(The following is Part One from Encountering Your True Self with the Desert Mystics, presented June 4, 2022, at the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, California; a ministry of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange).
Thank you for joining our conversation, here in person at the Center for Spiritual Development, and on Zoom.
I want to thank Sister Karin Nuernberg CSJ, Steve Bruce, and Sonya Longbotham for their help in shaping this event today.
I am only a fellow desert sojourner with you. The deserts of California have been a soul-saving refuge for me during the many years of health crises for our son Erik. In my retreats during Advent and Lent, the desert landscape purges my anxieties and fears and opens my heart to gratitude. I was surprised to be embraced there by the love and joy of the Lord.
I asked myself: why was I, a male priest, asked to be the presenter today on the desert mothers/ammas? I believe the answer is that the Holy Spirit invites me to enter the lives and teachings of these holy women, so that I may know them as companions on my journey with God.
This past February, in Part 1, we encountered Moses the Black and Anthony of the Desert. We discovered that Moses had three obstacles to his life with God: Vindictive Pride, Restless Passions, and Raging Violence. His core spiritual goal was apatheia (apa-they-a), fierce indifference to unimportant things, learning to be indifferent to what does not matter. He found peace at a desert monastery, dying to much of what had been his violent, reactive life.
Anthony the Great traveled far into the Egyptian desert for hand-to-hand combat with armies of demons and wild beasts. He practiced silent prayer hesychia (Sikea), “moving into a deep quiet resting in the heart of God, without resorting to any language at all.”
In this desert wasteland, where your life is stripped to essentials, you must learn to ignore the False Self (all the efforts you exert to hold up a persona, a reputation in the eyes of other people, your sense of self-importance).
Henri Nouwen writes: “If we enter the deep silence of God’s presence in the desert, we would lose the false self and meet God in our nakedness alone.”
Spiritual writer and teacher Belden Lane shares: “The desert place is where we loosen our grip on the false self: that projected an image of wholeness and competence that we constantly present to everyone else. Jesus invites us into the desert to claim our True Self. What we are most deeply in him.”
Belden Lane continues, “When you aim the indifference of Apatheia at your false self, the true self is set free to live in all its joyous expansiveness.”
Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Mary the Harlot
From the faint shadows of church history, the desert mothers/ammas have recently reappeared in the studies of desert spirituality.
I have turned to several women from Benedictine religious communities to help me shape my presentations today:
Sister Laura Swan OSB
Sister Mary Forman OSB
Anglican Sister Bendicta Ward (who died this past week).
And Episcopal seminary professor Mary Earle
Benedictine Sister Laura Swan writes:
“Women’s history has often been relegated to the shadow world: felt but not seen. Many of our church fathers became prominent because of women. Many of these fathers were educated and supported by strong women, and some are even credited with founding movements that were actually begun by the women in their lives.” 
Among the desert fathers and mothers, women outnumbered men two to one, yet it is the stories of the men which have been preserved.
For its first 300 years, Christianity was essentially a home-based religion. In these house churches, there was no ordained priesthood. Liturgy and prayer were often extemporaneous. If the Eucharist evolved from the Jewish seder meal, women would have taken part in the breaking of the bread.
Women held leadership positions as deacon and presbyter. As Christianity became accepted in the fourth century as an established religion, church leadership became more public, and women remained in the home in this power shift.
Factors such as plagues, social instability, theological debates and conflicts in the church, caused men and women to seek a deeper relationship with God, retreating to the desert for a less compromised life with God.
In the seventh century, Sophronius wrote the story of Mary of Egypt, based on a two-hundred-year oral tradition from desert monastic communities, originating from Zosimas.
Zosimas grew up living in Palestinian monasteries, becoming a disciplined orthodox monk. At the age of 53, he had become full of himself with pride. He believed that he had “mastered” asceticism and contemplation. The abbot (perhaps sensing Zosimas’ inflated ego) sent him off to a monastery near the river Jordan, where the monks were very austere). Zosimas was happy there. When Lent arrived, the custom for the monks was to go out into the desert to spend Lent in solitude. Zosimas crossed the river Jordan, traveling into the desert searching for a holy hermit.
On the 20th day of his desert retreat, in the distance he saw a shadowy figure. It seemed to be a naked person, whose skin had been blackened by the sun and who had short, white hair. Zosimas quickened his pace, but the other person ran until Zosimas came close enough to shout to ask her to stop. The shadowy figure crossed the river Jordan, while Zosimas pleaded for her to stop. The other person spoke to him by name, asking for one of his cloaks to cover her nakedness. He threw it to her, and both knelt in the desert sand to ask for blessings. Zosimas begged for her prayers and blessing.
As the woman turned to the east, she was lifted up from the earth, which frightened Zosimas. Finally, he asked her to tell him her life story. He said, “God seems to have brought me here so that I can tell others about you.”
The woman said, “I am ashamed to tell you my sinful actions, but since you have seen my bare body, I shall lay bare to you also my deeds.”
Mary came from Egypt. At 12, she left her family, going to Alexandria, where she threw herself “entirely and insatiably into the lust of sexual intercourse.” She lived this life for 17 years, not taking money for sex but living by begging and spinning flax.
One day during the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, a crowd of men ran toward boats to go to Jerusalem. Mary went with the men, attracted to the crowd of potential lovers, offering her body to pay for the journey. Once in the boat, she lured the men into wanton acts and, when finally in Jerusalem, she did the same with other men there, hoping to distract them from their attention to God.
When the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross arrived, she followed the crowd toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jesus’ Tomb). She tried to enter.
“I mixed with the crowd to get into the church where the holy cross was shown and exposed to the veneration of the faithful; but found myself withheld from entering the place by some secret but invisible force.”
Four times she tried, but the invisible force blocked her way. At a corner of the church, she rested, exhausted from her attempts. She awakened to her sinfulness and sobbed. She repented with fervor. Beside her on a wall outside the church was an icon of the Theotokos, Mother of God. She prayed to Mary for help to enter the church, promising to renounce the world and do whatever the Virgin Mary directed.
Mary remembers: “After this ardent prayer, I perceived in my soul a secret consolation under my grief; and attempting again to enter the church, I went up with ease into the very middle of it and had the comfort to venerate the precious wood of the glorious cross which brings life to man.”
Rushing back to thank the icon, she heard a voice saying to her:
If you go beyond the Jordan, you will there find rest and comfort.
Mary hurried away. Someone gave her three coins, with which she bought three loaves of bread. She reached the church of John the Baptist near the Jordon.
“She prayed in the church and washed her face and hands in the holy water of the river. She received the sacraments at the church, ate half a loaf, drank from the Jordan, and slept on the ground. Next day, she crossed the river in a small boat. She let the Virgin Mary lead her into the desert, where she lived for 47 years.”
The first 17 years were the most difficult, fighting many demons: the desire for rich foods and wine; lewd songs danced in her mind; To combat these demons of memory and addiction, she imagined herself back in Jerusalem in front of the icon of the Mother of God, praying for her help. She fought her sexual addiction, begging Blessed Mary for help “for one who was in danger of drowning in the sea of the desert”.
Living in complete solitude, Mary lived off wild plants. Her clothing wore out to nothing. Illiterate, she let the Word of God teach her.
Mary finished her story, as Zosimas fell to the ground, weeping at her feet. He promised not to tell her story until after Mary died.
Zosimas went into the desert seeking the counsel of a wise sage, never thinking it would be this woman. Mary went off into the wilderness to be absorbed into anonymous obscurity, but it would be Zosimas who would bring out of the desert her witness of repentance.
The power of Mary’s prayer overwhelmed Zosimas. Mary discerned his disorientation, saying:
“Father, why are your thoughts troubling you and deceiving you about me, that I may be an evil spirit and my prayer false? Be assured, sir, that I am just a woman and a sinner, but protected by holy baptism. I am not a spirit but earth and ashes, entirely flesh, in no way calling to mind of spirit or phantasy.”
Zosimas asked Mary about her time in the desert, how she survived in the desolate wilderness. Mary said:
“When I think from what evils the Lord has freed me, I am nourished by incorruptible food, and I cover my shoulders with the hope of my salvation.”
Mary seemed to have a deep knowledge of sacred scripture, reflecting:
“I feed upon and cover myself with the Word of God, who contains all things (Deut. 8). For man does not live by bread alone, (Matt. 11:44) and all who have not clothing will be clothed in stone, having discarded the outer covering of sins (Job 24).”
Zosimas wondered who had come out here in the desert to instruct Mary. Mary responded:
“Believe me, I have seen no one since I crossed over Jordan until I saw you today, not even an animal or any kind of creature since I came into this desert. Never in any way did I learn letters, nor have I ever heard anyone reading or singing them, but the Word of God living and active itself teaches man knowledge.
She asked Zosimas to leave, and come back in the following year, returning on Holy Thursday to bring the Sacrament to her at the banks of the Jordan River. Zosimas returned the following year, bringing the Sacrament in a small chalice. He waited at the Jordan River. Mary appeared on the opposite bank, made the sign of the cross, walking across the river to Zosimos. She received the sacraments and prayed to the Lord that now she might depart in peace.
She asked Zosimas to return the following year. They prayed for each other, and Mary again walked across the river.
A year later, Zosimas returned to the desert, searching for Mary. Then he spotted a figure lying on the desert sand, hands folded and facing east. It was the dead body of Mary. Standing next to her body, he prayed the psalms and wondered how he could bury her.
There was some writing in the ground above her head.
“Father Zosimas, bury the body of lowly Mary. Render earth to earth and pray for me. I died the night of the Lord’s Passion, after receiving the divine and mystic Banquet.”
Zosimas wondered how his feeble hands could dig a hole in the hard ground. A lion appeared, bowing its head in deference, beginning to dig a hole for the burial. Zosimas covered the body and returned to his monastery. Then he revealed all that had happened, and the monks celebrated Mary’s memorial service “with awe and affection.”
Anglican Benedictine Sister Benedicta Ward of Oxford, considers hidden meanings within the story of Mary of Egypt:
*The inflated ego of a monk seeking salvation by his own efforts contrasts with Mary, the sinful woman who receives salvation from Jesus because of her desperate need.
*The three loaves of bread that Mary takes with her into the desert remind us of the loves of the prophet Elijah.
*Mary passes over the Jordan River as a sign of baptism.
*She walks on water.
*A lion comes out of the wilderness, as a sign of the Prince of Peace.
*The only requirement for liberation from addiction is the awakening to the need for God’s help and openness to receiving the salvation of Christ.
Abba John the Dwarf shares a parable:
There was in the city a courtesan who had many lovers. One of the governors approached her saying, “promise me you will be good, and I will marry you.” She promised this, and he took her and brought her to his home. Her lovers, seeing her again, said to one another, let us go to the back of the house and whistle for her. But the woman stopped her ears and withdrew to the inner chamber and shut the door. The old man (Abba John) said that this courtesan is our soul, that her lovers are the passions, that the lord is Christ, that the inner chamber is the eternal dwelling place, those who whistle are evil demons, but the soul always takes refuge in the soul. (Sayings of John the Dwarf, 16).
Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung would have explored the archetypal story of Mary of Egypt. Beyond the supernatural overlay of her powers and abilities, I believe that the lasting effect of her story is found at that moment of conviction, when Mary came to herself and turned to Mother Mary and Jesus. Any one of us here who has experienced addiction and recovery for ourselves or within our family circle, knows that Easter moment of turning one’s out of control life into the management of the Lord Jesus.
Evolving over 200 years of oral tradition, the Story of Mary of Egypt knits together symbolism and real stories of women penitents, presenting a story of salvation with a human face.
From the Canon of Saint Mary of Egypt:
“The power of Thy Cross, O Christ, has worked wonders, for even the woman who was once a harlot chose to follow the ascetic way. Casting aside her weakness, bravely she opposed the devil; and having gained the prize of victory, she intercedes for our souls.”
- Remember your own awakening to sin, addiction or separation from God and you’re turning back toward God.
- What part of Mary’s story personally resonated with your own life?
Names and Terms
Abba Zosimas (AD 475-525). The Reflections of Abba Zosimos by Dorotheus of Gaza
Sophronius the Sophist, Patriarch of Jerusalem (c. 560-638). Wrote The Life of St. Mary of Egypt, which is traditionally read on the 5th Thursday of Lent in the Byzantine Rite.
Abba John the Dwarf of Thebes (c. 339-405), Coptic Desert Father, Sayings of John the Dwarf.
Moses the Black, AD 330-405
Anthony of the Desert, AD 251-356
Mary of Egypt AD 344-421
Syncletica of Alexandria AD 270?-350?
Apatheia (apa-they-a), fierce indifference to unimportant things, learning to be indifferent to what does not matter.
Hesychia (Sikea), Silent Prayer: “moving into a deep quiet resting in the heart of God, without resorting to any language at all.”
Swan OSB, Laura. The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories about Early Christian Women. New York: Paulist Press, 2001.
Forman OSB, Mary. Praying with the Desert Mothers. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005.
Wheeler, Rachel. Desert Daughters Desert Sons: Rethinking the Christian Desert Tradition. Collegeville, MN: 2020.
Earle, Mary C. The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness. Harrisburg, NY: Morehouse Publishing, 2007.
Ward SLG, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Oxford, UK: Cistercian Publications, 1975.
Lane, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance. Wipf and Stock, 2018.
Fess, Hugh. Saint Mary of Egypt: Three Medieval Lives in Verse. Oxford, UK: Cistercian Publications, 2005.
Ward SLG, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1987.
 Land, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, 24.
 Swan, Laura. Forgotten Desert Mothers, 3.
 Land, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, 24.