Hoping to find a holy man who can steer him on the route to holiness, Abba Zosimas proceeded into the desert. He walked and walked for twenty days without seeing anyone.
Then one afternoon he saw someone. However this ‘someone’ immediately started running away from him.
Obviously, Abba Zosimas started chasing ‘it’. When he was near enough to be heard, he shouted: “Why do you run from an old man and a sinner? Slave of the True God, wait for me, whoever you are, in God’s name I tell you…”
“Forgive me for God’s sake, but I cannot turn towards you and show you my face, Abba Zosimas. For I am a woman and naked. Throw me your cloak so that I can cover my body and can turn to you and ask for your blessing.”
Zosimas was frightened because she called him by name. But he did what she asked him and he threw his old tattered cloak to her.
After much insistence, the woman started telling her story.
“My native land, holy father, was Egypt. Already during the lifetime of my parents, when I was 12, I renounced their love and went to Alexandria. I am ashamed to recall how there I first ruined my maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to sensuality. For seventeen years, forgive me, I lived like that. I was like a fire of public depravity.
“And it was not for the sake of gain — here I speak the pure truth. Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money. I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me.”
One day she saw many people going towards the harbor to board a ship going to Jerusalem. They told her, the feast of the Exaltation of the ‘the Precious and Life-giving Cross’ was near.
Just for the sake of having more sex elsewhere, she decided to go. Since she did not have any money, she again used her body to get on the ship. Even in Jerusalem she continued her life of perversion.
On the day of the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, she followed the crowds towards the Church. However something unexpected happened. When she tried to enter through the church doors, “I was stopped by some force that prevented my entering”.
She tried to elbow herself in, again and again, but in vain. “It was as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance”.
Feeling exhausted, she went aside. “The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life that barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart.
“As I stood weeping, I saw above me the icon of the most holy Mother of God. Turning to her I said: `O Lady, Mother of God, I know … that it is no honor or praise to you when one as impure and depraved as I look up to your icon… But I have heard that God Who was born of you became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance.
“Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree … Be my faithful witness before your son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication…”
It was the moment of grace. She left the corner where she was, and sure enough this time, she could enter without any problem. “Throwing myself on the ground, I worshipped that holy earth and kissed it with trembling.”
Following an inspiration which came again from the Virgin Mary, the moment she left the Church she went straight into the desert.
The beginnings were extremely difficult. “Believe me, Abba, seventeen years I passed in this desert fighting wild beasts — mad desires and passions.” Hunger, thirst, cold, excessive warmth were her constant companions.
But even worse were the interior enemies… “The mad desire for profligate songs …. the thoughts that urged me on to fornication, how can I express them to you, Abba?
“A fire was kindled in my miserable heart that seemed to burn me up completely and to awake in me a thirst for embraces. As soon as this craving came to me, I flung myself on the earth and watered it with my tears… And I did not rise from the ground (sometimes I lay thus prostrate for a day and a night) until a calm and sweet light descended and enlightened me and chased away the thoughts that possessed me.”
Her secret ally? “The Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by the hand”. She had already been there 47 years when Zosimas met her.
She only had one favor to ask. Next year “at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper, please put some of the Life-giving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it to me here… I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing.”
With these words she vanished in the depths of the desert.
Zosimas went two years in succession. The first time he gave her communion, the second time he found her dead. “Her hands were crossed according to custom and her face was turned to the East.”
It was the year 522.
Saint Saphronius, who wrote the story as he had heard it from the monks, adds one comment worth transcribing.
“If there do happen to be people who, after reading this record, do not believe it, may the Lord have mercy on them. Perhaps, reflecting on the weakness of human nature, they consider impossible these wonderful things accomplished by holy people.”
They are wrong. God can still do the impossible. Even now. Even with me and with you.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.