Amma Mary the Harlot (of Egypt)
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Amma Mary the Harlot (of Egypt)?
In the seventh century, a man named Sophronius committed to writing what had previously been an oral historical tradition handed down within monastic communities. This was the story of Mary the Harlot.
Amma Mary the Harlot was born sometime in the 4th-5th century. Certain traditions fix her date of birth early in the 4th century, and others state that the date of her death was in the early 6th century. If she died in the 6th century, she was born in the 5th, as her age at the time of death would indicate. Her story was originally told by a desert father named Zosimas. Zosimas lived in the fifth century and was around the age of 50 when he encountered Mary.
Mary was born in Egypt, and ran away from home at the age of 12. She states that she specifically left her home to pursue a life of lust and pleasure. She soon found herself in Alexandria and lived as a prostitute for 17 years. Mary’s concern as a prostitute was not income, but lust. She lived to fulfill pleasure.
At the age of 28, she left Alexandria with a few pilgrims that were headed to Jerusalem as a spiritual pilgrimage. Her plan was simple, she would seduce these pilgrims and thereby thwart their journey. Feigning piety, she threw herself in with the crowd. Her plan was not without some success as she recounted that she corrupted some of the pilgrims along the way. But that all changed when she arrived in Jerusalem.
Noticing a crowd gathering at the local church to celebrate a festival, she blended in and attempted to enter the church. Mary says,
“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.”
Three or four more times she attempted to enter and each time she was held back by a barrier she could not perceive. She moved back stunned and began to consider why should would be unable to enter into the church.
Slowly, the full effect of her sinfulness dawned on her. She began to see the years of debauchery in a different light. Tears poured forth and Amma Mary the Harlot began to repent with fervor. She vowed that if she would be able to enter the church she would dedicate her life to God. The crushing weight of guilt for her past actions had fallen upon her. But, in the midst of this, forgiveness and grace found her.
“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.”
Mary was struck with the mercy, compassion, and kindness of Christ to receive one such as her. When she left the church, a voice spoke to her and said,
“If you go beyond the Jordan, you will there find rest and comfort.”
She bought a few loaves of bread and fled the comfort of the city to seek Christ in the solitude of the desert.
More than 40 years later, Abba Zosimas made a sojourn into the desert and, by happenstance, stumbled upon Amma Mary. When she recounted her story to Zosimas, he was stunned. This woman had lived in solitude ever since she had left for the desert, and he was the first human she had seen since her flight.
Her body had wasted away due to the intensity with which she fasted and sought God. Yet she carried herself with a level of humility and compassion Abba Zosimas had never seen. Amma Mary walked in incredible revelation. She knew Zosimas’ name, position, and tenure as priest before he mentioned any to her.
When he asked her to pray for him, she humbly entreated that he would pray for her, as he was a priest,
“Father Zosimas, it is proper for you to give the blessing and say the prayer, for you have the dignity of the office of a priest, and for many years you have stood at the holy table and offered the sacrifice of Christ.”
She had every right to claim spiritual authority, and Zosimas was willing to concede to her, yet her desire was submission, not authority. True spiritual authority can only come about by depth of submission.
After she had honored his position, she in turn prayed for him. Zosimas was stunned by the power of her prayer, and shaken to the core at the moment. He began to think that perhaps he had fallen into a stupor, or was hallucinating. Amma Mary, discerning the thoughts of his heart, answered him without his asking,
“Why are your thoughts troubling you, father, 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 a spirit of phantasy.”
When their time together came to an end, she offered some prophetic insight to share with the father of the monastery where Zosimas had taken up residence. Amma Mary said,
“And I send this message to Father John, the abbot of the monastery in which you live: look to yourself and to your flock; something is happening there that needs correction. I do not want you to tell him about this now but when the Lord directs you to do so.”
When Zosimas questioned Amma Mary about her time in the desert, she elaborated on certain principles of the spiritual life as she had come to practice them. To Mary, the spiritual life consisted of silence, solitude, fasting, and calling upon God for help.
Mary struggled for seventeen years with the memory of all she had done. In solitude and silence the deep thoughts of the heart crystalize and become apparent. It is in these moments that the memory of past sin comes alive and the enemy solicits the soul with desire and temptation. Mary, in the midst of temptation turned her heart to God. Recounting her struggle, Mary said,
“When such thoughts grew in me, I would fling myself on the ground and flood the earth with weeping.”
When temptation would come, she would call to mind the encounter she had with God in the church and the voice that told her to go to the desert to find peace.
“At once then weeping and beating my breast I brought back to my mind the promise of faithfulness which I had made when I entered this solitude.”
And, without fail, Christ would aid her in resisting.
“So when I had wept greatly and grievously, beating my breast courageously, I saw a light which shone around me on every side and soon I became calm and safe.”
After 17 years of struggle she had found her release in Christ. Though temptation would come her way again, the foothold it had gained previously had been effectively worn away.
Amma Mary also recognized that fasting would aid the spiritual life. Regardless of how long she spent in solitude, the memory of her former life always warred against her, even when it came to food. If she would eat she would crave the meat she had. If she would drink, she would crave the drunkenness of her former life. Fasting helps to minimize the crazing of the heart by exposing what you desire and retraining the thoughts to rest in the grace of God.
The rhythm of the spiritual life, to Amma Mary, was a balance of withdrawal to solitude, struggle with temptation, discovering grace, fasting, and lastly, utter humility. The degree to which she had been freed from sin gave rise to incredible thankfulness to God.
“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.”
When Amma Mary the Harlot told Zosimas of her thankfulness to Christ she recounted numerous scriptures that inspired her pursuit of Christ’s presence.
“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 no clothing will be clothed in stone having discarded the outer covering of sins (Job 24; Zech 3:1-10; Is 61:10).”
Zosimas assumed then that someone had come to her and taught her the bible. He asked her who her teacher was, and Mary replied,
“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 (Heb. 4.12).”
Amma Mary the Harlot passed away peacefully in the solitude of the desert she had learned to embrace. Zosimas found her shortly after she had died with this message scrawled in the sand.
“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 buried her body and then began sharing her story.