Saint Mary of Egypt and Recovery From Trauma

My daughter Panayiota recently recommended an extremely difficult NY Times bestselling book entitled Spilled Milk which gives the reader a glimpse into the world of child and physical abuse. This must-read book offers an awareness of what happens to victims, the family, the perpetrator and the larger community around such a traumatic experience. The protagonist of the book was sexually abused and raped from a very young age by her father, while her siblings were physically abused, and even though this protagonist thought she was protecting her siblings by not speaking up about her own abuse, still endured sexual abuse as well. The mother was oblivious to the horrible ordeal her four children suffered as she focused on her own world of pain med addiction. Even the world around these suffering children - from school teachers and administrators, to the kids’ peers and their parents, and even relatives - all seemed blind or chose to remain unaware of the environment of suffering and distress surrounding the children.

Eventually the young protagonist found strength to reveal her harrowing reality, despite extreme feelings of shame and guilt, and despite feeling more like the perpetrator than the victim. Then after coming forward, she had to deal with our country’s dysfunctional legal system which drug out the trial of her father for two years, forcing the 16 year old girl to repeatedly describe her harrowing experiences to complete strangers and law officials whom she feared, each time making her want to backtrack her revelation. After two years of the judicial system, the jury ends up exonerating her father. Only after an appeal and a second trial was he finally convicted and she felt safe.

I highly recommend this book, Spilled Milk, simply to make us all more aware of the suffering of people all around us in society! One of the many lessons I took away from this book was that despite all this young child endured, she was able to hide from many her disturbing reality by being an honor roll student, a cheerleader and someone who others thought had her life all together. She was the overachiever in her family and society couldn’t see her deep wounds. Thank God, she eventually found certain adults she could deeply trust and who gradually encouraged her to reveal her dark secrets. Through counseling, through support, and through unconditional love she found a path of healing that was a slow, painful, difficult. Her siblings and her mother, however, didn’t accept the arduous path of healing and chose, whether consciously or unconsciously, to continue in paths of self-destruction through their addictions, violent behavior, and dysfunctional relationships. Too often, society then judges such people who are deeply wounded and hurting in negative ways, simply condemning their self-destructive behavior instead of trying to understand the roots of their brokenness and offer paths of healing.

Reading this book and then reflecting on a enlightening article by Dr. Pia Sophia Chaudhari, I realized that introducing this book might be an appropriate way to reflect on the life of Saint Mary of Egypt, whom we remember on this 5th Sunday of Great Lent. The typical way we hear about this 6th century saint relates to how she, at the young age of only 12, entered a life of utter depravity with her sexual desires, not simply as a prostitute but more so as a sex addict who delighted in freely engaging in sexual exploits with any men she could ensnare in her immorality.

This life of decadence continued for 17 years until one time when she saw a crowd of people traveling from the city of Alexandria to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross. She paid passage to travel with the crowd by offering her body to whoever wanted. When she finally arrived in the Holy Lands and tried to enter the church of the Holy Sepulcher, an invisible force keeps her out of the church. In despair, she sat outside the church deeply mourning her sinful life and calling on the Theotokos to allow her to see the precious Cross of Christ. Following a sincere repentance and promise to change her life, she entered the church and venerated the Holy Cross. This unusual experience led her to flee into the desert where she spent the next 47 years, tormented by “made desires and passions,” until she overcame her temptations and discovered peace with God. At the end of her life she met Fr. Zozimos, with whom she shared her story and who ended up burying her body and enlightening the church with the story of her life.

Dr. Chadhari perceptively notes in her article, “Depth Psychology and the Courage of St. Mary of Egypt” that “what is often lifted up in commentaries on this story… is the willing ‘wantonness’ of St Mary’s sin, the stunning and absolute nature of her repentance, and then her courageous ascetic struggle in the wilderness… But I also wonder about what led her into her original state. What occurred in her childhood to bring her to a place of leaving home at age 12 to move to a big city by herself? Was she a social outcast? Was she abused? Did she have family? What patterning had already taken place deep inside her? What sense of worth lived within her? What was she looking for in her promiscuous behavior? Was her physical desire knotted up in a distorted search for a love and intimacy she had never known?”

Instead of reading the life of a saint in a simple manner as a sinful woman who deeply repented, these questions challenge us to reflect in a deeper way into the life of Saint Mary and realize that she possibly came from a traumatic past. As we reflect on her broken life of sin and her discovery of a new life through repentance in Christ, we can also think about the lives of others we may know and take care not to simply reject these broken individuals as sinful and beyond hope. When we see people in the midst of self-destructive behavior that both pulls down themselves and others, can we see beyond their outward sinfulness and focus not on their inner broken relationships, their insecurities, their shame and self-hatred, but instead discover within such people their moments of grace where they want to encounter a God who offers them hope and healing, where they can discover a loving God who desires a new life for them.

Maybe it wasn’t simply by chance that Mary went to Jerusalem and tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher but their was the Spirit of God within her that was drawing her back to Him.

Dr. Chadhari goes on to explain, “If we emphasize only purity and impurity, we may miss the actual breath-taking beauty of what can and actually does happen when our own small realities encounter the greater Reality… Such an encounter with truth is the beginning of hope—not because a sinner can be saved in a moralistic trope, but because an inner space opens up in the person that can change their whole existence, their whole experience of the world. It is the beginning of freedom, inextricably bound up in the experience of love… Once a different way has been glimpsed and even more, fully experienced, an all out revolution begins. [This] makes her story all the more moving, not just as an icon of repentance in the way we often hear that word, but of love breaking through deeply patterned behavior and holding open the door to a different way, one Saint Mary would have to fight body and soul, tooth and nail, to hold on to. Her experiences of God must have been very, very strong to effect such a radical metanoia and then sustain her for the ensuing battle with all the demons and complexes which would still be there in her psyche.”

Saint Mary’s life presents such a relevant message for so many of us today. Yes, it teaches us about sin and redemption but much more so it may be “a moving story, a miraculous story, an utterly harrowing story about deep healing of despair and isolation, an encounter with true love, and the lifelong struggle that such an initiatory encounter may set off in each of us as we strive to become who we were born to be—creatures of desire made for communion with God and with each other.”

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