Abbot Zosimus knelt at prayer in the wilderness beyond Jordan. He had come from Palestine to dwell with a certain company of good men whose custom it was to spend the fast time of Lent in the solitude of the desert. He had left his companions twenty days before, when, each going his way, they had dispersed into the wilderness.
With hands upraised to heaven he now prayed earnestly against the pride which had once dwelt in his heart when he had fancied himself walking in the ways of perfection. He was praying for the greater humility which he had been learning of his late companions, when he thought he saw out of the corner of his eye something stirring, something that seemed like a shaggy, hairy animal, and that yet stood on two feet like a human being. He refrained, however, from turning his head, for he knew himself to be alone, as for twenty days he had seen no living thing in the sandy waste, and he believed that what he saw might well be some vision or snare sent by the Devil to tempt him from his meditation.
But the creature, whatever it might be, did not, exorcized by his renewed prayer, disappear, so, summoning his courage, he turned and looked at it fairly. Thereupon it fled, and he pursued. Then he saw that it was in truth a human being, but with skin burned black by exposure to the sun, and with white hair which hung long and heavy like a garment.
He was glad indeed, for he thought he might here have found a hermit, so he cried out: "Most reverend father, fly not from. me; stay and grant me thy blessing!"
But still the creature eluded him, and finally, having crossed a dry watercourse which now stretched its stony width between them, it answered, addressing him by name, at which he greatly marvelled.
"Zosimus," said the voice, "wherefore followest thou me? Have mercy and cast thy mantle across to me that I may clothe myself and may then speak with thee unashamed, for I am a woman, and naked."
Quickly Zosimus cast over his cloak to her, and when she was wrapped in it, knelt down on his side of the water-course and begged that she would bless him, for he knew that she must be a holy woman, but she answered:
"It is for thee, my father, to give me benediction, for thou art a priest." Again he wondered that she should know, not only his name, but his office, and he asked the more humbly for her blessing.
So, each kneeling on his side of the dry bed of the stream, they prayed, and as she raised her hands heavenward Zosimus saw that her body was lifted a cubit and a half from the ground. He was in doubt then if she were woman or spirit, and conjured her to tell him of her life and how she had come to her present pass.
"Good father," she replied, "spare me the recital, for were I to recount the events of my life, thou wouldst flee away from me as from a venomous serpent, and thine ears would be made foul by my words."
But Zosimus was not thus to be satisfied, and he prevailed upon her at last to relate her story.
"I was born in Egypt. At the age of twelve I fled from my father's house, and found my way to Alexandria, the tempting and dissolute city, where I became a dancer and played upon musical instruments. And there—alas, my father!—I lived for seventeen years a life of pleasure—and of sin—and of shame.
"It happened one day that as I walked by the edge of the sea, I saw a ship about to set sail. I inquired whither it was bound, and upon being told that it was to bear a company of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. whither they were going to worship the True Cross, I was seized with a desire to join them. No worthy desire, my father—my wish was but to corrupt them from their purpose, to tempt them, and thus lead them from their sacred goal. I addressed myself to some of the mariners standing on the shore, asking to be taken on the journey. 'But hast thou money to pay for thy passage?' asked one, and I answered, 'Kind sirs, I have nothing wherewith to pay you, save only myself—take me with you and I promise to reward you.' Upon this condition they let me embark.
"Having reached Jerusalem, I found the city in the midst of the celebration of the festival of the Exaltation of the Cross. With the pilgrims I proceeded to the church, moved solely by curiosity, but there, when I tried to enter, an invisible power barred my path. Again and again I sought to push my way over the threshold, and as often the barrier thrust me back.
"Then, of a sudden, the knowledge came to me that it was the blackness of my sins, the shame of my past, which excluded me from the portals of the sanctuary, and dropping on my knees before an image of the Virgin Mary which stood in the entrance of the church, I fell to weeping and beating my breast in penitence and sorrow. Long I knelt in prayer to the Holy Mother, that she intercede with her Son, and let me pass into the church to embrace His True Cross. Faithfully I promised thereafter to lead a life of atonement and chastity, if I might but be granted pardon and grace. When I had prayed, I crept again toward the door, this time upon my knees; lo, the barrier was removed! I entered, and devoutly worshipped at the foot of the Cross.
"Then I heard a voice which said: 'Pass over Jordan; there shalt thou find peace, and be saved.' A man, seeing me, gave me three pence, wherewith I bought three loaves of bread; these I brought with me into the wilderness, and they were my nourishment for many and many years.
"For seventeen years I was still haunted and tempted by remembrance of past days. As I lay upon the hard ground, visions of couches of ease and soft coverings came to my mind; as I ate of my bread, which with the flight of time became hard like the stones, I remembered choice viands to which I had been used; during the torrid noonday heat memories returned of dim shade under vine-draped colonnades, and draughts of cool wines; and as my garments rotted and fell from me and my skin was blackened by the sun, insistent memories assailed me of my former raiment, rich and fine, and of my own vanished beauty. But in the end all these desires fell from me through penance and prayer, and I seemed to live in the midst of a great light which gave me comfort and such spiritual sustenance that for thirty years I have needed no food."
When she had finished the recital of her story she besought Abbot Zosimus to say nothing concerning her to anyone, but to return the following Lent bringing with him the Sacrament, for since she had entered the desert, which was now forty-seven years, never had she partaken of that heavenly consolation.
The following year, accordingly, Zosimus went to fulfil his word. He journeyed bearing the Eucharist, and when he had come to the shore of Jordan he waited, for the woman had told him that there she would meet him.
She was not there, nor was she there by nightfall, but when the full moon had risen he saw her standing on the opposite shore, and he wondered how he should reach her. Then she, after making the sign of the Cross, came over to him, for the waters parted, and she walked dry footed.
He gave her the kiss of peace and administered to her the Sacraments, which when she had taken, she said, weeping: "Now, Lord God, let it please Thee to receive me, for mine eyes have seen my Saviour." But as she had for so long wept much, her eyes of flesh had in truth lost their sight.
She now begged that Zosimus would leave her again to her solitude, and that he would come again the following year and pray for her. This he promised, and she, again making the sign of the Cross upon the river, walked back as she had come.
When Zosimus returned the following year he found her lying dead where he had first seen her, folded in the poor remnants of his old cloak, her hands folded as if in prayer.
He wept in tenderness and pity, but dared not approach her, for he said to himself: "I would gladly bury this holy woman, yet I know not if it would displease her." Coming nearer, however, he saw these words traced in the sand: "O father Zosimus, bury here the body of the sinner, Mary. Pray for her soul, and give earth to earth, and dust to dust, for Christ's sake."
The Abbot would have followed this behest, but realized that his age was great and his strength small, and that furthermore he had nothing with which to delve.
Then, out of the desert, came a lion, sorrowful and gentle, who dug with his paws a grave in which Zosimus laid the body. When the sepulchre had been closed, the lion slowly departed, and Zosimus, returning to his abbey, glorified God who had shown mercy to so great a sinner and so true a penitent, and he told his brothers the story of St Mary of Egypt, who was. born and lived many years in grievous sin, but being born again in repentance and in love of God had achieved holiness and heaven.