Today is the first day of the Egyptian month of Fermoutin—“called April by the Romans”, and also by us. Most people know this day as “April Fool’s Day”—a day for playing pranks on those close to us and for testing the limits of their gullibility, and generally having a harmless good time. Orthodox Christians also know it as the date of the repose of St. Mary of Egypt. She died in 522 A.D, immediately after writing in the sand the words, “Abba Zosimas, bury on this spot the body of humble Mary. Return to dust that which is dust and pray to the Lord for me, who departed in the month of Fermoutin of Egypt, called April by the Romans, on the first day, on the very night of our Lord’s Passion, after having partaken of the Divine Mysteries.”
St. Mary of Egypt is very important to us in the Orthodox Church. As well as celebrating the date of her actual repose today, we also remember her liturgically on the fifth Sunday of Great Lent. During the Fast we read her life and sing the Canon written to extol her repentance and sanctity. We love her because her example encourages us all to repent, knowing that God can change and transfigure us, if only our repentance is deep enough.
Before we look closely at Mary of Egypt, we should face the fact that some people say that she never really existed, that her life is merely a literary construct, pasted together as a composite from the lives of a number of women who went to live in the desert. The critics point to common elements in some of these desert stories, as well as the presence of the miraculous in the story of Mary’s life. Among these people are (if memory serves) scholars such as Benedicta Ward and Fr. Robert Taft. These scholars are indeed impressive, but I suggest that their judgment about the non-historicity of Mary of Egypt simply proves that nobody bats a thousand. For in the story of Mary we find some details that were hard for the ancients to fake.
Every epoch (including ours) has its own blind spots. In earlier epochs one of these blind spots was the difficulty in detecting anachronism. Examples abound: a story about the dormition of the Mother of God, set in the first century, presents the apostle Thomas as being brought suddenly to her funeral from his place in India, fresh from the altar, still dressed in his Eucharistic vestments. This is anachronistic, for special Eucharistic vestments were not used in the first century. But—and this is the point—people of that time were blind to the anachronism, and would rarely notice the difficulty in such a detail. Another example: the works of “St. Dionysius the Areopagite”, circulating in the Byzantine period under this name, could not possibly have been written by the first century Dionysius mentioned in Acts 17, for the author uses terminology unknown in that time, calling the celebrant of the liturgy a “hierarch”. The use of the term betrays a much later date and author, yet people were slow to pick up on this.
What does this have to do with the historicity of St. Mary of Egypt? Just this—the story with which we are familiar through its liturgical recitation in church contains an historical detail regarding the exchange of the Kiss of Peace. When it came time for Mary to receive the Eucharist, the author of the story writes, “Here the woman [Mary] asked him [Zosimas] to say the Creed and the our Father. He began, she finished the prayer and according to the custom of that time gave him the kiss of peace on the lips” (italics mine). That is, the author relates that Mary kissed Sophronius on the lips during the Peace, and he mentions that she did this because it was “the custom of that time”, though it was no longer the custom in the time when Sophronius was writing this. No ancient writer, I submit, had the sophistication to invent such an anachronism. Therefore its presence in the text represents a genuine historical reminiscence, and argues for the essential historicity of the whole account.The basic facts of Mary’s life gleaned from the story are clear enough. Mary lived in the streets of Alexandria from age twelve to twenty-nine, making a minimal living through begging. She was, to put it mildly, a very sick girl, caught in the throes of a sexual addiction. Thus she refused to charge money for sex so that she could have more partners. In her own words, “I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.” When she encountered both Christ’s judgment and His mercy outside the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem during the Feast of the Elevation one September day, she decided with her usual impulsiveness to throw herself headlong into a life of ascetic renunciation with the same abandon that she had when she threw herself into a life of sin. After receiving the Eucharist, she crossed the Jordan to live the rest of her days as a hermit in the wilderness.
She soon discovered the desert to be a detox center for her, and she went into rehab for seventeen long years. Far from finding the wilderness an easy option, she described her first experiences there as “fighting wild beasts—mad desires and passions”. She said, “When I was about to partake of food, I began to miss the meat and fish which of which I had so much in Egypt. I missed also not having wine which I loved so much, for I drank a lot of wine when I lived in the world.” Moreover, she said, “The mad desire for dirty songs also entered me and confused me greatly, edging me on to sing satanic songs which I had learned once.” She spoke of a fire kindled in her heart which seemed to burn her up completely and awake in her “a thirst for embraces”. The detox experience was long and painful. Yet such was her stubborn determination to find sanity that she persevered. She beat her breast, she wept long hours, throwing herself on the ground and crying herself to the point of exhaustion. She turned to the Mother of God whose intercession she once invoked when she first decided to enter the desert. And God had mercy on her. She found calm and a sweet peace, and continued to grow in grace, holiness, and spiritual power for another thirty years, until divine Providence allowed the monk Zosimas to find her just before the end of her earthly life. The transformation from sex addict to saint was complete.
I have often thought it fitting that the feast day of St. Mary of Egypt comes on the same day as our modern “April Fools Day”, for her transformation reveals how the foolishness of God is wiser than men (1 Cor. 1:25). Many people in the world would have regarded Mary’s impulsive renunciation as the height of folly. Why leave everything to go off and languish in the desert, far from everyone? She stood every chance of dying there, killed by wild beasts, or starving, or suffering illness, far from the help of friends or physicians. She would perish alone, her corpse remaining forever undiscovered, her flesh eaten by animals and her bones left to whiten in the sun. What a waste it would all be! How much wiser and more sensible to return to Alexandria after her Palestinian repentance, and serve the Church there. She could find a useful ministry on staff, striving to reclaim street kids like herself. Or at very least she could join a women’s monastery someplace, where she could prove to be of use to others. Why cast aside all these opportunities to molder in the desert?
The story of her life, retold in loving detail every Lent, reveals the ultimate wisdom of her perseverance in fulfilling her “foolish” vow. We see now what astounding things God can work in a life that is totally surrendered to Him, and to what tremendous heights His grace can carry even the worst sinner. Her solitary life bore more fruit than it ever could have if she had chosen to do the “sensible” thing. God’s folly indeed proved to be wiser than the wisdom of men.
Happy April Fools Day! Happy First of Fermoutin, called April by the Romans! Happy St. Mary of Egypt Day! Through her holy prayers may we also find our way home to the Kingdom.