As I prepare for Easter this year, I am thinking about the harlots of the desert. In my Spirituality of the Desert Fathers class, I’m reading Sister Benedicta Ward’s book Harlots of the Desert. This book explores ancient stories in the Christian tradition such as of St. Mary of Egypt who experienced dramatic conversion, rejecting her former life of sexual sin to live a life of repentance and virtue in the desert. While Sister Ward examines a number of these accounts, one in particular stood out to me: the story of a young woman named Maria. In the story of Maria, the pattern of these stories shifts slightly. Maria begins in the desert, flees to a brothel, and then returns to the desert. In her story, I find encouragement as one who grew up in the church but who often feels hopeless in the face of my moral failings and struggles with doubt. In this reflection, I want to think about how Maria models conversion as an ongoing work of Christ in our lives.
After living for many virtuous years with her uncle Abraham in the desert, Maria (who the text seems to indicate is in her twenties) is seduced by monk and has sex with him. Afterward, she is so struck with shame and anxiety that she feels hopeless. The text records her lament: “I have lost all that I had before by the hard work of asceticism; all my prayers, tears, and vigils have come to nothing.” Feeling as though she is too far from salvation, Maria flees to the city and becomes a prostitute. Reading this text all these centuries later, I am amazed by how much I resonate with Maria’s struggle. I, too, have felt with Maria that “there is now no hope of salvation for me.” And yet, thankfully, the story does not end here.
Maria’s uncle Abraham travels to the city, reminds Maria of God’s love and mercy, and tells her that he will be responsible for her sin before God. Sister Ward helps us to recognize that the tradition to which the story belongs recognizes the Old Testament figure of Abraham as being a symbol for Christ: just as Abraham rescues Lot from Sodom, so Christ rescues us from sin and death. Uncle Abraham is thus also modeling Christ for us in this account: he mediates for Maria as Christ mediates for all of us. Upon entering the brothel, Uncle Abraham removes his disguise and says to Maria “Don’t you know me, Maria my child?” This portion of the text reminds us of Easter morning when the risen Christ appears to Mary, and she only recognizes him when she hears her name uttered lovingly by her Messiah. This is the heart of the Gospel! Christ calls us by our name, a call that is renewed whenever we wander, and Christ continuously invites us into reconciliation, and so enfolds us back into loving relationship!
Maria’s story ends with joy. Maria returns with Abraham to the desert, and her repentance is “greater than all measure of grief.” Maria is restored to intimacy with God, and moreover, she experiences greater grace than she had even known prior to her struggles with sin. And even more beautifully, her joyous experience of grace isn’t limited to just her: in God’s loving providence, she even becomes a channel of God’s grace to minister to other souls in need. God blesses her with the gift of healing, and every day He brings crowds of people to her to be prayed for and healed.
At Easter, I often feel as though I’ve “been there, done that”: I’ve already experienced my moment of “coming to Jesus,”, already started my faith journey. What can this Holy Week mean to me, having grown up in the church, and what can it mean to me, struggling as I do with doubt and with sin? But in a beautiful answer to this question there is the witness of Maria, reminding me that Christ’s mercy never fails, and that even when I am too weak or despairing to seek Him out, Christ seeks after me. God’s work in converting me is ongoing and His loving care for me never reaches an end, and truly that is something worth celebrating this Holy Week!