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 divinity."
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 ask me."
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 breast.
"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 story.
"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 salvation."
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 proposition.
"'How about taking me with you where you are going? You won't find me unable to please.'
"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 upon me.
"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 to repent.
"'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 lead me.'
"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 loving faithfulness.
"'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 joy.
"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 bit."
"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 motionless on
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