When you think you have arrived, you have only just begun. This is the greatest life lesson for St. Zosimas and he learned it from a naked woman in the desert.
Mary was a beautiful girl, living in Alexandria. She left home at age twelve and lived a life of open sexual gratification. Rather than take pay from her partners, Mary supported herself through spinning flax or begging. Her pride in physical seduction, the thrill of the pursuit of men, kept her in this life for several years. One day, she heard a group of men were to set sail for the Holy Land in order to venerate the True Cross in Jerusalem. Thinking this would be an adventure, Mary joined them on the boat, trading her services with the men for passage.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem and following the crowds to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mary was held back at the doorway by an unseen force. She tried three times to enter, but it was impossible. Mary looked up at an icon of the Theotokos, which brought her to tears and repentant prayer. She promised the Theotokos that she would renounce her passionate life and follow Christ. She fled to the desert and wrestled with ‘mad desires and the passions’ for 17 years. After that period of time, she dwelt in prayer and solitude for another 30 years, when she met Zosimas.
Saint Zosimas lived a contemporary life to Mary, in Palestine. His parents took him to a monastery at a young age, some accounts say just after he was weaned. All he knew was a monastic way of life, which he embraced and stayed, excelling at the study of Scriptures and at asceticism.
Zosimas was tormented with the thought that he had reached perfection in everything and could not learn anymore in the spiritual path to God. The voice said, “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?”
In a way, he was right. He knew the lives of his fellow brothers and of the lives of the desert fathers in the Sinai and beyond. Many of them made pilgrimage to visit Zosimas for his wisdom and teaching. All the indicators from his vantage point showed him there was nothing else to gain where he was, and what could be gained, like physical portliness, is pride.
Then an angel appeared with this message:
“Zosimas, valiantly you have struggled, as far as this is within the power of man, valiantly have you gone through the ascetic course. But there is no man who has attained perfection. Before you lie unknown struggles greater than those you have already accomplished. That you may know how many other ways lead to salvation, leave your native land like the renowned patriarch Abraham and go to the monastery by the River Jordan.”
In obedience to the vision, Zosimas left his home at age 53 and lived the rest of this life near the River Jordan. Here, the monks observed the Lenten fast by going out into the desert in solitude. While wandering in the desert, Elder Zosimas crossed paths with Mary, who told him her life story. The tales of both saints were recorded by Saint Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the mid-600s.
Another father among the saints had a similar revelation to Zosimas –
“It was revealed to Father Anthony in the desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Trisagion with the angels.”
~From the 38 Sayings of Saint Anthony
Both Zosimas and Abba Anthony had an experience of the parable of the rich young ruler.
Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” [Mark 10:21]
To outward appearances, yes, the monastics had left the world in obedience to Christ’s commandment, forsaking wealth and status. What they could not forsake, except through labor and repentance, was pride. Zosimas was led to a stricter monastery; Abba Anthony saw a man living in a town who excelled him in prayer and charity. Comfort and stagnation is a different experience for everyone, as is the remedy of asceticism.
Both Zosimas and Mary suffered from what might be called, ‘a big fish in a small pond’ syndrome. Mary, in her sinful state, could acquire any pleasure she wanted. Zosimas, in his monastic home of 50 years, knew all there was about that Christian way of life, in that context. Gretchen Rubin, author of Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, describes a tactic for when to begin a new habit called the clean slate. The clean slate is a moment in our lives where a big change occurs: marriage, changing jobs, graduating from school, etc. At these moments, when major behavior patterns shift to accommodate new people or new places, it is easier to change our personal behaviors, good or bad. A repeated pattern in many saintly lives is this clean slate type of move. Staying stagnant in sin is easy; repentance requires a new direction and, most importantly, movement.
Physical pride, of the kind Mary of Egypt owned, can be dealt with through physical asceticism and attempted profitably, sometimes, alone, which is why we have hermits or hermitesses. Mary knew she had no bargaining chips in her hands in regards to her soul: no godly heritage, no inclination throughout her youth towards God, no elder to shepherd her. For Mary, her remedy to overwhelming physical pride was renouncing all pleasures and contact therewith. Spiritual pride needs the mirror of living with others, even just seeing one other humble person in daily life is enough to bring us to repentance. There will always be someone in the Kingdom of God who is more ‘least’ than you.
Mary is a surprisingly contemporary saint for our decadent times. She made choices to suit her libertine tastes in ways that do not fit the paradigm we commonly assign to women of ancient history. As a professional, single woman living in a wealthy North American city, I could choose almost any way of life I wanted: eat whatever and whenever, associate with whomever I liked, wear whatever styles I choose, consume any media, and communicate with anyone in the world. Alexandria in late antiquity was a similar venue. Mary, being held back from entering the church, was the first time she encountered a ‘no’ to her wishes. We cannot have both worlds. Embracing the cross means we have to put down the other passion-fueled agendas in our arms, both the glory of physical pride and the illusion of spiritual success.