Life No 23
Chapter XIV (continued), Life of Pelagia, Book 1d
(Also St Mary of Egypt further down this page
when that face which had once been of such marvellous beauty had withered away through severe fasting, and her eyes were sunken in her cheeks?
"What have your come for, brother?" she asked.
"My bishop, Nonnus, told me to seek you out," I replied. "He told me to ask you to pray for him for you are a true saint of God."
Pelagius immediately shut the window and began to sing the third hour. I joined in the prayer from the other side of the wall, and went away quite uplifted by having seen such an angel. Returning to Jerusalem, I began to visit the monasteries and make the acquaintance of the brothers.
Brother Pelagius had a great reputation in the monasteries, such that I decided to visit him again in order to have the benefit of his teaching. I went back and knocked on his window, and even presumed to call out to him by name, but there was no response. I did the same the next day and the day after, calling out to Pelagius by name, but no one answered. I said to myself that either there was no one there at all, or else that the monk who was there had departed this life. Inspired by a nudge from God, I began to think that I really should take seriously the possibility that he was dead, so I pushed open his little window and looked inside. I could see that he was indeed dead. I shut the window and tried to make the best I could of the situation by going back to Jerusalem bearing the news that the holy monk Pelagius, worker of miracles, was dead.
The holy fathers, together with monks from various monasteries, came and opened up the cell and brought the holy body outside with as much care as if it were gold or precious stones. As soon as the holy fathers began to anoint the body with myrrh they of course discovered that it was a woman. They tried to keep such a wonderful thing secret but it proved impossible to hide it from the people, who cried out loudly, "Glory to our Lord Jesus Christ who has hidden so many riches upon earth, not only among men but also among women". As the news spread further among all the people, all the monasteries of virgins came from Jericho as well as from Jordan where the Lord was baptised, carrying tapers and torches and singing hymns, following the holy fathers who were carrying the holy body to its final resting place.
So there you have the life of this harlot, a holy life of one who had been without hope. May the Lord have mercy upon her and upon us in the day of judgment, for to him belong honour and glory, power and majesty unto the ages of ages. Amen.
The Life of St Mary of Egypt
[Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on April 2. Rosweyde suggests she died during the reign of the Eastern Emperor Justin II, 565 - 578. An American parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, dedicated to St Mary of Egypt (www.stmaryofegypt.org), has a website which gives her date of death as 522.] 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
Preface of Paul the deacon
To our most glorious and most celebrated Lord, King Charles. [Charles I, King of Naples 1266 - 1285]
In the knowledge that your most glorious majesty delights in divine wisdom and in the exemplary lives of outstanding saints, I offer to you, my lord, this little book about the conversion of St Mary of Egypt, along with a book about the penitence of a certain deputy governor which was formerly lost, but which in obedience to your commands I have now restored. It has been my task and my pleasure not only to provide the story of remarkable matters, but also to add other things worthy of note, namely the venerable decisions and acts of the leaders of the Roman Church, with the worthy use of which your Majesty is well acquainted. [Rosweyde himself professes ignorance of what these matters refer to!] Your servant has undertaken to produce this brief compendium in order that your serenity, burdened by affairs of state, with no leisure for studying a great number of books, may be able to have a convenient summary of church customs in handbook form. I do know that you, my lord, make it part of your kingly care always to have a particular regard for appealing to unimpeachable authority in everything that you say and do, so that you diligently learn and enquire what is to be retained in divine worship and what is to be rejected. It is to be hoped therefore that this little book of divinity which I have put together may be a help to you in your task of elucidation which you carry out so assiduously, and that you may be able to bring everything to a successful outcome.
It is good to conceal the secrets of a king, but honourable to make known and celebrate the works of God (Tobias 12.7). So said the Angel to Tobias after his father's blindness turned into glorious illumination, and after his deliverance from all sorts of dangers developed his devotion to God. For it is indeed harmful and dangerous to reveal the secrets of a king, but harmful to the soul to keep silent about the glorious works of God. I was hesitating about whether I dared speak about the things of God, but I feared to incur the same judgement as that pronounced against the slothful servant who received a talent from his lord and hid it in the ground instead of putting it to work by trading. So therefore I can in no way remain silent on the subject of this holy tale which I now offer to you. And let no one be incredulous of the things I am going to write about, or think that I am lying because of their extraordinary nature. Far be it from me to lie about holy things, or adulterate accounts of what God has done.
But I do not anticipate any danger from anyone of little intelligence, who unworthily belittles the greatness of the God who took human flesh, and does not believe those who tell of such things. If there is anyone like that who reads what I have written and refuses to give credence to such a glorious marvel, may the Lord have mercy on him and make him capable of understanding words of holiness, lest when he is shown any of the miracles which God has prepared for his elect, he thinks that the glorious things which are told about those holy people are impossible, simply because he cannot imagine anything higher than the weakness of his own human nature.
It is with that in mind that I take up this story about something which I have learned has happened in our own time, as told by a holy man well versed in being able to understand and teach about the things of God. As we have said, let no one be incredulous, or think that it is impossible for such great miracles to occur in our generation, for the grace of God is given to holy souls in all generations, inspiring the prophets and other friends of God, as Solomon himself has said (Wisdom 7.27).
It is time to begin my sacred story, the story of the great and courageous battle of the venerable Mary of Egypt, carried out through the extent of her life.
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 with that Zosimas accused of teaching the erroneous doctrines of another sect. 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 thoughts.
"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 him.
"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 conversation.
"Where are you from, brother?" asked the abbot. "And why have you come to visit us humble monks?"
"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 shoulders.
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.
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