest. She received communion with deep devotion, following it by the recitation of the opening words of the Nunc dimittis. From a basket of dates, figs and lentils which Zosimus offered, she would accept only three lentils; and she thanked him for all he had done and commended herself to his prayers. Then, with a final entreaty that he would return a year later to the spot where they had first met, she departed over the river as she had come.

Next year, when Zosimus went back into the desert to keep this second appointment, he found Mary's dead body stretched out upon the ground, while beside her on the sand were traced these words: "Father Zosimus, bury the body of lowly Mary. Render earth to earth and pray for me. I died the night of the Lord's Passion, after receiving the divine and mystic Banquet."

The monk had no spade, but a lion from the desert came to his assistance and with its claws helped him to dig her grave. Zosimus resumed his mantle, which he treasured henceforth as a holy relic, and returned to tell his brethren all his experiences.

He continued for many years to serve God in his monastery, until a happy death released him in the hundredth year of his age.

Note: The history of St. Mary of Egypt was popular in the Middle Ages, and is illustrated on the old glass windows of the cathedrals of Bourges, Auxerre and elsewhere.