April 1 – Mary of Egypt; Gilbert of Caithness

The story of Mary of Egypt (ca. 344–ca. 421) starts at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist, where the monks kept Lent by scattering into the desert to pray. On his first such Lent, Abba Zosima walked for 20 days, when he saw a leathery old man, who took off running. Zosima gave chase, yelling, “Why are you running away?”

The other said, “Father Zosimas, why are you chasing me? I am a woman, and I am naked. If you want me to turn and talk to you, toss me a cloak or something.” So he did. “Whoa,” he thought, “how does she know my name? This must be a great saint!” So he prostrated himself and begged for her blessing. She did the same. It went something like this:

Bless me, for you are obviously a great saint.
No, you bless me, for you are a priest.
I’m a sinful priest. You bless me.
I’m a sinful woman. You bless me.
No, you bless me.
No, you bless me.
No, you bless me.
No, you bless me.
I order you to bless me.
Oh all right fine, but only because you’re a priest and you’ve ordered me to.

As she began to pray, Zosima saw that she was levitating. When she finished, upon his implorement, she told her life’s story.

“I lived a life of sexual indulgence in Alexandria,” she began.

“You were a prostitute?”

“No, I just liked sex.”

One day she caught a package tour to Jerusalem for the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross (Sep 14). Having no money, she paid for her passage “with her body.” When she got to the church, though, she could not get in. Each time she tried, she found herself out on the porch again. The beeswax taper went on above her head. Seeing an icon of the Theotokos, she prayed, promising to turn her life around. She went inside and venerated the Cross, then went into the desert for 47 years, praying for forgiveness and eating whatever she could find.

After she finished her story, she told him, “Next year, do not cross the Jordan for Lent, but come to the shore with the Holy Mysteries. Oh, and don’t tell anybody about me until I’m dead.” Sure enough, when he went to the river next year, there she was on the far shore. She made the sign of the cross and walked across the water. Zosima started to prostrate himself, but she said, “Ack! What are you doing? You’ve got the Holy Mysteries!” So he gave her communion, after which she said, “Next year at this time, go back to where we first met.” He did, and there was her body, dead. He was unsure—should he bury her? Then he saw, written in the sand, “Yeah, bury me.” It was dated on the very day they had parted the year before.

He tried to dig, but the ground was too hard. Just then, a lion from Leonine Desert Mortuary Services, LLC[1], happened by. “Dig me a grave, there’s a puss,” said Zosima. The two of them buried the saint, then went their separate ways. Needless to say, when he got back to the monastery he told the whole story.

Mary is the patron of the penitent, however not (sadly) of revolving door sales reps. She is celebrated in the west two days hence.

Gilbert of Caithness’ (d. 1245) father owned “enormous tracts of land” (I did not make that up) in northern Scotland. He was priested and made Archdeacon of Moray, for good or for eel. His enemies torched his accounting ledgers, but “he miraculously survived.” (It took a miracle? That’s a lot of ledgers.) He was made bishop to replace one who had been burned alive. “I’m sensing a theme,” he (no doubt) thought. But he escaped that fate, and was a worthy counselor to many Scottish kings, as well as a staunch supporter of Scottish independence. You might say he burned with zeal for his homeland.

[1]See also Paul of Thebes (Jan 15).