As we near the end of the Great Fast reality begins to set in and we realize that we are not the saintly souls we had envisioned ourselves to be at the outset. By now our will has been tried and our resolve tested, and we aren't entirely sure we will live up to our promises by the end of the Fast. How will we face the Lord on the cross? What will He think of us, weak and sinful as we are? Once again, the Church encourages us with the powerful example of repentance and forgiveness found in the Venerable Mary of Egypt. She was given the chance to repent by a miraculous and instantaneous gift from God; this was the gift of enlightenment she received at being barred from His presence. She seized that opportunity quickly, but her will wasn't perfected in a day! She had spent at least seventeen years in utter torment, facing and wrestling with the sinful thoughts and memories that tempted to lure her to failure in the desert. This made up for the seventeen years she spent living in sin. We do not change instantly when we repent either. The desert of our suffering and temptation may take years, but day by day, little by little, fast by fast, God's grace will overcome and we will be free!
By the time she was twelve, Mary's disrepute knew no bounds. She attempted to seduce everyone and anyone to sin, and admittedly enjoyed doing so. When she was seventeen, she had heard of a voyage to Jerusalem and desired to accompany the pilgrims, not to see the holy sites, but to take advantage of the passengers on board the ship. Once they arrived in the Holy Land, she went about her usual business. It was the feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, and when she noticed that the pilgrims were heading to the church, she thought to go along, but to her amazement, an invisible force stopped her in the doorway and would not let her enter the church. She tried again and again, watching the other pilgrims enter with ease, but she remained outside. After some time, it became apparent to her that her sinful nature was what was keeping her from entering and venerating the relic of the Life-Giving Cross inside. She felt despair and began to cry. She fell to her knees on the front steps in front of an icon of the Theotokos to whom she lifted her heart. She pleaded with Our Lady to obtain for her the grace to be able to enter and venerate the cross and if she would do so, Mary would pledge never to sin in this manner again. She rose up and tried once more, and this time she was able to enter and venerate the cross. She was overwhelmed with joy, and on her way out of the church, she passed by that icon again and renewed her pledge. This time, she heard the words, "If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest".
So, heeding the words of Our Lady, Mary endeavored to cross the river Jordan and conceal herself in the desert as a penitent, praying and fasting for her sins, and met not a soul for forty seven years. At that time, a priest named Fr. Zosimas had retreated to the desert during the time of the Great Fast, in order to find spiritual fulfillment, never dreaming that he would meet Mary there instead. When she heard a man approaching, she hid behind a rock since she was naked. When he called out to her to come forward and identify herself, she asked him for his cloak to cover herself so she could receive his blessing. Even before she spoke to him she knew his name, and that he was a priest, convincing Fr. Zosimas that she was a very holy woman. After speaking for a while, he heard her confession and promised to return on Holy Thursday with the Eucharist, which he did. At that time, Mary asked the priest to return to visit her the following year. When he did, he found not Mary, but the skeletal remains of the saint in the spot where they agreed to meet, alongside a note written in the earth by Mary, herself before she died. She had passed away the year before, on the very day of their last visit, after having received Our Lord in the Eucharist! Fr. Zosimas desired to do her the favor of properly burying her body, but having no shovel, he fell discouraged. It was then that a lion had appeared to walk out of the bush toward him. To his amazement, the creature had begun to dig with his massive paws beside the body, apparently helping him to perform this work of mercy. After burying the body of the saint, the lion and the priest parted ways, each going to his own home. The monks of the monastery have passed down and preserved the story of St. Mary of Egypt to this very day.