Saint Mary of Egypt: an Angel of the Desert

After leading a sinful life, Saint Mary of Egypt was touched by grace in an unusual way, converted, and lived in isolation, subjecting herself to the most austere penance.

Newsdesk (July 1, 2021 11:56, Gaudium Press) At the time when Saint Augustine enlightened humanity with his wisdom, there was a repentant sinner who, by her enormous penances, deeply marked the history of the Church, such was Saint Mary of Egypt.

47 years in the wilderness

She was born in a town in Egypt and at the age of 12 moved to Alexandria where she led a life of sin for 17 years.

One day, she managed to board a ship, free of charge, that left for Jerusalem. There she went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but could not enter because she was repelled by a mysterious force. Twenty times she made the attempt, but was prevented from entering while all the other people were peacefully entering the temple.

Realizing that this was a consequence of her sinful life, she returned to the inn and, before an image of Our Lady, she knelt down, shed tears and promised to renounce the world and live in chastity.

The next day, she entered the church without any impediment, went to confession and received communion. And while adoring the Holy Cross, she heard a voice recommending her to cross the Jordan River and go into the desert, in order to lead a life of prayer and penance.

Mary crossed this river and settled in the desert, where she lived for 47 years. For the first 17 years she was assailed by terrible temptations, which she resisted valiantly, strengthened by the graces obtained through the Blessed Virgin. Finally, these violent temptations ceased.


Meeting with an Ancient and Holy Monk

Thirty years later, one day, an old and holy monk named Zozimus, walking through those regions, came across a woman, emaciated and tanned by the sun, and asked her who she was and where she came from. She replied:

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“Father, forgive me, but if I reveal to you who I am you will flee as at the sight of a serpent, your ears will be stained by my words and you will be defiled by my impurity. My name is Mary and I was born in Egypt.”

She then told her story. At the end of the narrative, the old man prostrated himself and blessed God. She then said to him:

“Listen to what I am going to ask of you: on Easter Day, cross the Jordan again, bringing with you a consecrated Host. I will wait at the shore and receive from your hands the Body of the Lord, for I have not taken communion since I came here.”

She walked on the waters of the Jordan River

The old man returned to his monastery and, on the solemnity of Easter, went to the Jordan carrying the Holy Eucharist with him.

When he reached the river, he saw the penitent woman on the other bank and made the Sign of the Cross over the water. Miraculously, she walked on the water and reached the monk. The monk, amazed, wanted to prostrate at her feet, but Mary said to him:

“My father, beware of prostrating yourselves before me, especially now that you are carrying the Body of Christ! But please deign to come back next year.”

The next year he went to the Jordan, but did not find her on the other bank. He crossed the river and went to the place where he had first seen her. And there he found her dead, lying on the sand. So he wept bitterly and dared not touch her remains.

And while he was thinking how to bury her, he read this inscription on the sand:

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“Zozimus, bury my body, give my ashes to the earth, and ask the Lord for me, for I was delivered from the world on the second day of April.” It was the year 421.

So the old man opened a grave for her, being aided miraculously by a lion that appeared there. He buried her and returned to the monastery glorifying God. [1]

Pulchritude of the contrast between sin and penance

Regarding these wonderful facts, Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira comments:

“Let us consider the pulchritude of the contrast here established between sin and penance. She was a terrible sinner, a woman who for 17 years had lived in the worst of situations. […]

“Knowing that there would be a feast in Jerusalem, she travels out of curiosity and arrives at the church; then to the notion of sin – of sin blatant and with its hideousness – is opposed the vision of a God who is thrice holy and who has a horror of sin.

“For twenty times it seeks to enter the church, but an invisible force prevents it: it is God, infinitely pure, infinitely holy who, having a horror of sin, does not want the presence of the tainted sinner in his sanctuary.

“However, there is at the same time the grace and mercy of God. She returns to the inn and then begins to come to her senses in the solitude of her room. […]

“Providentially there is an effigy of Our Lady in her room; Mary Egyptian then meets the Mother of Mercy and the Gate of Heaven, prays for forgiveness, and is invited to an extraordinary penance: she withdraws completely from men and goes to do one of those frightening penances. […] She crosses the Jordan River and puts herself in a desert, where she spends 47 years without seeing anyone.

“Then her sinful beauty fades in the sun; she is toasted, black, caustic, hardened, her garments fall away like rags. She is continually praying, in a solitude filled with God’s love.

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“In a first phase Mary had temptations, but then the temptations withdraw and she is left doing a penance that is more the penance of innocence than that of sin. […] And God wanted her, before she died, to receive that supreme proof of reconciliation: Communion.

A lion helps dig the grave

“Then it happens that a holy man – a man as was common in those days: with a white beard, all dressed in black, with a long, pointed hood, holding a staff – goes walking through the desert […] and sees her. […]

“Saint Mary of Egypt is so elevated in the love of God that in order to receive Communion she walks on water. God has forgiven all, forgotten all, made Himself completely love for her, who lives in the most intimate union with divine grace imaginable.

“The following year, the holy man returns and she is not on the riverbank. He crosses the Jordan and finds her body lying on the ground; on the sand she wrote a few words, recommending him to bury her.

“To the funerals of this kind of Angel of the desert comes the king of the desert. […] The holy old man and the lion dig the grave, in which she is placed. […]

“We must ask her to give us not only a true contrition of our sins, but a contrition in peace, without scruples; a truly holy contrition that will bring our souls closer to Our Lady.” [2]

By Paulo Francisco Martos


[1] Cf. VARAZZE, Jacopo de. La Légende Dorée. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion. 1967, v. I, p. 284-286.

[2] CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Santa Maria Egipcíaca, exemplo de contrição. In revista Dr. Plinio. São Paulo. Ano XV, n. 169 (abril 2012), p. 22-25.


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