St Mary of Egypt

For your personal study and reflection on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent.

The Church points to St. Mary of Egypt as the model of repentance. She spent her life of repentance in the desert, across the Jordan, according to her biography.


The pollution of past sins prevented you from entering the church to see the elevation of the Holy Cross; but then your conscience and the awareness of your actions turned you, O wise in God, to a better way of life. And having looked upon the icon of the blessed Maid of God, you have condemned all your previous transgressions, O Mother worthy of all praise, and so have gone with boldness to venerate the precious Cross (A Hymn of Vespers from K. Ware, The Lenten Triodion).

The desert was a prominent theme in the celebration of St. John Climacus and in our remembrance of St. Mary of Egypt. As great saints of the Church, they spent their lives in the desert.  In addition, Christians have turned to the Desert Fathers and Mothers as sources of inspiration and guidance for Christian living.

Christianity has a strong connection to the desert.

  • The people of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years before reaching the Promised Land.
  • The Holy Lands themselves are largely desert lands.
  • Jesus spent forty days in the desert (Matthew 4:1-12), immediately after His baptism and before He began His public ministry. In those forty days, He was tempted with food, with heavenly power, with political glory. He rejected them all.
  • Philip the Deacon encountered the Ethiopian eunuch on a desert road (Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40).
  • The movement to the desert of the first hermits, anchorites, and monastics began in the mid-third century. St. Anthony the Great is given credit for being the first, but there were others as well. This movement to the desert continued for centuries. Last week we learned about St. John Climacus who was the abbot of the St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai (in Egypt), in the Sinai desert. Monasteries today are usually established in unpopulated areas.

On the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we remember St. Mary of Egypt. You can read about her life here:  

We know from her biography that she fled to the desert following her experience in Jerusalem of being prevented from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She spent the rest of her life there, in repentance, for her sinful life prior.

An article I read recently noted the following about the desert. They are qualities of the place, but also the spiritual experiences of desert, internal places of isolation and wilderness.

The desert is a place of purification, to which I would add repentance. The desert is a place of discernment. There’s time and space for personal reflection and thought. The desert is a place of surrender, of letting go, especially of the non-essentials. Life in the desert is harsh and uncompromising. One only carries what one needs, basic essentials for survival. St. Mary of Egypt, living in her isolation, took just a few loaves of bread with her. Then she had to survive on what she could find. She did this for decades, evidence, if nothing else that we need far less than we think we need. There is no time for illusion; life must be based in reality. A mirage may be attractive, but it is just that, a mirage. Perhaps our eager (and natural) hope of a quick return to our pre-pandemic lives is an example of a mirage.

When we emerge from the desert, our lives are meant to be transformed, turning towards the “better way.”

For reflection

 What have your "desert experiences" been? Both in actual deserts, but also spiritual deserts. What lessons have you learned from those experiences?  How have they led you to a “better way”?