Painting Depicting Mary of Egypt's Burial

31 Days of Revolutionary Women, #02: Mary of Egypt

By Nancy Melvin

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be posting one story each day of March written by local citizen journalists about a revolutionary woman from history or today who has inspired them as women.

Every era has champions, even if we have never heard of them or their stories come to us encased in prejudice. Some rethinking is in order to hear the story of Mary of Egypt anew. She survived years alone in the desert. Her miracles: clairvoyance, walking on water, the devotion of animals. I contemplate her struggles every year at this time to renew myself. 

An entire week is dedicated to her at the end of Lent. Her passion is placed for our contemplation just before the passion of Christ. Early church doctrines are rife with culturally sanctified judgments against women, yet here we find a woman called a harlot and then exalted. Can we disentangle her life story from the prejudices of time and see her actions with a new clarity?

Ancient painting depicting Mary of Egypt
Ancient painting depicting Mary of Egypt

Mary was born in Egypt in 344 and at twelve moved alone to Alexandria where for seventeen years she spun flax in poverty. Then she joined pilgrims to Jerusalem. Either the crowd or a great force prevented her from entering the temple. She fell sorrowful and repentant. Praying to the Mother of God, she asked for mercy and vowed to change. She then found she could enter the temple. She heard a voice: “Cross the Jordan and find glorious rest”.

Mary lived like other monastic desert dwellers of her time on herbs, naked and homeless, fighting wild beasts and the temptations of mankind. After a time equal to her life before the desert, she perceived a radiant Light and a lasting calm. The story of her 47-year life is known through the monk Zosimos who met her twice and buried her with the help of a lion.

Repentance – the word gets a bad rap these days for we moderns see it now laden with guilt, sorrow and judgement. The original Greek word simply means to change. How lovely to unburden this action from judgment and guilt. Use sorrow to direct our inner compass. Just as anger (when we listen to it rather than act it out) is a tool to discover what we fear, so sorrow becomes a tool to motivate us to change what we can change.

Perhaps we can all take the time to forgive and be worthy of forgiveness? Can we understand that if we view our own actions humbly and with the ability to ask for forgiveness, then we are capable of great change? Mary of Egypt is our guide in this journey. When I give this effort I am filled with great hope and calm. I wish this for you all. Do try. And forgive yourself any failures in trying!

Nancy Melvin: I am a 61-year-­old radical feminist and a lecturer on Waldorf education. I was raised in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and find great confluence between those two philosophies. I write from the perspective of a woman who wishes that all of us can continue to learn, create and change for our entire lives.

Feature image: Ancient painting depicting Mary of Egypt’s burial

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