In her book Harlots of the Desert
, Sister Benedict Ward helps illuminate a tradition of stories that emerge concurrent with the spoken teachings of the Desert Fathers and which feature repentant women as our very model of salvation. These stories of conversion are patterned after “the great penitent of the New Testament, Mary Magdalene” (98). The archetype of the fallen woman is itself sourced in older biblical imagery: “the sinful woman who is Israel, unfaithful to the covenant of God” and indeed, in Eve who is “the mother of all the living, and therefore the image of Everyman, of the human race alienated from the love of God” (98). The character of the prostitute is thus not chosen “because lust is a especially terrible sin,” but rather because of its symbolic qualities as a picture of our unfaithfulness to God.
While there are a number of incredible female saints including St. Mary of Egypt who Sister Ward profiles in her book, it is the lesser known story of Maria (as recorded by Archdeacon Ephraim) that I want to focus on. Maria can speak powerfully to those of us who grew up “churched” but who despair over struggles with sin because she models conversion as an ongoing work of Christ in us.
Maria was an orphaned child, brought up by her uncle Abraham in the desert, passing “twenty years with him in the ascetic life, living like an unspotted lamb or untouched dove” (93). The Devil became “enraged against her” and “laid out his usual snares to catch her in his nets” (93). Maria is seduced by a wicked monk and commits fornication with him. The text tells us that afterward Maria “was appalled in her heart” and was “so overcome with anxiety that she could see no way out of the situation.” She laments that “I have lost all that I had before by the hard work of asceticism; all my prayers, tears, and vigils have come to nothing” (94). In her despair, she cries out “I have angered God and destroyed myself” and flees to the city where she becomes a prostitute.
As a twenty-first century reader, I am overwhelmed by how Maria’s words seem to speak directly to my own experiences. I suspect that I am not alone in tasting the bitter pain of moral failing, and the corresponding sense of shame and worthlessness. When Maria cries out “there is now no hope of salvation for me” (94) the existential urgency translates effortlessly through the centuries, touching on the anxieties that so many of us often feel today. It is not only the anxieties that are shared, however, but also the error in Maria’s understanding of the Christian life prior to her encounter with sin. Maria says, “I have lost all that I had by the hard work of asceticism” (93). This notion of earning our salvation runs counter to the Gospel, and yet this error is as easy for us to slip into as it was for Maria. The deeper sin of Maria is not lust but rather a subtle pride, and the deepest wound inflicted on her soul is not her fornication but rather her despairing flight from God’s grace.
Thankfully, the story does not end with Maria in despair. Instead, her uncle Abraham travels to the city to rescue Maria by reminding her of God’s great mercy. Tt is worth noting the significance of Abraham. The Desert Fathers often read the Old Testament figure Abraham as type for Christ, and specifically see in Abraham’s rescue of Lot from Sodom a prefiguring of Christ’s harrowing hell and leading out the captive souls. The story of Maria certainly has the Old Testament figure in mind and almost assuredly Christ as well:
for as the first Abraham went into battle with the kings and brought out his nephew, Lot, so this second Abraham went to war with the Devil so that he might overcome him, and bring back his niece with even more triumph (95.)
When we read of Abraham’s rescue of Maria, the Tradition asks us to reflect on Christ’s rescue of our own souls. It is with this in mind that the salvific encounter between Abraham and Maria becomes even more poignant. Abraham is disguised when he enters the brothel, and so unrecognized by Maria, and when he they are alone, he says (“his voice breaking with tears”) to her, “Don’t you know me, Maria my child?” a question and an encounter which should recall to mind the risen Christ encountering Mary in the Garden. Abraham stuns Maria with his word:
“On me be your sin my daughter, and on the day of judgment I will render an account of it for you to the Lord; it is I who will be responsible for this to God.” (98.)
It is Christ who saves us, and is saving us ever and always! And this saving word was available to her from the very moment she first stumbled, if only her despair had not blinded her to the reality of God’s grace. As Abraham did not abandon Maria to despair, so Christ does not abandon us but rather when we are too weak to seek Him, He seeks us out and through his love carries us home again.
Maria’s story ends with joy. Maria returns to the desert, her repentance being “greater than all measure of grief” (99). She is given the gift of healing and indeed “crowds of people came to her daily and she would heal them all by her prayers for their salvation” (98). Not only is Maria restored to intimacy with God, she receives greater grace than she had ever known prior to her fall, and indeed she becomes a channel of God’s grace to minister to other souls in need. It is on the basis of such stories as this that St. Julian of Norwich can proclaim that because of Christ even “sin is behovely,” and it is on this basis that the Church offers the Felix Culpa as a prayer of thanksgiving: “O happy fault that gained for us so great a redeemer.”
In reflecting on this story and those like it, Sister Ward writes that these stories challenge our assumptions and confront us in our self-assurance and pride, but they also offer us hope for when we succumb to sin. For Sister Ward, “the final image of the converted prostitute is not of an agonized, weeping penitent” (108). Instead, the final image we are given is of a soul “who has entered into the reality of love for God.”
This is the Gospel for all of us, whether raised in the Church or not, and whether our ongoing conversion looks like that of Mary Magdalene or Maria. Christ bears our sin upon Himself, He forever offers Himself as our salvation, He lovingly invites us into a full union with Him, and through that union He makes possible our participation in the very life of the Trinity.