Saint Mary of Egypt: A Modern Verse Life October 3, 2022 By Bonnie B. Thurston 1 Comment St. Mary of Egypt In her book, Saint Mary of Egypt: A Modern Verse Life and Interpretation, poet and scholar Bonnie B. Thurston examines the life of Saint Mary of Egypt, whose story is well known to Orthodox Christians and monastics but not to Western Christians. Thurston offers a series of original free verse poems in multiple voices to convey both the signposts of Mary’s life and their spiritual significance. The poems are followed by an extensive prose interpretation. “In reading versions of Mary of Egypt’s life,” writes Thurston, “I was, frankly, often struck by what a juicy and rollicking good tale it is…. Here is a woman who turned from God in childhood, enjoyed a wildly immoral life, came to repentance by a miracle of our Lady’s intervention, then lived an ascetic and saintly life into old age, and, when she died, was buried by a monk and a lion.” Thurston points out that one unusual aspect of Mary of Egypt’s story is that her conversion comes following an encounter with an icon of the Virgin Mary. When Mary of Egypt attempts to enter the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, she is barred by a mysterious force, and only after encountering the Virgin Mary in an icon is the door opened to her. Afterwards, it is Theotokos who guides her in the desert and to whom she offers continuous devotion. Another aspect of the story Thurston explores is the relationship between Mary of Egypt and the monk Fr. Zossima, who encounters her in the desert and brings her story to the world. Thurston relates that “Fr. Zossima is no saint. Zossima’s sins are primarily those of the spirit, of pride or hubris, and his life has been one of apparent moral perfection within church structures as he sought more and more rigorous monasteries, sensing that there was something more than what he had experienced. In encountering Mary of Egypt, he recognizes his shortcomings. His metanoia comes through Mary, whom, importantly, he also comes to love. She receives the sacrament at his hands, as he receives his humanity at her feet. In that encounter, which reverses the gender roles in Luke 7:36-50, he weeps.” Thus, Thurston sees in their mutual need for each other, “a narrative of complementarity. The male Zossima as representative of the institutional church (amt or office), and the female Mary, representative of “unregulated” or “unorthodox” spiritual life (charism), each, in different ways, find their fulfillment or completion in the other. We offer here four of Thurston’s original poems in four voices: Mary of Egypt, the Virgin Mary, the lion, and Fr. Zossima. Mary Explains Why I did not do it for money. For that I begged. I did it for lust. I opened my flower, spread its petals for any who sniffed around my garden, garden of delights, for more than one, garden of the fall. At its center, my insatiable center, was luscious fruit, carnal knowledge of good and evil. I offered the choice to all comers, laughed, then moaned as they put their hungry hands to the plow. The Blessed Virgin Mary Speaks . . . weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. Psalm 30:5a I heard other pilgrims call her “that little whore from Alexandria.” But I knew her burning was of an altogether different ilk. “She weepeth sore in the night, of her lovers, none comfort her.”1 She was an ember longing for Light. Thrice the spirit of my Son barred her from His door. But I spoke to Him who loves me and repentant sinners. So He turned her toward His universal mother’s arms, clemens, pia, dulcis. In me her heart’s eyes saw the imprint of nails and cross, torturous instruments of true love, sorrow and comfort of all the burning who pass through death’s waters and, like Mary of Egypt, rise up shining with reflected glory. 1.Lamentations 1:2 The Lion Watches Like as a lion that is greedy of his prey, and as it were a young lion lurking in secret places. Psalm 17:12 I watched them meet, the pompous old priest, the wizened old woman. Her I cared for. She chose our desert, persevered here, flourished in her way, came to love ours. Even the snakes leave her alone. Deserts are hot places that get cold at night. When it was frigid, I wrapped around her as if I were a mere Egyptian house cat. She’d troubles with males of her species. Their females do. If he threatens her, though not worth the effort for a meal, I shall kill him. But for now, I watch. Zossima’s Year of Vigil I thought myself a perfect monk until I met penitence perfected in one who had forgotten self. She had no form or comeliness, no beauty that I should desire her.1 Yet she is lodged in my heart as if some missing part craved reunion and healing. Day and night I desired her face, manner, humility, yet kept my promised peace. Lent arrived; monks departed. Felled by fever, I kept to my cell until the brothers returned for Christ’s Last, Holy Supper. Then I gathered figs, dates, lentils, the sacred Bread and Wine from the Lamb’s high feast. The day far spent, I left for the Jordan, to watch for her for whom I hungered, praying, “God in whom I believe, let me see what I desire.”2 “Do not send me away without seeing her whom you once allowed me to behold.”3 “Do not let me depart empty handed, carrying my own sins for judgment.”4 Fearing her forgetful or faithless, this old man waited in darkness of bridegroom for beloved. Isaiah 53:2 Anonymous Spanish poet in Saint Mary of Egypt: Three Medieval Lives in Verse, trans. Ronald Pepin and Hugh Feiss, CS 209 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2005), 153. Paraphrased from Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources, CS 106 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987), 53. Alice-Mary Talbot, ed., Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996), 89. Like this post? Subscribe to have new posts sent to you by email the same day they are posted.