There was a man called Zosimas, [Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on April 4] of
exemplary life and doctrine, who from his youth up had been thoroughly trained in
monastic life and discipline in a monastery in Palestine. Don't let anyone confuse him
Although they both have the same name there could not be a greater difference, the
one from the other. From the very beginning our Zosimas spent all his life in a
monastery in Palestine, embracing all elements of the monastic discipline, becoming
well practised in all aspects of the work of abstinence. Every precept of the rule
handed on to him by those who had been educated in it from infancy he kept
blamelessly with perfect monastic discipline. Indeed, he did more than the rule
required, eager as he was to subdue the flesh to the spirit. He was never a cause of
scandal to anyone else, for he carried out all his monastic duties perfectly, to the
extent that many people came to him both from local monasteries and from
monasteries at some distance, in order to learn from his example and teaching how
to imitate his abstinence and govern themselves much better than before.
Along with all that, he was constantly meditating on the sacred scriptures, for
whether he was resting on his bed, or getting up, or working with his hands, or
taking food when necessary, he never ceased from his accustomed good work of
silently reciting the psalms, and meditating on their sacred wisdom. It was quite
often said about him that he had become worthy of being given visions from God,
and that is not really remarkable or unbelievable. As the Lord said, blessed are the
pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5.8). How much more then, shall not
visions of the blessings prepared in the future life be set before the eyes of those
who purify the flesh, maintain sobriety and whose souls are ever vigilant.
Zosimas also said that he had been taken from his mother's arms, so to speak, into
this monastery, where he had pursued the monastic life up to his fifty-third year. At
that time, however, perfect though he was in all those things, and not needing to be
taught by anyone else in any matter at all, he began to have certain nagging
"Isn't it possible that there may be some other person, among those who lead a life
of solitude, who is better than I am in everything he does?"
As these thoughts passed through his mind, someone stood before him and spoke to
"O Zosimas, you have striven well to the utmost of human capability, and have
achieved the highest levels of monastic life. However there is no one who can claim
to be perfect, and you know nothing about some much greater battles being waged
even now than anything known in the past. If you want to know more about how
many different ways to salvation there are, leave these thoughts of yours behind in
your own land, and go forth like Abraham our famous father (Genesis 12.1) to the
monastery near the river Jordan."
He carried out what he had been told, left the monastery where he had lived since
infancy, and went to the Jordan, that holiest of all rivers, where the angel who had
spoken to him guided him to the monastery which God had directed him to visit. He
knocked at the door and spoke to the doorkeeper who announced his visit to the
abbot. The abbot received him, noting from his dress that he was a man of religion,
and, as the monastic custom is, bent the knee and said a prayer before beginning a
"Where are you from, brother?" asked the abbot. "And why have you come to visit us
"I don't think it is necessary, to tell you where I am from," said Zosimas, "but the
reason for my coming is a desire to learn more. I have heard great and praiseworthy
things about you, and that you can bring my soul closer to God."
"God alone, brother, is able to bring healing to our souls. May he instruct both you
and me in the divine commandments, and guide us all into doing what is right. One
human being cannot succeed in bringing enlightenment to any other human being
unless each of them is considerate to each other, and does whatever he can, trusting
in the help of the Lord. However, since you say that the love of Christ has led you to
visit us humble monks, stay with us if that is why you have come, and may the good
shepherd feed both of us with the grace of his holy Spirit. He it is who has laid down
his life for our freedom, and calls his own sheep by name" (John 10. 11-15).
So saying, they bent the knee again and prayed, and Zosimas said Amen, and stayed
with them in the monastery.
He found there that these old men not only looked like splendid people but also that
they matched their deeds to their appearance, fervent in spirit, true servants of the
Lord. The singing of psalms was so organised that it took place during the whole of
the night, manual work was always in progress, the words of the divine psalms were
always on their lips. There was never an idle word among them, they took no thought
for silver or gold or any other material goods. They spent all their time meditating on
the limits of this temporal existence full of sorrows. No single person stood out from
the others, but each one had one single aim. Before becoming alive in the monastic
life each one had had to die to the world and to those who are in the world. Now
each one strove to die to the needs of body. They had a plentiful supply of divine
wisdom; they sustained their bodies with nothing but bread and water, so that they
might all the more effectively present themselves before the divine mercy.
Zosimas took note of all those things and was greatly helped towards his own aim of
perfection in making his own path more fruitful. He found he was in the company of
many fellow-workers, striving to rebuild a divine paradise.
After he had been there for a few days the time was approaching for Christians to
celebrate the traditional season of fasting, and to purify themselves through the
passion and the saving resurrection. In order that the monks could go about their
tasks without the risk of being disturbed, the doors of the monastery were never
opened but stayed shut. They were opened only if some monk arrived on necessary
business. The monastery was in a very isolated spot, and most of the people in the
neighbourhood either did not frequent it very much, or even did not know it was
there. The rule they followed however was one which they had used from the very
earliest times, which was the reason, in my opinion, why God had led Zosimas to
this particular monastery.
Now let me give you some idea of what the tradition of this monastery was like. On
the first Sunday in Lent they celebrate the divine Sacrament as usual and each one
partakes of the spotless life-giving body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. After
taking a little food they gather together in the oratory, and having prayed on bended
knee they greet each other, and then each one kneels before the abbot and
embraces him, praying for the help of his prayers and fellowship during the coming
Lenten battle. They then all walk right out of the monastery as they sing together
The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear; the Lord is the
strength of my life, of whom then shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27), leaving only one or
two behind, usually, not for the sake of guarding the property (for there was nothing
there that a thief would look twice at) but so that the oratory would not be left
without anyone to sing the solemn offices.
Each one of them was stocked up with provisions, according to his individual capacity
and wish. Some took sufficient bread for their bodily needs, another figs, another
dates, another lentils steeped in water, others nothing except their bodies and the
clothes they stood up in but relied on satisfying the needs of nature by gathering
herbs in the wilderness. For the rule was that each one should decide for himself on
those matters without any argument, and that no one should busy himself about the
abstinence or actions of his fellow monk.
Crossing over the Jordan they walked away in different directions, each one
completely by himself, reckoning that the desert itself was his city. If anyone saw
someone else walking towards him in the distance he would turn off from his path
and walk away in another direction. Each one lived alone with God, singing psalms
frequently, and taking food according to his own rule.
Having kept the whole of Lent like that they came back to the monastery a week
before the life-giving feast of the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
that is, on the Sunday which the holy church observes with branches of palm. When
they came back each one witnessed in his own inner conscience to the way he had
spent his time, and what fruit the seeds of his labour had brought forth. And no one
cross-examined anyone else about the results of his labour and strife.
So there you have the rule of the monastery, which they observed exactly and in the
best possible way. For each one sought through solitude to achieve union with God,
and fought his own battles with the intention of pleasing not any other human being
but God alone. For what people do at the behest of other people, or with the
intention of pleasing other people, not only often turns out to be unprofitable, but
even leads to the making of many mistakes, resulting in consequent condemnation.
Zosimas, then, crossed over the Jordan also, in obedience to the accustomed rule of
the monastery, taking with him nothing but a little food to sustain his body, and the
clothes he stood up in. He observed the rule with joy, wandering through the desert,
observing meal times as a necessity of nature, lying at night upon the ground to rest
a little and take a little sleep wherever he found himself when evening came upon
him. At daybreak he would keep on going, always burning with a desire to go further
into the desert in the hope of finding someone who would be able to provide him
with a great example, as we have said. He seemed to be journeying on unswervingly
as if going to meet some definite person.
On the twentieth day at about the sixth hour he stopped to have a rest, turned
towards the East and said the usual office. It was his custom to break his journey at
the appointed times of the day, standing to sing the psalms and bending the knee to
pray. As he was singing and looking up intensely to heaven, he saw out of the corner
of his eye something like the appearance of a human shape. He was quite frightened
at first, and trembled, thinking that he was seeing some spiritual phantom, but he
made the sign of the cross and put aside his fear. He had come to the end of his
prayers, so he turned around and saw that it really was someone, or something,
coming towards him. It was in fact a woman he was looking at, her skin blackened by
the heat of the sun. What hair she had was as white as wool, falling down to her
With a gleam of joy rising in his heart, Zosimas wondered whether what he had been
longing for was what he could see in front of him, and he began to run in that
direction. He was rejoicing with great joy, for during the whole twenty days he had
not so far seen any human being, or animal, or bird, or beast. He wanted to find out
what sort of a creature it was he was looking at, while hoping that it was someone
greater than himself. But she saw Zosimas coming and took flight towards the lower
desert. Forgetting how old he was and with no thought of how hard he would have to
run, he chased after her as fast as he could in his desire to get a proper look at this
creature. He kept on running, but so did she. Zosimas proved the faster, and he
gradually began to overtake her. When he saw that he was getting so close that his
voice could be heard he cried out:
"Servant of God, why are you running away from me? I am only a decrepit old sinner.
Listen to me, whoever you are, for the sake of the God in whose name you have
come into this desert. Listen to me, though I am but weak and unworthy. Listen to
me for the sake of the rewards which you are hoping to gain from your labours. Stay
where you are and offer a prayer and a blessing to an old man, in the name of God
who never rejects anyone who calls on him."
While he was tearfully pouring out these pleas they came to a place which was
actually a dried up watercourse, but in which Zosimas thought there were flowing
waters. It so happened that a mirage was occurring here, as so often happens in that
country. She, in the course of her flight, went down into the watercourse and up the
other side. Zosimas however cried out in alarm and dared not go any further, for he
felt that he was standing beside a raging torrent. He added more tears to the tears
already shed, his sighs became louder and louder, so that the noise of his distress
might be better heard above the noise of the imaginary torrent.
Then a voice was heard coming from the frame of the fugitive:
"Abba Zosimas, in the name of God you must forgive me, but I cannot turn round to
face you, for I am a woman, and my whole body is quite innocent of any clothing, as
you can see for yourself. Even the shameful parts of my body have no covering. But if
you really want to offer a prayer with this sinful woman throw me the cloak you are
wearing so that perhaps I may turn towards you and accept your prayers with my
female weakness concealed."
Zosimas trembled with a great fear, while his mind almost jumped out of his body.
He was a very seasoned man, most knowledgeable on the nature of the gifts of God,
and he knew that nobody could address him by name who had never seen him or
even heard of him, unless it had been revealed by the manifest grace of providence.
Hastily he did what she had asked, took off the cloak he was wearing and threw it
behind her. She picked it up and succeeded in covering those parts of her body which
ought to be covered, and turned round towards Zosimas.
Chapter IX (continued) Life of St Mary of Egypt, Book 1d
"Why, abba, should you want to look at this sinful woman?" she said. "You have not
been slothful in great labours yourself. What do you think to see in me that might
teach you anything?"
He threw himself on the ground asking for a blessing in the usual way. She did
likewise, so that both of them were lying there, asking for each other's blessing!
After quite some time, the woman said to Zosimas:
"Abba Zosimas, it is for you to give the blessing and offer the prayer, for you have
had the honour of the presbyterate conferred on you, and have stood at the holy
altar for a great number of years, searching into the secrets of the gifts of Christ's
These words struck great fear into Zosimas' heart, and caused him to struggle and
tremble even more, as great drops of sweat broke out upon him.
"It is obvious from your vision, O spiritual mother," he said, almost bereft of
strength, and breathing with difficulty, "that you have come close to the Lord, and
that the greater part of you is dead to this world. More than anything else it is
obvious that grace has been given to you, in that you called me by name whom you
have never seen before. And, you know, grace is given to people not according to
their status, but according to the capacity of their souls to receive it. So then, you
give the blessing in the sight of God, and offer the prayer in accordance with your
state of perfection.
She was overcome by the way the holy old man stood firm.
"Blessed be the Lord, who brings about the salvation of souls," she said.
"Amen", said Zosimas, and they both got up from the ground.
"Why, abba," she asked, "have you sought this poor sinner out? But perhaps the
grace of the holy Spirit has guided you here so that you may do me some service
suitable to my bodily weakness, so tell me, how do the Christian congregations fare
today? How do the Emperors go on? How is the flock of the holy Church being fed?"
"Mother, God has blessed your holy prayers by giving us peace and stability, but
provide some comfort also for this unworthy monk, and pray not only for the whole
world but for me a sinner, that my laborious journey and pilgrimage may be blessed
by some of the fruits gained from your way of such great solitude."
"Abba Zosima, you have been given the honour of priesthood, as I said before, and
so it is your task to pray for all people and for me, for it is to that that you have
been called. However since we are bound to be obedient, I will agree to do what you
So saying she turned to the East, and lifting up her hands and eyes to heaven she
prayed almost silently, her lips moving but her voice so quiet that it could not be
understood what she was saying. Zosimas kept on standing, however, unable to
catch the words of her prayer. He was trembling, eyes downcast, saying nothing. But
when he realised that her prayer was going on and on, he ventured to raise his eyes
from the ground a little, and he swears, God being his witness, that he saw her lifted
up about a cubit's length from the ground, hanging in the air as she prayed. This
sight absolutely terrified him, and he threw himself on the ground, bathed in sweat,
panic-stricken, not daring to say anything except 'Lord have mercy on me!'
Lying there on the ground, his mind became filled with a suspicion that this was
really a spirit, and that the prayer was a pretence. But the woman turned towards
him and pulled him to his feet.
"Why are you getting so worried and suspicious in your mind, abba," she said,
"thinking that I am a spirit and that my prayer is a pretence? Be assured that I am
only a little female sinner, albeit blessed by sacred Baptism. I am no spirit, but dust
and ashes, flesh completely, and no spiritual phantasy has ever taken possession of
my mind," and she signed herself with the cross on her forehead, eyes, lips and
"May God keep us safe, abba Zosimas," she continued, "from the attacks and
hostility of the devil, for his spite towards us is great."
The old man prostrated himself and grasped her feet.
"I beg you, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who deigned to be born of a virgin,"
he said through his tears, "tell me how it is that you came to go naked in this place,
and how you have chastised your body. Don't miss out anything - who you are, where
you came from, when you came here, why you have made this wilderness your home.
Tell me everything about you, that the mighty works of God may be made manifest.
Wisdom that is hidden and treasure that is hoarded up, what profit is there in either
of them (Ecclesiasticus 20.30)? Tell me everything for the sake of the Lord. You
won't be saying anything by way of boasting or ostentation, but simply in order to
satisfy me an unworthy sinner. I believe that the God for whom you live and in whom
you have your being has guided me here into this wilderness for this very purpose, to
bring out into the open everything about you. It is not right for us to resist the
judgments of God. If it had not been acceptable to Christ our Lord for you and your
strivings to become known, he would not have allowed you to be seen by anyone,
and he would not have given me the strength to make this journey. I would not have
succeeded in getting here, I would never even have been able to leave my cell."
The woman again pulled him to his feet.
"Forgive me, abba," she said, "I should be ashamed to tell you all the disgraceful
things I have done. But since you have seen my naked body I shall lay bare my
deeds also, that you may know how full my soul is of shameful lust and disreputable
confusion. As you have realised, I have no desire to tell my story for the sake of
gaining glory. What have I got to glory in? I was simply the devil's chosen vessel. If
I do tell you my story I believe you will want to get as far away from me as possible,
as you would from a serpent in front of you, because of my outrageous deeds, such
that you would want to prevent your ears from hearing. But I will tell you, omitting
nothing, but telling you the whole truth, begging only that you will not cease from
praying for me that I may find mercy in the day of judgment."
And the old man felt the tears rising, and he wept. And the woman began to tell her
"I was born in Egypt, father. In a fit of rebellion against my parents, who were both
at that time still alive, I went to Alexandria at the age of twelve. I blush to tell you
about how I lost my virginity there, and how I gave myself up to a life of unending
and insatiable lust. That would be rather a long story, but I mention it to start off
with, so that you may understand the insatiable eagerness with which I indulged a
love of vice. For seventeen years and more I carried on publicly adding fuel to the fire
of my lust. I didn't accept payment for losing my virginity; I have never accepted
money from anyone who wanted to pay me. It was just that I was on fire with such a
burning eagerness for sex that it was easier for me to get it if I did not charge for
the satisfaction of my wicked and disgusting desires. And don't think that that I did
not ask for payment because I had plenty of money. I lived either by begging or
quite often by spinning flax. But my desires, as I have said, were insatiable, so I
wallowed in an unending sea of filth. And I enjoyed it. I thought that was real life, if
only I could go on indefinitely doing injury to my own nature.
"As I was in the middle of living this sort of life, one summer I saw a crowd of
Libyans and Egyptians gathering at the harbour. I approached a passer by and asked
him where they were all hurrying off to.
"'They are all going to Jerusalem,' he replied, 'for the feast of the Exaltation of the
Holy Cross, which is due in a few days' time.' [This feast was held in commemoration
of the dedication by the Emperor Constantine in 335 of a basilica on the site of the
Holy Sepulchre, not to be confused with the later feast of the same name still held
on September 14, celebrating the exposition of the supposed true cross at Jerusalem
in 629 by the emperor Heraclius after his recovery of it from the Persians into whose
hands it had fallen in 614]
"'Would they take me with them, do you think, if I wanted to go?'
"'No one could stop you if you had your passage money.'
"'To tell you the truth, brother, I have neither passage money nor living expenses.
But I will board this ship that is taking them there, anyway. If they want to put me
off I will offer them myself. They might well accept the idea of having my body as
fare for the passage.'
"Besides which I fancied the idea of going with them because of the opportunities it
would give me (forgive me, father) of being able to indulge my passions with as
many people as possible."
"I hope you will forgive me for what I have told you so far, father. Don't ask me to
tell you any more about my mixed up life. God knows it makes me tremble. What I
have been saying pollutes the very air."
"For the sake of God, mother," replied Zosimas, as he watered the ground with his
tears, "keep on talking. Don't miss anything out from the rest of this story of
So she continued with what she had been saying:
"The youth to whom I had been talking just laughed and turned away. I threw away
the spindle I was carrying (I had chosen to have been doing some spinning at that
time), and hurried down to the quayside, where I saw about ten young men standing
on the shore, strong and healthy-looking, and what was more to my liking obviously
well off. There were others like that also who had already boarded the ship. In my
usual cheeky manner I stepped up into the midst of them and made them a
"'How about taking me with you where you are going? You won't find me unable to
"With a few other obscene suggestions I reduced them all to laughter. They took a
good look at my shameless manner and accepted me with them into the ship.
"O man of God, how can I tell you of all our doings after we had set sail? What
tongue could tell, or ear desire to hear, the deeds done during our journey on that
ship, or how I persuaded many poor wretches to do things even when they did not
really want to? I can't tell you all the unspeakable ways in which I coached them in
pornographic evil. Believe me, I am astonished, now, that the sea did not revolt
against my unbridled lusts, or that the earth did not open up and swallow me alive
into hell, for having led so many other souls down into death. All I can think is that
God, who wants no one to perish but desires all to be saved (1 Timothy 2.4),
intended repentance for me. For he desires not the death of a sinner but rather that
he should turn from his wickedness and live (Ezekiel 18.23).
"We soon arrived in Jerusalem, several days before the celebration of the feast in
that city, and we passed the time in similar disreputable activities, or even worse -
for not content with my companions in crime on board ship during the journey I drew
many other pilgrims and citizens into the pollution of my wicked deeds."
"When the day came for the celebration of the exaltation of the precious and sacred
cross, I was still in the process of seducing and soiling the souls of the young men.
However, when I saw everyone with one accord going at dawn to the church, I went
along too, flowing with the tide, and we all came at last into the courtyard of the
church. When the time for the exaltation of the divine cross came, I pushed forward,
and was pushed forward from behind, but was somehow or other unable to make
much progress as I tried to get into the church with the rest of the people. I had
great difficulty in getting near the door. When at last I did get there and tried to
enter, some divine power prevented me, although everyone else went in unhindered.
I was repulsed, thrown out and driven back, and I found myself standing in the
courtyard alone. Thinking that perhaps it was because of my woman's weakness that
this was happening, I tried once more to join the others by forcing myself forward to
go in, but it was all in vain.
"As soon as my feet touched the threshold, I alone was unable to go any further,
unlike the rest of the crowd who went in without any difficulty. It was as if some
armed force had been charged with the responsibility of denying me access, a sudden
force drove me back, and again I found myself back in the courtyard. A third and a
fourth time I tried, but with no success, until I despaired of ever being able to get
there, besides which my body was badly bruised by the pressure brought to bear
"I retreated, and stood in a corner of the church courtyard, scarcely able to make any
sense in my mind of why it was that I was prevented from seeing the life-giving
cross, when a saving thought suddenly touched my mind and heart, and I recognised
that it was all the squalid wickedness of my deeds that was preventing me from
entering in. I was shaken to the core, and wept, and beat my breast, sighing deeply
from the bottom of my heart. As I groaned and sobbed, my eyes fell upon an image
of the holy birthgiver of God above the place where I was standing. I turned towards
her and reached out purposefully to her.
"'Lady virgin,' I cried, 'who gave birth to God according to the flesh, my eyes have
been so polluted by filth that I know it cannot be right and proper for me to
contemplate your image and adore you. You must have always known that you were
a chaste virgin, immaculate in body and soul. It would be only right if you were to
abominate me in my lustfulness, and thrust me out of the presence of your most
immaculate purity and chastity. But I have heard that God was able to become
human because you alone were worthy to give him birth, that sinners may be called
"'Come to my aid! I am alone with no one to help me. Take my confession to your
heart. Open the doorway to the church and give me permission to enter in, so that I
may not be excluded from the sight of the precious cross to which was fixed our
God-in-human-form. You, a virgin, conceived him and gave him birth. He gave his
blood to win my freedom. O Lady, I know I am unworthy, but I beg you open the door
that I may come into the presence of the cross of the Lord, and I swear a most
solemn oath to you who were found worthy to give birth to Christ that I will never
again let my flesh sink into a horrid mess of promiscuity. From the moment I set
eyes on the cross of your son, O holy Virgin, I renounce the world and all its works
and everything in it, and in fulfilment of my oath I will immediately go wherever you
"As I spoke, a feeling of warmth, which I could only believe came from the
compassionate heart of the birthgiver of God, reassured me that my faith was
accepted. I moved from the place where I had been praying and joined those who
were going in to the church. This time there was nothing driving me back, nothing to
prevent me approaching the doorway to the church. I was seized by an ecstatic
trembling which shook every bone in my body. I came to the doorway which I had
been prevented from entering before, and went in without the slightest hindrance. It
felt as if the same power which barred my entrance beforehand was now actively
working to draw me in.
"And so I found myself in the holy of holies, and was found worthy to adore the
mystery of the precious and life-giving wood of the cross. And then I understood the
promises of God, and what he had done to make the acceptance of sinners possible.
I threw myself down and kissed the holy ground, then came out and ran back to
stand before her who had given me faith. In the very place where I had sworn my
solemn oath I bent the knee before the face of the holy Virgin birth-giver of God and
poured out my prayer to her.
"'O most gentle Lady, you are always ready to show forth your loving mercy. You
have not despised my unworthy prayers. I have seen a glory which sinners do not
deserve to see, the glory of the almighty God who accepts through you the penitence
of sinners. What more can I, a miserable sinner, put on record and describe? The
time has come to fulfil what I have promised; may my faith be acceptable to your
"'Now, tell me where you want me to go. Be a saving guide to me and lead me into
truth. Go before me in the way which leads to penitence.'
"And I heard a voice as of someone crying out a long way off,
"'If you cross the Jordan you will find an answer to your prayer'.
"Listening to the voice, I believed that it came especially for my benefit, and in tears
I cried aloud to the image of the birthgiver of God.
"'O Lady, Lady, Queen of all the world, through whom salvation came to the human
race, never let me go from your care.'
"I left the church courtyard and hurried off, and as I was going someone saw me and
gave me three nummi, saying 'Please take these, lady', which I did and bought three
loaves with them. I took it that they were given to me by way of a blessing on my
pilgrimage. I asked the man selling the bread the way to the Jordan, and he directed
me to the city gate leading in that direction, and I went on my way weeping tears of
"I walked on for the rest of the day. It had been about the third hour that I was
found worthy to see the precious, holy cross; it was only as the sun was beginning to
set that the church of the blessed John Baptist came into view by the side of the
Jordan. I went in to the church to pray, and them immediately went down to the
Jordan where I washed my hands and face in its holy waters. I received the
life-giving and spotless Sacrament of Christ the Lord in that aforesaid Basilica of the
Forerunner, John Baptist, ate half of one of my loaves, drank water from the Jordan,
and slept on the ground for the night. By the light of the dawn I crossed over to the
other side, and again begged my guide to direct me where she would. And so that is
how I came to be in this wilderness. From that day to this I have fled far away,
waiting on my God who can save both small and great who turn to him."
"How many years, mother," said Zosimas, "have you been living in this wilderness?"
"I reckon it is forty-seven years since I left the holy city."
"But what have you found to eat?"
"I had two and a half loaves with me when I crossed the Jordan, which after a while
dried up and became as hard as stone, but I passed some years eating them bit by
"And how have you managed to live for a such a long time without coming to grief?
Have you not suffered from the weather with all its sudden changes of temperature?"
"Oh, don't ask me about things which I would tremble to speak about. If I were to
enumerate all the dangers I have endured or the thoughts which have beset me on
every side, the very memory of them would, I fear, cause me great distress."
"Don't hide anything from me, mother. Tell me everything. Now that I have met you,
you are brought out into the open, and it would be only right for you to enlighten us
without holding anything back."
"Believe me, abba, for seventeen years I struggled with the wild beasts of my
irrational longings. When taking a little food I longed for meat, remembering with
regret the meat and fish which I used to eat in Egypt. I longed for the wine that I
used to love so much, for I used to enjoy a lot of wine and drank it often just to get
drunk. My desire for it was just as great as it had been before I left the world. Here,
however, I often had hardly any water, and burned with thirst, and was at risk for the
lack of it. I was filled with a longing for all the bawdy songs which I had learned in
the world. They troubled my mind and filled it with a desire to sing all those songs of
the devil. And then with tears and beatings of my breast I would recall to mind the
oath I had sworn as I entered this wilderness. I would stand in thought before that
image of the holy birthgiver of God, who bore me up by her faith. I would beg her to
drive out the thoughts afflicting my most miserable soul. After an overwhelming bout
of weeping and beating of my breast I became aware of a light surrounding me on all
sides and at once I became somehow stable and serene.
"As for all the thoughts of fornication which oppressed me again, how can I tell you
about them? Forgive me, father. A raging fire inwardly set my whole body alight,
burning in every part of me, dragging me down with a desire for sex. When these
thoughts filled my mind I would prostrate myself, and flood the ground with my
tears, hoping that she who accepted my oath would truly stand before me. In my
raging madness I felt threatened with the punishment due to anyone who broke
faith. The imminent penalty for treachery was to be put to death at the point of the
sword. And I would never rise from the ground until that most gentle light illumined
me as before, and put to flight the thoughts which had been troubling me. Always,
unceasingly, I lifted up the eyes of my heart to my protector, begging her to help me
in my solitude and penitence. And always she who gave birth to the source of all
chastity has been my helper and guide. And so for seventeen years I lived through
many a contest (and even today I am still beset by many dangers). But from then
on, the birthgiver of God has been the constant helper by my side, guiding me
through all and in all."
"But did not you not have any food and clothing?"
"Well, I spun those loaves out over seventeen years, as I told you, after which I ate
what herbs I could find in this wilderness. The clothes I was wearing when I crossed
the Jordan eventually wore out and fell to pieces with old age. I had no choice but to
bear with icy cold and summer heat. I was burned to ashes by the heat of summer,
and shivered and froze in the times of terrible frost and cold. Often I would lie
the ground with all the life knocked out of me, beset by a mountain of various
demands and temptations.
"But through it all, in all sorts of ways, the power of God has kept my miserable body
and soul together right up to this present moment. When I think of all the evils that
the Lord has freed me from, I know that I have been fed by the food which does not
perish (John 6.27); the hope of salvation which I possess is a feast which completely
satisfies. I am fed and clothed by the covering of the word of God in whom all things
consist. Man does not live by bread alone (Deuteronomy 83 & Matthew 4.4), but
those who have not so much as a hole in the earth to hide in, [Rosweyde notes that
this phrase is a quotation from Job, ch 24, according to the Septuagint, which
explains the reference to Mary's knowledge of Job at the beginning of Chapter XX,
below] and who have stripped off the covering of sin from themselves, are
surrounded by the protection of the Lord."
Zosimas wondered at the way she used scriptural quotations from the books of
Moses, Job and the Psalms.
"So you have read the Psalms, mother," he asked, "and other books of the sacred
She gave a little smile.
"You must believe me that up to today I have not set eyes on any other human
being since I crossed the Jordan, nor wild beast or any other sort of animal since the
time I came to live in this wilderness. I never learnt to read at any time of my life,
nor have I ever heard anyone singing psalms or reading the Scriptures. But the Word
of God is alive and powerful, penetrating to the depths of the human mind (Hebrews
"But this is the end of my story. And by the incarnation of the Word of God, I beg
you to pray for me in my lustfulness."
The old man lost no time in bending the knee and prostrating himself.
"Blessed be the Lord God who alone does great marvels (Psalms 72.18)," he cried
aloud, "glorious and stupendous things without number. Blessed are you, Lord God,
who have showed me how you shower your gifts upon those who fear you (Psalms
31.19). Truly you have not hid yourself from those who seek you."
But she reached out to him, unwilling to let him prostrate himself before her.
"In the name of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, I charge you to tell no one what
you have heard from me until such time as I am loosed from the bond of mortal
flesh. If you are happy to agree to that, I will appear to you again in a year's time
from now, and you will see me, by God's all-enveloping grace. And for the sake of the
Lord, do what I am now asking you to do; don't cross over the Jordan at the time of
the sacred fast next year, as is the custom of the monastery."
Zosimas was astounded to hear her talking about the rules of the monastery as if
she knew everything there was to know about them - another thing which proclaimed
the glory of God, who ever gives more than those who love him ask for.
"Stay in the monastery, abba, as I have asked," she said. "You won't be able to
leave it even if you want to. On the evening of the feast of the most sacred Supper
of the Lord, place a portion of the divine body and life-giving blood in a vessel
suitable for such a great mystery, [In the Orthodox tradition Communion is still given
to the faithful by a spoon from a chalice in which the bread has been mingled with
the wine] and wait for me on your side of the Jordan, where I shall come to receive
the life-giving gifts. Before I crossed the Jordan I received Communion in the church
of the most blessed Forerunner, since when I have never communicated again, never
shared in these sanctifying gifts. So I beg you, don't reject my request, don't fail to
bring me the divine and live-giving mysteries in that hour when the Lord shared his
divine supper with his disciples. You will have to tell this to John, the abbot of the
monastery. Look to yourself and your own flock - there is much that needs
amendment. But I don't want you to say anything of this to John until the Lord
So saying, she asked for a prayer from the old man, and ran off quickly into the inner
Zosimas prostrated himself and kissed the ground on which her feet had stood, and
giving glory and great thanksgiving to God he turned back, praising and blessing
Jesus Christ our Lord and God.
He lived out the remainder of his journey into the desert and when he returned to
the monastery he joined in their accustomed routine. He said nothing for the whole
of the year, not daring to say anything about what he had witnessed, but he longed
to gaze upon her face once more and kept on praying to God silently that this would
again be granted to him. He sighed at how slowly the year seemed to pass.
When the first Sunday of the sacred fast came round again, all the others went out
singing psalms in the usual way, but he was suffering from a slight fever, and had to
stay behind in the monastery. Zosimas remembered how that holy woman had said
to him, 'You won't be able to leave it even if you want to'. He recovered from his
sickness after a few days, but stayed in the monastery. When the brothers all
returned for the feast of the Lord's Supper he did as he had been asked. He put a
portion of the spotless body and precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in a small
chalice and packed a basket containing a few figs and dates and some lentils
steeped in water. Late in the evening he went down to the banks of the Jordan
where he sat down waiting for the holy woman to arrive. Although that blessed
woman was a long time coming, he did not go to sleep, but gazed into the desert,
longing to see her.
"Perhaps she has already come and gone away again, not finding me here," he
wondered, and wept. He lifted his eyes up to heaven and prayed to God.
"You allowed me to see her once. Do not prevent me from seeing her again. Let me
not go away unrewarded, cursed as a punishment for my sins."
As he prayed thus in tears, other thoughts came into his mind.
"Suppose she does come, what will she do? How will she cross the Jordan, seeing
there is no ferry? She won't be able to come over to me, wretch that I am! Alas, how
unfortunate I am! Alas, who can have prevented her appearing to me?"
As he was going over all these things in his mind, behold, she appeared! There she
was, standing on the other side of the river. Zosimas was delighted at seeing her,
and he rejoiced and glorified God. But then the thought that she would not be able
to cross the river came back into his mind. However as he looked closely he saw her
making the sign of the cross over the waters of the Jordan. The darkness of night
was lit up by the splendour of the moon, which was at the full at that time. As soon
as she had made the sign of the cross she stepped into the water and walked across
the top of it as if it were dry land. Zosimas was awe-struck., and made as if to
prostrate himself, but she cried out to prevent him.
"What do you think you are doing, abba! You are a priest and you are carrying the
At once he obeyed, and she came up out of the waters.
"Bless, father, bless," she said.
He hastened to comply, although he had been rendered almost speechless by the
effect of such a glorious miracle.
"God has promised that the pure shall be like him," he said, "and truly God does not
lie. Glory to Christ our God. Through your handmaid you have shown me how far short
of true perfection my own thoughts have been."
The woman asked him to say the Creed and the Lord's prayer. When it was finished
she offered the old man the kiss of peace, as is customary, and then received the
gift of the life-giving mysteries.
"Now, O Lord, let your servant depart in peace," she cried, as she sighed, wept and
raised her hands to heaven, "for my eyes have seen your salvation."
And to the old man she said,
"Forgive me abba, but I hope you will fulfil another request for me. Go back to your
monastery, secure in the peace of God, but next year come through the river and
journey to the place where you first spoke with me. Above all, don't forget, but come
for the sake of God, and you shall see me again, as God wills."
"I wish I could come with you," he exclaimed, "just to have the joy of gazing at your
wonderful face. But please, mother, grant one little request to an old man and accept
this food I have brought with me."
And he showed her the basket he had brought. With the tips of her fingers she
picked up three grains of the lentils and ate them, saying that the grace of the Spirit
was sufficient to keep her soul alive.
"Pray for me, in the name of the Lord," she said to him, "and be mindful always of
He touched her holy feet and prayed in tears, begging her also to pray for the Church
and the Emperor and for himself, and so let her go, with tears and crying. Indeed, he
did not dare try and detain her any longer, for he knew he would not be able to even
if he wanted to.
She once again signed the Jordan with the cross, and walked back across the water
in the same way as she had come. The old man went back, overflowing with a
mixture of joy and fear. And he regretfully reproached himself that he had not asked
her what her name was, but hoped he might do so when they met in the following
After the year had run its course, everything was done as usual, and he went into
that vast desert, hastening to the place where he had first seen that glorious sight.
But as he walked through the desert he could not find any signs of how to find the
place he wanted. He looked right and left and glanced about everywhere, surveying
the scene like a swift hunter searching for the sight of a favourable prey. But he
could see no sign of any movement anywhere, and he began to be overcome by tears.
"Show me, O Lord, I pray," he said, lifting up his eyes, "the physical presence of your
Angel, above compare in all the world."
After that prayer, he came immediately upon the place which looked like a raging
river, and as he looked down on to the far side he saw a shining light, and the body
of the holy woman lying dead, facing towards the East, with her hands crossed in the
proper way. He ran down and bathed the feet of that most blessed woman with his
tears, not daring to touch any other part of her body. He wept for some time, and
sang the psalms proper to such an occasion, and said the prayers for the dead.
"I hope this is what the holy woman would have wished me to do," he mused, but
hardly had he said this when he noticed some writing scratched in the sand.
"Abba Zosimas, give burial to the body of Mary, miserable sinner, and pray for me in
the name of the Lord. The month of Pharmuthi, according to the Egyptians,
[Pharmuthi was the eighth month of the Egyptian year which began on the 29th of
April with the month of Thoth] April according to the Romans, on the ninth day, that
is five days before the April Ides, at the time of the sacred passion, after receiving
the communion of the divine and sacred supper."
As the old man read these words his first thought was who could have written them,
for she had said that she had never learned to read. But at the same time he was
overjoyed that he had learned her holy name. Then he thought how she must have
arrived at this place to die at exactly the same hour as she had partaken of the
mysteries at the river Jordan. The journey which had taken Zosimas twenty laborious
days, she had accomplished in less than an hour before passing at once to the Lord!
Zosimas glorified the Lord and washed the body with his tears.
"It is time to do what has to be done," he said. "But what shall I do? Unfortunately I
have nothing to dig with. I have neither mattock nor hoe, nothing but my hands."
But even as he spoke he saw a piece of timber lying nearby and he began to dig with
that. The earth was terribly hard and resisted all his efforts to dig into it. The task
was not made any easier by his weakness after fasting, not to mention the fatigue
brought on by his long journey. But he laboured on, with great long sighs, covered in
sweat, and groaning deeply from the bottom of his heart. Suddenly he became aware
of a huge lion standing near the holy woman's body licking her feet. He trembled
with fear at the sight of how big this wild beast was, especially since he remembered
that the holy woman had told him that she had never seen any wild beasts in those
parts. He summoned up his courage and signed himself all over with the cross,
believing also that the power of the one lying there would protect him from harm.
The lion looked in his direction and bowed its head several times
"Since an animal so extremely large as you has been sent by God," Zosimas then
said to the lion, "let us do what is required of us and commit the body of this servant
of God to the ground. I am so weakened by old age that I cannot dig, and in any
case I have not got any tool suitable for such work, besides which I have just made
such a long journey that I have not got the strength to bring to the task. It is for you
to carry out this task with your claws at God's command, so that we can commit to
the ground this holy little body."
Immediately, in response to the old man's words, the lion hollowed out the ground
with his paws to a sufficient depth to bury the saint's small body. He washed her
feet with his tears, pouring forth many prayers that she might pray for all people and
especially for him, and with the lion standing by, laid her body in the ground as
naked as the day he first met her. She possessed nothing except the cloak he had
taken off and thrown to her, with which she had covered her body.
They both then departed, the lion to the inner desert, as gentle as a lamb, and
Zosimas, blessing and praising God and singing hymns to Christ our Lord, back to the
monastery, where he told them the whole story right from the beginning. He missed
nothing out of what he had seen and heard, so that everyone who heard about these
mighty works of God might be filled with wonder and fear and love, and celebrate
with great faith the passing to God of this most blessed saint. Abbot John took heed
of what the holy woman had said and found that there were some monks who were
lacking, whom by the mercy of the Lord God he corrected in their ways.
Zosimas stayed in that same monastery and reached the age of a hundred before
departing to the Lord in peace. Thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ, together with the
Father and the life-giving and worshipful Spirit, to whom be all glory and honour and
power, now and always, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
|The Life of St Mary of Egypt
|by Sophronius, bishop of Jerusalem [A Syrian from Damascus who became bishop of Jerusalem in 634]
translated into Latin from the Greek by Paul, deacon of the church of Naples