Harlots of the Desert (1987, late antiquity)

Why then do churches—ministers and parishioners, myself included—so often seem to be content with moments of communion with instead of total immersion in God? I guess that’s the question I’ve received during this Advent.

I wrote the above in an email to a friend—an epiphany quite unexpected. But between reading Brother Lawrence and watching a BBC series on monasticism (1, 2, 3, and revisited), and now having read Benedicta Ward’s Harlots of the Desert, I have been forced to think about constant communion as well as continuing conversion.

Lawrence’s call to not be content with only momentary reflection on God has stuck with me; instead, he says, we must be always mindful of our position in the midst of God’s presence.

In the “Revisited” episode of The Monastery, I was struck by Tony, a non-believer and “soft porn” scriptwriter when the show started; he came to believe in God through his time at the monastery and got out of the porn industry. He said that he tried to join churches after leaving but found that they were filled with people faking piety. He couldn’t stand their sentimentality, so he continued to make monthly visits to the monastery after the show’s end. His words about sentimentality have stuck with me too.

And so to Ward’s book.

The desert mothers and fathers were serious, stark. Their love of God so all-consuming that they shine as examples of how to live, ascetically, yes, but their asceticism doesn’t diminish their example of how to live.

For Ward, the main point of this study of desert harlots is to affirm that no sin can remove us from the love and mercy of God. Only our surrender to despair can do that. Ward tells the story of a monk who withdraws from the desert after attempting to seduce a wandering woman, for shame over his actions. Likewise, the final story in the book, that of Maria, the niece of Abba Abraham, tells the story of a woman who allows herself to be seduced by a “monk in name only” and then, fearing her uncle’s reaction, fleas into the city to live and work in a brothel. Both represent individuals that pridefully regard themselves as too imperfect to be saved, when, as Abba Abraham declares, they are in fact surrounded by persons who want to help mend the brokennesses.

And so to the first story: St. Mary Magdalene. Ward helpfully traces how the various mentions of Marys in scripture came to be conflated with Mary Magdalene and how she came to be remembered as a prostitute. Ward also points out that the figure of Mary Magdalene, a “sinful woman” who was forgiven and became a close friend of Jesus, is a type for the whole human race—we all stand in sin before Christ, but we are met, forgiven, and invited in. Our response is to love and serve. (Mary Magdalene is often called the apostle to the apostles, after all.)

Next is the story of Mary of Egypt. Mary was born in Alexandria and early in life became a prostitute. She sold herself in order to get a boat ride to Palestine, where she plied her trade in Jerusalem. One day, she has a conversion experience before an icon of Jesus and Mary. After venerating the holy cross in the church, she is led into the desert, where she spends the rest of her life as a hermit. Zossima, a monk wandering the desert at Lent, as was the custom in his monastery, happened across her. Zossima is overcome with admiration for her story of repentance and faithfulness. The two meet again a year later, when Zossima gives her Eucharist alongside the Jordan River after the Maundy Thursday services in Jerusalem. A year later, he goes to the prearranged meeting spot—the dried riverbed deep in the desert where they first met—and Zossima finds her dead, resting in peace for a year since having received the Body and Blood of Christ. Zossima buries her with deep admiration for her example. He told his monastic community, and her story is told to this day, often during the Lenten season.

St. Pelegia, an actress turned desert mother, is the third woman discussed in Ward’s book. Pelegia was one of the most beloved actresses in Alexandria, and her beauty and talent won her many lovers as well. One day, she passed a meeting of bishops. All, except for Nonnus, look away for fear of being tempted to lust after Pelegia; Nonnus looks on her and begins to weep, seeing her true beauty. With compunction, he says to God, “I know I am a sinner and unworthy, for today the ornaments of a harlot have shone more brightly than the ornaments of my soul….I stand before your altar and I do not offer you a soul adorned with the beauty you want to see in me” (68). Just as her silent witness struck Nonnus, Nonnus’s verbal witness, his sermon the next day, struck Pelegia to the heart, she having wandered into the church. She immediately asked to be baptized and gave her possessions away and went to live in the desert, where, disguised as a male monk, she grew in fame for her spirituality and faith. Nonnus sends one of his friends to meet “Pelegius” the monk, and she simply asks for prayers. Later she dies, and the friend buries her, and reports back to Nonnus. The chronicler concludes the account saying, “May the life of this harlot, this account of total conversion, join us to her and bring us all the mercy of the Lord on the day of judgement, to whom be glory and power and honour to the ages of ages. Amen” (75).

Next is St. Thaïs’s story. Thaïs was a prostitute in Egypt. Abba Paphnutius, a monk of the desert, heard of her and went to her in civilian clothes to confront her. She spoke of God’s presence and he uses the opportunity to call her to repentance. She repents and is locked away in a convent as an anchoress. After three years a vision reveals to Paphnutius that her repentance has been accepted by God, and he goes to remove her from her cell. She comes out and dies 15 days later, ready to meet her Lord.

“It is not judgement of sins, excuses, or understanding of alleviating circumstances that break the heart, but mercy and love. This is a fundamental aspect of the life of the desert fathers: not to judge but to love” (88). This lesson we all need to hear is especially relevant to the story of Maria the Niece of Abraham. As I wrote above, Maria is seduced and joins a brothel in her despair. Having disguised himself as a soldier, so as not to attract attention from the brothel-owner, Abraham eventually gets to Maria’s bed chamber, where he reveals his identity, and asks:

Don’t you know me, Maria my child? Dear heart, am I not he who took care of you? What happened, my dear? Who hurt you, my daughter? What had become of the dress of angels that you used to wear [i.e., her monastic robes]? What has become of your virginity, your tears, your vigils, all your prayers? From what a height you have fallen, my child, into such a pit as this! Why, when you sinned, did you not tell me? Why could you not come and speak of it with me? For of course I would have done penance for you, I and our dearest [friend and chronicler] Ephraim. Why did you not do that?…For who is without sin, save God alone?…To you, your sins seem like mountains, but God has spread his mercy over all that He has made (98).

Maria repents and joins Abraham back at their hermitage in the desert. They pass away soon thereafter, Abraham first, then Maria a number of years later.

The story ends with an incredibly moving note, a note that one can certainly identify with. He laments the passing of his saintly friends and his failures in their absence. And he closes with this fine prayer, asking for the Father’s mercy:

Have mercy on me, God, alone without sin, and save me, for you alone are kind and merciful. For besides you and the only-begotten Son who became man for us, and the Holy Spirit who sanctifies all things, I know of no other nor do I believe in any other. Now remember me, Lover of men, and lead me out of the prison of my sins, for it was you who first willed me to enter the world and now you stand ready to bring me out of it. Remember me, for I have no protection, and save me, a sinner; and let those who were to me in this world a help, a refuge, and a glory, keep me under their wings from the day of terror and fear. You who see the heart, you know how greatly I have tried to avoid depravity and sin, vanity and especially heresy, by your grace which illuminates my soul. I pray you, holy Lord, save me in your kingdom, and deign to bless me, together with those who were so good in your sight, for to you alone belong glory and adoration and wonder, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN (101).

I find all of these stories incredibly compelling, and take heart since Ward points out how these are retold to encourage readers in the way of holiness, affirming that no one who seeks will fail to find God’s grace and mercy. And I marvel at their single-mindedness after their conversions; how I wish we Christians, myself foremostly in need, could have this single-sightedness and devotion to our Lord.

Saints Mary Magdalene, Mary of Egypt, Pelegia, Thaïs, and Maria, pray for us!

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