Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Feast of St. Mary of Egypt

There's a certain kind of woman who, more than anything else, deeply desires attention from men -- craves it in the same way an addict craves his drug of choice. Maybe such a woman was sexually abused as a child or in some other way has come to see herself as unworthy of dignity, or perhaps she grew up without a father's love. Maybe she's oppressed by a demon of lust. Or maybe some combination of all the above is in play.

Mary of Egypt, born around A.D. 344, was such a woman. We don't know what her home life was like when she was young, but we know that she did have a home and a brother in Egypt. When she was twelve, though, she ran away from them, making her way to Alexandria.1 Once there, she gave herself over entirely to a life of sin, with fornication being her favorite vice. As she described her situation when speaking to the priest Zosimus,2 it was lust and not profit that drove her. She was not a prostitute; she gave herself away freely:

...I am ashamed to recount now how at the outset I first polluted my virginity, and how ceaselessly and insatiably I [gave myself up] to sins, and continued in subjection to sinful lusts. It must now indeed be told briefly; yet I now the rather tell of them, that thou mayest perceive the unlawful burning of my misdeeds that I felt in my love of fornication.

...[E]ven for seventeen years I openly surpassed a number of people, continuing in the desire of fornication. Neither did I lose my virginity for any man's presents, nor would I indeed receive anything from any one who desired to give me somewhat; but I was greatly excited with the heat of sinful lust, so that I desired that they would come to me in greater numbers without any price, to the end that I might the more easily satisfy my culpable desires for wicked living.

Then, one day, she saw a group of "Africans and Egyptians" running toward the sea to make it in time to board a boat. She asked where they were going, and they told her they were going to Jerusalem to honor the Holy Rood, the feast of which would be in a few days. She saw such a trip as an opportunity to get with more men, but she didn't have the money it took to board, so she did sell her body. As she told the story,

...I saw ten young men standing together on the shore, sufficiently comely in body and in demeanour, and very suitable, methought, for my bodily lust. Then I shamelessly, as I was wont, went amongst them, and said to them: "Take me with you on your voyage; I shall not be displeasing to you." And I soon excited them all to wicked vices and shameful jestings, with many other filthy and lewd expressions. Then they, seeing my shameless behaviour, took me with them in their ship, and rowed away.

...[H]ow can I relate to you, or what tongue may say, or what ear hear, the evil deeds that took place upon the voyage, and that were done in the passage; and how I compelled to sin both the wretches who were willing and the wretches who gave me money. There is no description of lewdness, utterable or unutterable, which I did not allure to and teach, and first performed.

Once in Jerusalem, she carried on as she had on the boat. As she always did. She told Fr. Zosimus,

I associated myself with similar, and even worse, foul deeds. I did not restrict myself to the young men who associated with me on the sea or on the journey, but I also gathered together many of the strangers and citizens in the deeds of my sins, and betrayed and contaminated them.

Then came her miraculous transformation, her sudden awareness of herself as she really was. It was September 14, Roodmas -- the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the very reason so many pilgrims had made their way to Jerusalem. Crowds of visitors went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- consecrated just eight years before Mary of Egypt was born -- and entered. Mary followed them. But, try as she might, she could not enter in; some great invisible force held her back. Again and again she tried, but, she said,

I toiled in vain, whenever I touched the threshold of the doors. And they were all received therein without any hindrance, when I alone was pushed out. Just as if some strong company of men opposed me to prevent my entrance, so the sudden vengeance of God barred the door to me, until I was again standing in the vestibule of the temple.

Thus thrice or four times I endeavoured to behold and also to fulfil my will; and when I in no wise succeeded, then I began to think earnestly about it, and my body was extremely wearied by the compulsion of the pressure.

Exhausted and giving up, she went into a corner of the vestibule and thought. And then the knowledge came to her that it was her filthiness that kept her out of the church. She burst into tears of repentance, and as she was sobbing, she looked over to see an icon of the Blessed Virgin. The sight of the Blessed Mother brought on this prayer:

Oh! thou glorious lady, who according to the birth of the flesh didst bear the true God, well I wot that it is not fitting nor meet that I, who am so grievous a sinner, should behold thy form, and should pray with looks that have been so repeatedly polluted. Thou wast ever known as a virgin, keeping thy body pure and undefiled; wherefore indeed it is very right that I who am so foul should be separated and cast out from thy pure virginity. Nevertheless, inasmuch as I have heard that the God whom thyself barest was made man for that very reason, that He might call sinners to repentance, assist me now, who am desolate and deprived of any help. Permit me and give me leave to open the entrance of thy holy church, that I may not be exiled from the sight of the precious Rood on which the Saviour of all the earth was fastened, whom thou, a virgin, didst conceive and, still a virgin, didst bear, who poured out His own blood for my redemption. But command now, O glorious lady, that for me, unworthy though I be, the doors may be unclosed to let me greet the divine Rood, and I will give myself up to thee and choose thee for my protector against thine own Son; and I promise you both that I will never hereafter pollute my body with the dire lust of evil fornication; but, as soon as I see the Rood of thy Son, O holy virgin, I will thereupon forsake this world and its deeds with all things that are therein; and will afterwards go whithersoever thou dost advise me to go for my protection.

She made her way back to the church door. But this time, things were very different.

Then indeed a strong terror seized me, and I was all trembling and troubled, as I again approached the door that before was fastened against me; just as if all the force that had formerly debarred me from entering the door had afterwards assisted my entrance in advancing. Thus was I filled with spiritual mysteries within the temple, and I was considered worthy to pray for the mysteries of the honoured and quickening Rood. Then I beheld there the mysteries of the holy God, how He is ever ready to receive the repentant.

After this, she went back to the vestibule and stood before the image of Our Lady, asking the Virgin what she should do next. The Virgin's reply came to her in a faraway voice: "If thou wilt pass over the river Jordan, there thou shalt experience and find good rest."

She left the church, begged a few coins and bought three loaves of bread with them, and then made her way to the Jordan River, near which was a little church dedicated to St. John the Baptist. She spent the night there, praying, and asked the Mother of God for more direction. Thereafter, she went into the wilderness, on the East side -- the Jordan side -- of the Jordan River, where the Forerunner had fasted just three hundred and some years earlier.

Forty-seven Years Later

Now we flash forward almost five decades. A Palestinian priest named Fr. Zosimus was inspired to go to the banks of the Jordan River to stay at a little monastery there. The monks of this place would make periodic excursions into the desert, and when Fr. Zosimus was on the twenty-sixth day of one of these excursions, he saw a human figure in the distance. He called out to it, but the figure retreated across a small, dried-up stream and hid itself. Fr. Zosimus called out again, and this time the person responded, saying,

Thou, Abbot Zosimus, have pity on me for God's sake, I pray thee, because I cannot show myself to thee and turn towards thee; for I am a person of female sex, and totally bereaved of bodily clothing, even as thou thyself seest, and having the shame of my body uncovered. But if thou desirest to grant me, a poor evil-doer, thy salutary prayers, then cast me hither thy mantle with which thou art clothed, that I may cover my womanly weakness, and turn to thee and receive thy prayers.

She addressed him by name, and she knew he was a priest! He was bewildered, but turned his back and tossed her his mantle. She covered herself with it, and came out to greet him. She was an old, emaciated woman, with long, gray hair. She and the priest asked each other for a blessing, and then he asked her to tell him about herself, who she was, how she came to be in the desert, how long she'd been there -- everything. She told him she'd been in the wilderness for forty-seven years, so long that her clothes had disintegrated away. She'd kept herself alive by eating roots and herbs, she said. And then she told him the story you've just read, about her sins and how she came to repent of them. She told him of her temptations while in the desert, how she dealt with them, and how God rewarded her by infusing knowledge directly into her mind, which explained how she knew his name and office -- and much of Sacred Scripture even though didn't have a Bible with her, or even knew how to read. She told him everything but her name.

He was amazed, and ran to prostrate himself before her. She stopped him, but told him she had a favor to ask of him. She'd not received the Eucharist during all her years in the wilderness, so she asked him to come back next year, on Maundy Thursday, and bring to her the Blessed Sacrament. She also asked him to not tell anyone about her.

A year went by, and Holy Thursday came. Zosimus gathered together some figs, dates, and lentils for the woman, and he acquired the most important thing of all: the Holy Eucharist. He went back to the desert, arriving at the Jordan River at night. The moonlight allowed him to see her on the opposite bank, and he wondered how she would get across. He watched as she knelt down and made the sign of the Cross over the water -- and proceeded to walk across the water as Christ Himself did, and St. Peter did at His command (Matthew 14:23-33). When she got to him, they prayed the Credo and the Pater Noster together, and she received Christ. She took a few bites of the food he'd brought, then she left, crossing over the river in the same way as before.

Filled with joy, he went back to the monastery.

The next year he returned to the same wilderness place, hoping he'd see her again. He looked and looked for the old woman, and finally found her -- lifeless on the ground. Next to her, in the dirt, was written,

Abbot Zosimus, bury and compassionate the body of Mary; render to the earth that which is the earth's, and dust to dust. Add also to pray moreover for me, (who am) departing from this world, on the ninth night of the month that [is called] April, that is, the Ides of April, on the feast-day of the Lord, and after the time of the Eucharist

Upon reading those words, he knew that she died right after their last meeting, that is, she died right after receiving the Eucharist. And, finally, he learned her name.

He started to comply with her wishes to be buried. He found, though, that he was too old, and the ground was too hard, for him to dig. As he was lamenting this, a lioness approached. He was afraid, and prayed for protection from her, but the lioness wouldn't leave. So then he said,

O thou huge wild beast, if thou wert sent hither by God that thou mightest enclose in the earth the body of this holy handmaiden of God, fulfil now the work of thy service. I verily am weakened by age, so that I cannot dig, nor have I anything suitable for undertaking this work; nor can I speed on so great a journey, to bring [tools] hither. But do thou now perform this work, at the divine behest, with thy claws, until that we two enclose this holy body in the earth.

The lioness pawed at the earth, using her claws to make a pit in it, a pit that would serve as the temporary grave of the woman we know as St. Mary of Egypt.

Click to enlarge

St. Mary of Egypt is the patron saint of penitents. She is usually depicted in art as an old woman with very, very long hair (usually gray), sometimes gazing at a skull or carrying three loaves of bread. She is often depicted naked but covered by her hair, or wearing a very loose-fitting garment.

A relic consisting of her skull can be venerated at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence Italy. Other of her relics are kept in a bust-shaped reliquary in a church named for her -- Santa Maria Egiziaca a Forcella -- in Naples, Italy, and some can be venerated in the cathedral in Sens, France, in an Orthodox monastery in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York, and in a Russian Orthodox monastery in Ft. Myers, Florida.

The dates of St. Mary of Egypt's entries in the martyrology and calendar have moved all over the place throughout the years. The 1962 calendar (the one most traditional Catholics now use) and the martyrology in use in 1910 remember her on April 2; the Roman calendar in use in 1910 on April 3; the Novus Ordo on April 1; Eastern Catholics on April 1 and the fifth Sunday of Lent; Dom Prosper Gueranger's "Liturgical Year" assigns her feast to April 9, etc. So be aware of this, but know she is always honored, at least, in the first week or week and a half of April.


Some Catholics might pray a Novena to St. Mary of Egypt starting on March 24 and ending on April 1, the eve of her feast. As to prayer for the day, these two prayers from the East, with the simple plea added on would be nice:

In thee, O mother, was exactly preserved what was according to the divine image. For thou didst take the cross and follow Christ, and by thy life, didst teach us to ignore the flesh, since it is transitory, but to care for the soul as an immortal thing. Therefore, thy spirit, St. Mary, rejoices with the Angels.

Having escaped the fog of sin, and having illumined thy heart with the light of penitence, O glorious one, thou didst come to Christ and didst offer to Him His immaculate and holy Mother as a merciful intercessor. Hence thou hast found remission of transgressions, and with the Angels thou dost ever rejoice.

O, St. Mary of Egypt, pray for us!

There are no special foods for the day, but the gifts Fr. Zosimus brought to St. Mary bring to mind lentil soup, with some dried fruit for dessert -- perhaps dates and figs paired with a creamy goat milk cheese, served with halved pita bread crisped in the oven.:

Lemon Lentil Soup

2 TBSP olive oil
2 medium white onion, peeled and diced
4 medium carrots, diced
10 cloves garlic, minced
12 cup vegetable stock or chicken stock
3 cup dried red lentils, picked over and rinsed
1 1/3 cups whole-kernel corn
1 TBSP + 1 tsp. teaspoons ground cumin
2 tsp. curry powder
big pinch of saffron, optional
big pinch of cayenne pepper, optional
zest and juice of 2 small lemons
salt and fresh black pepper (get Fleur de Sel salt, if you can)

In a big stockpot, heat the oil over medium heat. When hot, add the onions and carrots and saute for 5 minutes or so, stirring, until the onions are transluscent. Add the garlic and saute for another minute or so until you can smell it.

Stir in the stock, lentils, corn, cumin, curry powder (and the saffron and cayenne, if using) until combined.  Bring it to a simmer, then cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are completely tender. (At this point, if you like, you can puree the soup with an immersion blender or by pouring it, in a few batches, into a regular blender and then returning it back to the stockpot.)

Stir in the lemon zest and juice and heat through.  Salt and pepper as needed.

As to music for the day, St. Mary of Egypt -- Santa Maria Egiziaca to Italians -- is the subject of the operatic mystery play Maria Egiziaca by Ottorino Respighi, which I provide for you below:

Today is a good day to meditate deeply on how utterly wise the Church is with regard to her teachings about human sexuality. So many of the horrors we endure now -- abortion, certain diseases, broken homes, children without fathers and all the evils that stem from that (crime, addiction, mental illness, etc.) -- are rooted in ignoring the simple fact that sex is meant for marriage alone. It's all very, very simple.

-- Simple, but not easy sometimes, especially for those for whom, for whatever reasons, sex becomes bound up with neuroses, addiction, or abuse. But the beautiful teaching of the Church is that no matter how far one has fallen, no matter in what ways one has degraded himself or been degraded by others, there are healing and forgiveness. One needn't go to the extreme of living decades in a desert; one just has to be contrite, go to confession, carry out one's penance, and resolve to sin no more. Praised be God!

For further reading about St. Mary of Egypt, see these pdf format books from this site's Catholic Library:


From The Liturgical Year
by Dom Prosper Geuranger

One of the most striking examples of penance ever witnessed, is this day proposed for our consideration : Mary, the Sinner and Penitent of Egypt, comes to animate us to persevere in our Lenten exercises. Like Magdalene and Margaret of Cortona, she had sinned grievously ; like them, she repented, atoned for her guilt, and is now the associate of Angels. Let us adore the omnipotence of our Grod, who thus changed a vessel of dishonour into one of honour ; let us lovingly contemplate the riches of his mercy, and hope for our own participation in them. At the same time, let us remember, that pardon is not granted, save where there is repentance ; and that repentance is not genuine, unless it produce an abiding spirit and deeds of penance. Mary of Egypt had the misfortune to lead a life of sin for seventeen years ; but her penance lasted forty : and what kind of penance must not hers have been, living alone in a desert, under a scorching sun, without the slightest human consolation, and amidst every sort of privation ! The pledge of pardon, — the receiving Holy Communion, — which we received so soon after our sins, was not granted to Mary, till she had done penauoe for nearly half a century. Yes, that pledge of Jesus' forgiveness, which he has given us in the Sacrament of his Love, and which was communicated to us so promptly, was withheld from this admirable Penitent, so that her second time for receiving it was at the moment when Death was on the point of separating her soul from her body which was worn out by austerities ! Let us humble ourselves at such a comparison ; let us think with fear on this great truth, — that Grod's justice will require an exact account of all the graces he has heaped upon us ; and with this thought, let us rouse ourselves to a determination to merit, by the sincerity of our repentance, a place near the humble Penitent of the desert.

We take the Lessons of the Office of St. Mary of Egypt from the ancient Roman-French Breviaries.

Mary of Egypt left her parents, when she was twelve years of age. It was during the reign of the Emperor Justin. She entered Alexandria, and was a sinner in that city for seventeen years. Having visited Jerusalem, and, it being the Feast of the Exaltation of the holy Cross, having endeavoured to enter the church of Calvary, she felt herself thrice repelled by divine power. Standing under the portico, she made a vow before an image of the Virgin Mother of God, that if our Lord would grant her to see and venerate the life-giving Wood of the Cross, she would lead a life of penance. Immediately, she entered the church; she saw; she adored.

Then, taking three loaves, as provision for her journey and having received the Eucharist, in St. John's Church on the banks of the Jordan, she withdrew into an immense wilderness, on the other side of the river. There, her provisions consumed, and her garments worn to tatters, she abode unknown to all, for forty-seven years, when she was discovered by the priest Zozimus. She asked him to bring to her, on the evening of Maundy Thursday, and on the other side of the Jordan, the Body and Blood of our Lord, which she had not received during all these years. On the appointed day, Zozimus came to the place that bad been agreed on; and Mary, having made the sign of the cross upon the waters, walked over them, and came to the priest. Having recited the Symbol and the Lord's Prayer, as was the custom, she received the Divine Gifts. She again besought Zozimus that he would come to the same torrent, the following year. He did so, and found her body lying on the ground, on which were written these words: "Abbot Zozimus! bury the body of this wretched Mary. Give back to the earth what belongs to it, and add dust unto dust. Yet, pray to God for me. This last day of the month of Pharmuthi, on the night of the saving Passion, after the Communion of the divine and sacred Supper."

A lion then came towards the place, and making a hole in the ground with his paws, he prepared a grave for her body.

In praise of our incomparable Penitent, we offer to the reader the following beautiful Sequence, taken from the ancient Missals of Germany.

This daughter passes from the Egypt of Pharao to the espousals with Jesus, our true Solomon. She that was abject, is made a chosen one; she that was deformed, is made fair; the vessel of dishonour is made one of honour.

The Star of the Sea shone upon her, and leading her to her beloved Son, has knit the bond of peace. The Mother of God interceded; Christ forgave; the sinner's sins are pardoned.

She that led a carnal life, came to Jerusalem, to be espoused to the King of Peace ; leaving her false lover, she is united to the true Spouse, honoured bv the wonderful One.

She strives to enter the House of God, but her unworthiness forbids it; she is compelled to retire. Then does she return to her own heart ; she weeps for her sins. and her weeping blots them out.

She flees to the desert ; tramples on Leviathan ; conquers the world and the flesh ; forgets her father's house : neglects the beaut}' of the body, that her spirit may be made comely.

Rejoice, O daughter of Egypt! Thou, that once wast a barren soil, take up thy harp and sing. Exult and be joyful, for now thou art chaste and pure, fruitful in virtue, a vine that yields a precious fruit.

He that is our Joy hath loved thee ; the shame of thy disorders is effaced by the merit of thy purity. Cleansed and all fair, the wisdom of thy heavenly Spouse has given thee the incorruption of his grace.

Robed in the seven-fold veil of his Spirit, thou wast anointed with the oil of gladness. The scarlet of charity, the lily of chastitjr, the girdle of modesty — all were upon thee.

Thy feet were decked with violet, for thy affections were changed from earthly to heavenly things. Thy vesture was of every richest hue, and thy couch was decked with flowers, sweeter than those of spring.

Rejoice, O Mary, in that Christ so loved thee, and beautified thee with grace. Be mindful of us sinners; pray for all mankind; feast now in thy eternal glory! Amen.

Thou wilt sing for all eternity, O Mary, the mercies of the Lord, who changed thee from a Sinner, into so glorious a Saint, we join thee in thy praises, and we give him thanks for having shown us so evidently, in thy person, that a true penitent, whatever and how great soever may have been his sins, may not only avoid eternal torments, but merit everlasting bliss.

How light mast now appear to thee, O Mary, that forty years' penance, the very thought of which terrifies us! How short a time, when compared with eternity ! How insignificant its austerity, if we think of Hell! And how rich must not its reward seem to thee, now that thou art face to face with Infinite Beauty. We, too, are Sinners; dare we say, that we are Penitents?

Aid our weakness, O Mary! Thou wast made known to the world at the close of thy hidden life, in order that Christians might learn from thee the grievousness of sin, of which they make so little account; the Justice of Grod, of which they are so apt to form so false an idea; and the goodness of that Father, which they care not to offend.

Pray for us, O Mary, that we may profit by the instructions given to us, so profusely, during this holy Season. Pray, that our conversion may be complete; that we may leave our pride and our cowardice; that we may appreciate the grace of reconciliation with our Maker; and, lastly, that we may ever approach to the Holy Table with compunction and love like those thou hadst, when, in thy last happy Communion, Jesus gave himself to thee in his Sacrament, and then took thee to himself, in the kingdom of everlasting rest and joy.


1 Though Alexandria is in the modern country of Egypt, it was in St, Mary of Egypt's time, a highly Greek city, a place of higher status than the rest of Egypt. Only Egyptians who lived in Alexandria could be granted Roman citizenship, and along with it, many other civic privileges.

2 From "The Death of St. Mary of Egypt" from Ælfric's "Life of the Saints," Link above.

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