The Untold Story of St. Mary of Egypt

As I write this, it is the fifth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, the Sunday when we commemorate the life of St. Mary of Egypt. The story goes like this: Once there was a girl named Mary. When she was 12, she left home to pursue a life of “sin and debauchery” (Orthodox code for “lots of sex”). But then one day, as a young woman, she tried to follow a group of pilgrims into a church in Jerusalem, but she was prevented by an unseen force from going beyond the doorway. She realized that her sin was the reason, and so she fled to the desert to pursue a life of asceticism and penance. (Click here for the full version.)

I have a problem with this story as it is told. On the one hand, coming in the fifth Sunday of Lent, the story of St. Mary of Egypt is a reminder that none are so far gone that God’s grace cannot find them. On the other hand, it is a cautionary tale against being a slut. But what the story glosses over is Mary’s age. She was 12. A tween girl ran away from home and started having a lot of sex with a lot of different men. What kind of child does that?

A child is not capable of consent. Today, if a man had sex with a girl that age, he would be a pedophile. He would have committed an act of rape, even if the girl had somehow initiated it. It was not the law at the time, of course, but it is today because we understand that a child who has been hyper-sexualized is a child who is herself a victim.

Mary was a victim of rape. That is the common denominator among most 12 year old runaways. Mary was fleeing her rapist. The fact that she then is said to have pursued intercourse with countless others is consistent with the behavior of such victims. Girls who have been repeatedly abused often locate their self-worth in their sexuality.

(I recall having read a number of years ago a version of this story as told by St. Jerome, in which Mary flees from the desert to a brothel after being raped.)

From this angle, Mary is no longer the “slutty” sinner. She is a victim, a survivor. Is she still a sinner? Sure. She is not guiltless. But neither is she wholly guilty. Mary’s adult sins were established by those of (most likely) a family member’s horrific and repeated acts against her when she was still a blameless child, and those acts definitively shaped the woman she was to become.

I probably need someone with better pastoral sensibilities to weigh in on the spiritual implications of this consideration, but it seems to me that the story becomes less about the repentance of a sinful woman and more about how little judgment such “sinners” deserve. Perhaps she was prevented from entering the church not because she was impure, but because she was still caught, as if by a net, in a sinful system. We all make victims of each other in some way. Our sins are never wholly our own. And yet, the responsibility to repent still is.

In this way, the triumph of Mary is not a triumph over her personal sin as much as it is a triumph over the effects of the sins of others. And this, so it seems to me, is more in keeping with the message of Pascha itself. Christ is risen; death is trampled; and new life is bestowed upon those who were made, through no fault of their own, sin’s victims.

3 thoughts on “The Untold Story of St. Mary of Egypt”

  1. Let me take a stab here…

    Life expectancy in those days was shorter than it was today. Some estimate that in Jesus’ time, it was as low as 35, though in the Psalms, a lifespan is described as “threescore and ten” (70 years). However, there was a lot more dying young (even in the early Americas, 50% of children didn’t make it to their 5th birthdays), be it from lack of medical care, disease, or accident. Children were expected to grow up very fast, to help in their families and then to be independent as soon as possible. The Jewish bar mitzvah – coming of age ceremony – typically occurs when a child turns thirteen. It is also around this age where we know of Jesus staying behind in the temple to teach – scaring his Mother, who couldn’t find him for days. However, he was old enough that he wasn’t considered a “naughty child” for neglecting to stay with her. Historically, too, Mary probably was around 14 or 15 when the angel Gabriel spoke to her.

    Saying that she ran off at twelve is certainly a lot different than it is now. At twelve, there was probably some sort of “plan” for her life, and by saying that she ran off, it surely meant that she rebelled against that. Also, a twelve-year-old in those times certainly wouldn’t have been surprised about what men and women do together, especially as that was close to the age where a lot of girls were getting married. And so, while one can argue these days about the brain development of children and what-have-you, it’s also not fair to compare her story to today’s societal norms.

    (I apologize if this comment has come up more than once – WordPress keeps “hanging” on it. )

  2. I have believed this to be true for years. I cringe every time I hear her story told from the pulpit. THANK YOU for speaking an uncomfortable truth.

  3. I was JUST thinking on this over the weekend. Definitely something that needs to be acknowledged.


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