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The Life of St Mary the Harlot, the niece of Abraham the Hermit
[Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on 29 October]
by St Ephraem the Archdeacon translated into Latin from the Greek by an anonymous author.
by St Ephraem the Archdeacon translated into Latin from the Greek by an anonymous author.
This is the rest of Life of Abraham, begun in Life No 7 in Book 1a
Beloved brethren, I would like to respond to your unanimous request that I should tell you about another admirable matter which this blessed man dealt with in his old age. For wise and spiritual men it provides an instructive example of humility and compunction. This is what it was all about:
The blessed man Abraham had a brother who died leaving a daughter seven years old. Her father’s friends decided that as this girl had now lost both her parents, she should be immediately handed over to her uncle. The old man accepted this, and put her in the outer room of the cell. There was a little window in the wall between the rooms, through which he was able to teach her the psalter and the scriptures. She joined with him in praising God in the vigil services, and she strove to emulate her uncle in his practice of abstinence. She readily accepted this regime and made great advances in all the virtues. The holy man unceasingly prayed with tears to the Lord that her mind should be freed from attachment to the affairs of this world, for her father had left her a large sum of money. But with her father now dead, and her uncle in charge, the servant of Christ ordered that the money be distributed to the needy and orphans. The girl daily asked her uncle to pray that she be kept safe from the divers snares and traps of the devil, and kept faithfully to the rule he had given her.
Her uncle gave thanks that he could see her unhesitatingly moving forwards in the practice of all the virtues, that is in tears, humility, modesty and silence, and what was even more wonderful, in a profound love of God. She had lived with him in abstinence for twenty years, as pure as a lamb and as unspotted as a dove, when the devil began to rage against her, and tempted her with his usual tactics. He sought to ensnare her in his nets, hoping to turn her mind away from God and give the blessed man great cause to worry about her.
There was a certain monk (a monk in name only) who was in the habit of coming to visit the holy man under the pretext of seeking for instruction. He could see that blessed woman through the window, and began to be stirred with desire for her. He sought pretexts for speaking with her, and the urgings of lust began to set his heart on fire. Over the space of a year he insinuated himself into her affections by degrees, until her thoughts were quite overwhelmed by the sweetness of his words, and at last she opened the window of her cell and went out to him. He immediately contaminated and polluted her in the wickedness of his sinful lust.
Afterwards, she was horrified at how wicked was the deed she had done. She tore the tunic she was wearing and lacerated her face with her nails. In her excessive grief, she wished she were dead. Her anxiety oppressed her like a dead weight, in her mental storm she could not see the prospects of any harbour, her fevered thoughts flew backwards and forwards and she bewailed her fate unceasingly.
“This feels like a wound unto death,” she cried. “The labour of my days and my abstinence have gone for nothing, the work of my prayers, tears and vigils has been rendered completely worthless. I have grievously offended my God and have destroyed myself. What a miserable wretch I am, drowning myself in tears! I have inflicted the most bitter sorrow upon my holy uncle, my soul is burdened with guilt, and I have simply become a bit of sport for the devil. What point is there in prolonging my miserable existence any further? Alas, what have I done? Alas, what shall I do now? Alas, what evils have I brought upon myself? Alas, how could I have ever sunk so low? How did my mind come to be so darkened? I could not see that I was doing wrong, I did not realise I was being despoiled, I cannot understand how my heart came to be hidden in a cloud of darkness. How is it that I did not realise what I was doing?
“Where can I hide myself? Where can I go? Where is there some ravine I can throw myself into? Where now are all the teachings of my most holy uncle? Where are the warnings of his colleague, Ephraem? They taught me to preserve my virginity so that I might offer an immaculate soul to my immortal bridegroom. ‘Your bridegroom,’ they said, ‘is holy and ardent’. Alas, what can I do? I don’t dare so much as lift up my eyes to heaven, for I know that in the eyes of both God and man I am as good as dead. I don’t dare to go anywhere near his window. I am a sinner full of sordid uncleanness – how shall I even try to speak with my holy uncle? If I even dared to attempt it, wouldn’t a blast of fire burst from him to burn me to ashes? 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.”
Hastily, she left, went to a foreign land, changed her clothes and found employment in a brothel.[stabulum, a word which can mean simply ‘fixed abode’. In Chapter VI, below, it seems to mean ‘inn, hostelry’, but is also, obviously, a brothel]
This disaster which happened to her was revealed to the holy man by a vision in his sleep. What he saw was a terrifying, enormous dragon, hissing loudly and stinking most horribly, which burst out from somewhere towards his own cell, where it found a little dove, which it devoured and then returned to its own pit. He woke up in great distress, weeping bitter tears, interpreting the vision as an attack of the devil against the Church of God, turning many away from the faith and creating some schism in holy Church. He fell on his knees and prayed to God.
“O God, lover of men, nothing is hid from your sight. You know the meaning of this vision.”
Two days later he saw the same dragon coming back to the cell in the same manner as before. With its belly torn open it lowered its head down at his feet, and he could see the dove which it had devoured was still alive in its stomach. He put his hand in and pulled it out alive. When he woke up he called out for his blessed niece several times, thinking that she was still in her cell.
“What has been the matter with you, Mary” – for that was her name – “that you have not opened your voice to praise God these last two days?”
He got no reply, and since he had not heard her singing the psalms as usual for the last two days it began to dawn on him that the vision most certainly was about her. Then he groaned and wept bitterly, pouring out floods of tears.
“Woe is me! A wolf has carried off my little lamb and taken my daughter captive! O Christ, Saviour of the world, give me back my little lamb Mary. Bring her back to the fold, lest in my old age I depart this world in grief. Do not turn your ears away from my prayer, O Lord, but speedily send down your grace that she may be snatched unharmed from the mouth of the dragon.”
The two days of the vision turned out to signify two years, during which his niece lived out her shameful life as if in the disgusting belly of the dragon. But the holy man never ceased at all times day and night from praying for her to God.
After two years, he found out where she was and what she was doing, and he asked someone he knew very well to go there and find out everything about her that he could. After having gone there and actually seen her, he came back and gave Abraham a full and truthful report. At Abraham’s request he then lent him a soldier’s uniform and a horse to ride. Disguised as a soldier, and wearing voluminous headgear to conceal his face, he opened his door, came out, mounted his horse, and hurried off, taking with him just one solidus. Anyone who ventures into any foreign country or city always assumes the dress of that country so that he won’t be noticed; just so did Abraham wear aggressive clothing, to frighten off any possible attacker. Take a lesson, my beloved brothers, from this second Abraham. Just as the first Abraham went forth to do battle with kings and struck them down in order to rescue his nephew Lot (Genesis 13.12-16), so did this second Abraham sally forth to do battle with the devil, to conquer him and bring back his niece in triumph.
When he arrived at the place where she was, he turned aside into the inn (stabulum) and looked about him carefully in all directions, hoping to catch sight of her. Having lingered there for the best part of an hour without having caught the slightest glimpse of her, he approached the landlord with a grin on his face.
“I have heard, my friend,” he said, “that you have a most beautiful girl here. I would gladly have a look at her, if you will allow me.”
The landlord looked at Abraham’s grey hairs, and thought to himself that this person could hardly have any thoughts of lust in his mind, considering his obviously advanced age.
“You have been told correctly,” he replied. “She really is outstandingly beautiful.”
And indeed it is true that Mary was of an almost preternatural beauty.
“What is her name?” he asked.
“I should be delighted if you would bring her in to me,” he said, filled with joy at hearing her name. “Perhaps she might dine with me today, for I have heard great stories about this girl.”
He called her in, and when her uncle saw her, dressed like a prostitute, a shudder of grief shook his whole frame, but he hid the bitterness of his soul with a smile of pleasure. He restrained himself from breaking out into tears, lest she recognise him and take refuge in flight.
They sat down and had a drink, and this wonderful man then began to lead her on. She got up from her seat, put her arms around his neck and gave him a few gentle kisses. But as did so, the familiar scent of an abstinent body assailed her sense of smell, and the remembrance of the days when she lived in abstinence herself suddenly burst upon her mind. She cried out, as if pierced by a javelin, and tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Woe, woe is me!” she cried, unable to restrain the pain in her heart.
The landlord was shocked.
“What is the matter Mary?” he cried. “Why these cries of pain? You have been here two years and I have never heard you moan like this before. I don’t understand what’s bothering you.”
“It would have been better for me if I had died three years ago!” she said.
Her blessed uncle, hoping not as yet to be recognised, said to her quite calmly:
“We were enjoying each other’s company a moment ago. Could it be that the memory of your sins has just come into your mind?”
O Almighty God! How wonderful is the way you shed your mercy upon us! Wouldn’t you think that by now the girl was at least thinking to herself, ‘What a close resemblance there is between this man and my uncle!’ But you alone are the lover of mankind, O God, from whom all goodness and wisdom flows; you so decreed that she did not recognise him and so run away in confusion. The only possible reason for this servant of yours, her uncle, being able to hold back his tears, must surely be that you intervened to make the impossible possible.
The holy man gave the landlord the solidus he had brought with him.
“Prepare the best meal for us that you possibly can,” he said, “so that the girl and I can dine together. I have come a long journey for the love of her.”
O loving wisdom of our God! O truly spiritual fount of knowledge! The wisdom of your saving ways is a perpetual cause for celebration. For fifty years of abstinence Abraham had tasted nothing but bread, and here he was now eating meat without hesitation, simply in order to save a lost soul. The choirs of Holy Angels looked on and applauded with exultation at the discretion this blessed man was displaying, for he was eating and drinking enthusiastically with no qualms at all simply in order to rescue a lost soul from the lowest deeps O wisdom of the wise, O knowledge of the knowledgeable, O discretion of the discreet! You cannot but admire the simplicity of this man. Come, stand in awe of how this man, so perfect and wise and prudent and discreet, has made himself into something quite different, into someone ignorant and completely lacking in discretion, simply in order that he might snatch a soul from the mouth of the lion, and free an imprisoned and conquered soul from the chains and oppression of darkness.
After they had eaten, the girl became quite provocative and suggested they go to the bedroom.
“Yes, let’s go,” he said.
As he went in he saw the bed in the corner and sat down on it without hesitation. However shall I describe you, you most perfect athlete of Christ? I really do not know how to put the right name to you. Do I call you continent, or incontinent? Wise, or idiotic? Discreet or indiscreet? For fifty years of your life you have slept on a hard bed, and here you are now boldly getting into a bed of this sort! But of course you have done all these things for the praise and glory of Christ. You have undertaken a long and tedious journey, you have eaten meat and drunk wine, entered a house of ill repute, and all for the sake of saving one lost soul. Yet we tend to draw back in diffidence when we should at least be saying some sort of constructive word to our neighbour.
“Come, sir, let me take your shoes off for you,” she said, as he sat on the bed.
“Shut the door first,” he said, “and then you can take them off.”
She wanted to take them off first, but he would not let her, so she went and shut the door and came back to him.
“Come closer, Mary,” he said.
He took her by the hand, and she thought he was about to embrace her, but instead he took off the concealing headgear he was wearing and at last allowed the tears to flow.
“Mary, my daughter,” he said, “don’t you recognise me? You are my own flesh and blood. Wasn’t it I who brought you up? O my daughter, what has become of you? Who has destroyed you? Where is the clothing of angels that you used to wear? Where is your continence, your tears, your vigils, your sleeping on the ground? How did you come to fall into this pit after dwelling in the heights of heaven, my daughter? If you had sinned, why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you immediately let me help? My beloved brother Ephraem and I would gladly have done penance for you. Why have you behaved the way you have? Why desert me and plunge me into such grief. After all, is there anyone who hasn’t sinned, except God?”
As he was saying all this, and much more besides, she remained in his grip as still as a stone, transfixed as much by fear as confusion. But the blessed man kept on talking to her through his tears.
“O Mary, my daughter, haven’t you got anything to say to me? Flesh of my flesh, can you not speak? Haven’t I come all this way especially for your sake? Let your sin rest upon my shoulders, my daughter, that in the day of judgment I may stand in your place before God and make satisfaction to God for your sin.”
He went on till midnight pricking her conscience with such words and overwhelming her with his life-giving tears. Little by little she began to regain a little confidence, and answered him through her tears.
“I am so covered in confusion,” she said, “that I can hardly bear you to look at me. But how could I possibly have poured out my prayers towards God, when I had been wallowing in such filth?”
“Let me bear the burden of your sin,” said this most holy man. “Let God require your sin at my hands, if only you will listen to me. And come, and let us go to our own place. Look, there is that most loving Ephraem who has been most deeply upset because of you. He prays without ceasing for you to the Lord. Don’t have any doubts, my daughter, about the mercy of the Lord. Though your sins be as big as mountains, yet his mercy is greater than all creation. Don’t we read about how the unclean woman came to him who was spotless without in the least contaminating him? By him she was cleansed, she washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7.38). There is more hope of a spark setting the sea on fire than there is of your sins contaminating him.
“There is nothing new in falling down in the contest; the wicked thing is to keep on lying there. Be brave, retrace your steps. For as long as you go on lying down the enemy is laughing at you, but he knows that you will be all the stronger when you get up. Have pity on my old age. Give me some recompense for the labours I have undertaken in spite of my grey hair, I beg you. Leave here and come back with me to your cell. Don’t be afraid, it is human nature to be in danger of falling. But even though a fall can happen quite quickly, by the help of God to rise again can be quicker still. For God does not will the death of a sinner but rather that he may be healed and live” (Ezekiel 18.23).
“If you are sure that I can do penance, and that God will accept my reparation,” she said, “then, see, I am going to do what you say. You lead, and I will follow your holiness, and kiss your footprints, because you have grieved so much about me and drawn me out this unclean morass.”
And she laid her head down at his feet and wept for the rest of the night, crying: “What shall I give to the Lord, as retribution for all my sins?”
“Come, daughter,” said Abraham as soon as it was light, “let’s go back to our cell.”
“I have a little money here,” she replied, “and some clothes. What do you want me to do with them?”
“Leave them behind,” said the blessed Abraham. “They are the wages of sin.”
So they arose and departed. He put her on his horse and walked in front of her. Just as a shepherd who has found his lost sheep puts it on his shoulders rejoicing (Luke 15.5), so did the blessed Abraham begin this journey with his niece rejoicing. When they got home he put her in the inner room which he had previously occupied, and he remained in the outer room. Wearing the monastic habit once more, she passed her days in humility of mind and body, her eyes bathed in tears, disciplining herself with the strictest abstinence, declaring unceasingly with untroubled confidence before the Lord that her tears were offered in sure hope of the forgiveness of her sins. She cried out for mercy so powerfully that he would be hard hearted indeed who would not have been overcome with compassion at the sound of her weeping. Who is there so devoid of mercy that would not have wept in sympathy with her in her lamentation? And who in true compunction of heart would not have given thanks to God?
Her penitence was beyond measure, compared to ours. So zealously did she pray to the Lord to pardon what she had done, that she was bold enough to ask God for a sign that her sins were indeed forgiven. And the most merciful Lord who wills no one to perish but rather come to repentance (1 Timothy 2.4), so graciously accepted her penances, that after three years salvation began to come to many other people through her prayers. For crowds of people began to flow eagerly towards her, begging that she might pray to the Lord for their salvation.
The blessed Abraham lasted for a further ten years in this life, to witness the depth of her penitence and glorify God, until in his seventieth year he rested in peace. For fifty years he had been faithful to his profession with great devotion, humility of heart and charity unfeigned.
He had shown favouritism to no one, as many are inclined to do, loving this person and despising that. He never relaxed his rule of abstinence, he never slumped into indolence, he was never careless, but lived each day as it if were his last. The way of life of this most blessed Abraham, and the battles he endured, were such that he ever stood resolute in the face of the enemy and never retreated. In his struggles in the village, [In his earlier life he had been responsible for converting a pagan village, at the behest of his bishop. See chapter iv and following, in Life No 7 in Book 1a.] and in all his battles against the phantasies of the demons, he never relaxed his mind or quailed before anyone. A great and memorable battle he had in the matter of the most blessed Mary. With spiritual wisdom, prudence and innocence he rescued her from the carelessness and incontinence of a morass of iniquity. What a miracle! He ventured even into the lair of the dragon and trod him underfoot, snatching his prey from out of his very mouth. What agonies and sweat this blessed man endured.
We have written all these things for the comfort and devotion of all those who desire to govern their lives devoutly and zealously, and to the praise and glory of God whose grace has surrounded us abundantly at all times. I have described the rest of his virtues in another book. When he was lying in peace, having passed to the Lord, almost the whole city gathered. Each person approached his most pure body with the greatest devotion, tearing off bits of his clothing to obtain a blessing for themselves. And if they were ever ill, they only needed to touch the scrap they had torn off to be fully restored to health.
Mary lived for another five years, pursuing an extraordinarily strict mode of existence. Day and night she continually prayed to the Lord with great lamentation bathed in tears, so that the many people who came by night to hear the voice of her weeping were so affected by her plaints that they joined her weeping with their own weeping. And on the day of her falling asleep, when she was taken up out of this life, all who saw her gave glory to the Lord because of the shining splendour of her countenance.
O what a wretch am I, my beloved brothers, compared with those who have already fallen asleep and passed to the Lord with such great faithfulness! Their minds were never preoccupied with mundane business, but centred solely in the love of God. But I, indeed, remain buried in self-will, stumbling and unresponsive. My soul is wintry, an unending tempest leaves me bare, and despoiled of the hope of bringing any good work to perfection.
I am astonished at myself, my beloved brothers, because of the way in which I daily fail. I build for hours, then for hours I destroy what I have built. At night I say, ‘Tomorrow I will repent’, but in the morning when I get up I put it off for another day. Again towards evening I say, ‘Tonight I will keep vigil and besiege the Lord with tears that he may look mercifully on my sins’, but when nighttime comes I fall asleep. There are those who like me have been given a talent and have laboured day and night to trade successfully and gain the prize of being given power over ten cities (Luke 19.17), but I in my laziness have hidden my talent in the ground, and my Lord is hastening near and will strike fear into my heart, and I mourn for the days of my negligence, for I have not any excuse to offer.
O my God, have mercy upon me and save me, for you alone are without sin, you alone are merciful and kind, and apart from you I know no other, nor is there any other in whom I believe, Father most blessed, and only begotten Son incarnate for our sakes, and holy Spirit who gives life to all things. It is in your nature, O lover of mankind, both to keep me in mind, and to lead me out of the prison house of my sins. It is at your behest that I both came into this world and shall depart from it. Be merciful to me in my helplessness, and bring salvation to me, a sinner. Your grace is my helper in this world, my refuge and my hope of glory. Let it hide me under the shadow of its wings in that terrible and horrendous day. For you know the secrets of our hearts and minds, you know how many depravities and scandalous by ways I have scorned, you know how many shameless vanities and inclinations to heresy I have rejected. And all that not in my own strength but by your grace which has enlightened my mind. Wherefore I pray you, holy Lord, to save me into your kingdom and be graciously pleased to bless me along with all who are pleasing to you, for yours alone is the glory, the adoration and the magnificence, Father Son and holy Spirit. Amen.