Literary Devices in the Vita of Mary of Egypt

 A previous article provided some background  on Mary of Egypt and discussed the liturgical practices described in the Vita, written by Sophronios, the patriarch of Jerusalem, in the seventh century. This article will review four of the literary devices presented in the book: 

  • The Lion. After her death, Zosimas buried Mary with the assistance of a passing lion. Astoundingly, Mary had not seen any living creatures or animals during her time in the desert. Most people do not associate lions with the Palestinian desert. However, the Asiatic lion used to roam freely in Palestine and Arabia. A Roman emperor wished to seed the desert with lions at one time as they would in essence become the Border Patrol of its day. Sadly, this lion became extinct in these areas around the tenth century A. D. and today only exists in India. Lions are a frequent image in Christianity, variously representing Jesus (think of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe), St. Mark (his symbol is the lion)  or John the Baptist (who came roaring out of the desert preaching repentance.) Lions are also a symbol of fortitude and courage.
  • Three. Three represents the Trinity in Christian theology and recurs in the Vita. Mary receives three coins from a stranger which she used to buy three loaves of bread. She eats only three lentil grains from the food Zosimas brought her. “Three times three” is a reference to perfection and it is noteworthy Sophronios describes Mary as encountering three sets of three in the story as an indicator Mary has achieved spiritual perfection.  As an example of this principle, a Byzantine Christian priest or deacon will incense the Church and the icon screen with three strokes of the censer, but “three times three” or nine total strokes when incensing the chalice with Holy Communion. 
  • Crossing the Jordan. Crossing the Jordan River as a symbol of spiritual perfection is also a recurring theme in this book. When Mary first decides to cross the Jordan and enter the desert, she must find a small boat for passage. She is not yet purged of her sin, even though she has repented.  When she sees Zozimos for the last time, she doesn’t need a boat.  She simply makes the Sign of the Cross and miraculously walks across the water not once, but twice.  Her time in the desert atoned for her sinful past and she is now capable of miraculous deeds. Note that Mary walks across the Jordan River, just as Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee. Contrast that to Elijah and Elisha who had to part the waters of the Jordan to cross (2 Kings 2:8 ff). Elijah and Elisha  also had to use Elijah’s cloak to part the water whereas  Mary simply makes the Sign of the Cross to enable her to pass. Zosimas came to his current monastery because he came to believe he was perfect.  It was God’s plan to show him what true perfection was in the person of Mary.  Zosimas even exclaims when seeing Mary walk on the water, “God did not lie when he promised that when we purify ourselves, we should become like him.”  Zosimas thought he had reached this perfection. Seeing Mary walking on the water convinced him otherwise. 
  • Monastery of St. John the Baptist. Mary crosses the Jordan at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist. Currently, there is an active church at the site. Much more impressively though is the archeology of the area indicates the presence of a Byzantine church dating to the time of Mary and Zosimas.  The church is at the site where Jesus is said to have been baptized and Joshua crossed the Jordan with the Israelites.   It is here that Mary is baptized at the same site Jesus was and receives Holy Communion In Byzantine Christian practice, Holy Communion is administered immediately after baptism and chrismation (confirmation). This obviously happened with Mary. 

These were some of the more prominent literary devices used by Sophronios in the Vita. I am sure I missed many.  Please let me know if you come across more!