From anchoress to prostitute to miracle worker -- hers is a story to bring hope to us all in our sin and weakness.
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Some saints are sweet and sinless their whole lives; others live for years as wild sinners before experiencing great conversions. And then there are those who try a little of both. For those of us who feel that we’re in the post-conversion phase of our lives but still keep falling, these are saints who remind us that even Jesus fell under his cross. The important thing isn’t never to fall but to get back up and keep going.
St. Mary of Edessa was born to a noble family in 4th-century Syria. Her parents died when she was only 7, but she was adopted by her uncle, St. Abraham Kidunaia, and began to live a remarkably holy life.
For 20 years, Mary lived as an anchoress, following the advice of her hermit-uncle as she sought a deep life of prayer and sacrifice. But one day a monk who was unworthy of the name caught sight of Mary when he was visiting Fr. Abraham. Determined to seduce her, he spent a year befriending her, becoming more and more intimate until the young innocent gave herself to him, heart and body.
Horrified at her sin, Mary tore her tunic and wished for death. Like Adam and Eve, she was so ashamed she hid from the one who loved her. “How shall I even try to speak with my holy uncle?” she asked in anguish. “Seeing that I am already dead and have no hope of gaining salvation, I had better leave here and go to some foreign land where nobody knows me.”
Here is one who should have known better. Even granted the weakness of the flesh, after falling she should have remembered the mercy of God and cast herself upon it. To be a Christian, after all, is to be deeply loved by a God who sees us in all our sin and loves us anyway. After Mary fell, she had only to turn to the Lord and beg forgiveness; instead she succumbed to despair.
It’s a story that’s all too common. A “good Christian” makes one big mistake and never turns back. The devil twists our pride into a conviction that we can never be forgiven, never be what we were, and so we dive headfirst into sin, letting that be what defines us instead of allowing Christ to sign his name over our past once again and claim us as his own.
Mary’s despair convinced her that having fallen once, she could never again be holy. Mary fled her sacred home in the desert for a brothel, there to live as the sinner she was convinced she was destined to be.
Meanwhile, Fr. Abraham was oblivious to all that had happened. But that night he had a vision of a dragon consuming a dove; two days later, he saw the same dragon with its belly torn open. He reached in to pull out the dove, miraculously unharmed. When he called out to his niece to tell her about it but received no answer, Abraham realized that she was the subject of the vision. The devil had carried off the daughter of his soul and all he could do in her absence was to pray for her.
Pray he did, for two years. Finally, a report reached him that his sweet, pure Mary was living the harlot’s life. Had she known that he would learn of her lifestyle, Mary likely would have expected him to be disgusted and dismissive. But Fr. Abraham was a Christian, a priest, and a spiritual father; like the Good Shepherd, he was off without a moment’s hesitation, eager to bring his lost lamb home.
Abraham hadn’t left his hermitage in decades, but he disguised himself as a soldier and began his journey. He made an appointment with Mary the prostitute, who didn’t recognize him until he began to weep, begging her to come home. Moved by his powerful love, Mary returned to her hermitage and began a life of penance. Within three years, God testified to her true conversion (and his abundant mercy) by giving her the gift of miracles. More than just being returned to her original state of holiness, Mary was brought through wickedness to greater prayer, greater virtue, and greater power in Christ.
While he spoke to Mary in her brothel, St. Abraham reminded her, “There is nothing new in falling down in the contest; the wicked thing is to keep on lying there.” St. Mary of Edessa is a powerful witness to what God is capable of when we offer him our sin—and what we’re capable of when we don’t.
On October 29, the feast of St. Mary of Edessa and St. Abraham Kidunaia, let’s ask her intercession for those who have loved Jesus but have fallen away, that they would have the courage to confess their sins and be reborn. St. Mary of Edessa, pray for us!
Pope Francis in Assisi: “The world needs forgiveness”