The nature of mankind does not change, which perhaps is one reason why the lives of the early Christians are so relevant to our lives today. With the exception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we are all born in a state of original sin, which without baptism and the grace of God, would leave us incapable of overcoming our innate human weaknesses and sinfulness. The life of St Abraham, sometimes known as 'St Abraham the Poor' or 'the Good', and that of his niece St Mary, sometimes known as 'St Mary the Harlot', was set in the 4th century AD, but the purpose and reality of their lives applies equally to the world of the 21st century.
‘St Abraham was born at Chidana, in Mespotamia, near Edessa, in about 300AD, of wealthy and noble parents, who after giving him a most virtuous education, were desirous of engaging him in the married state. In compliance with their inclinations, Abraham took to wife a pious and noble virgin; but earnestly desiring to live and die in the state of holy virginity, as soon as the marriage ceremony and feast were over, having made known his resolution to his new bride, he secretly withdrew to a cell two miles from the city of Edessa, where after a search of seventeen days, his friends found him at prayer. By earnest entreaties he obtained their consent, and after their departure walled up the door of his cell, leaving only a little window, through which he received what was necessary for his subsistence. He spent his whole time in prayer, praising God and imploring his mercy. He was possessed of no earthly goods other than a cloak and a piece of sackcloth which he wore, and a little vessel out of which he both ate and drank. Ten years after he withdrew from the world, on the death of his parents, he inherited their great estates, but commissioned a virtuous friend to distribute the revenues in alms deeds. Many resorted to him for spiritual advice, whom he exceedingly comforted and edified by his holy discourses.
A large country town in the diocese of Edessa remained till that time, addicted to idolatory, and its inhabitants had loaded with injuries and outrages all the holy monks and others who had attempted to preach the gospel to them. The bishop at length cast his eye on Abraham, ordained him priest, though much against his will, and sent him to preach the faith to those obstinate infidels. He wept all the way as he went, and with great earnestness repeated this prayer: “Most merciful God, look down on my weakness; assist me with Thy grace, that Thy name may be glorified. Despise not the works of Thy own hands.” At the sight of the town, reeking with the impious rites of idolatory, he redoubled the torrents of his tears; but found the citizens resolutely determined not to hear him speak. Nevertheless, he continued to pray and weep among them without intermission, and though he was often beaten and ill-treated, and thrice banished by them, he always returned with the same zeal. After three years the infidels were overcome by his meekness and patience, and being touched by an extraordinary grace, all demanded baptism. He stayed one year longer with them to instruct them in the faith; and on their being supplied with priests and other ministers, he returned to his cell
His brother dying soon after his return thither, left an only daughter called Mary, whom the saint undertook to train up in a religious life. For this purpose he placed her in a cell near his own, where, by the help of his instruction, she became eminent for her piety and penance. After some twenty years, the evil one began to wax violent against her, laying down his wonted snares; for let him once have her webbed in his net, and he could strike grief and anxiety into the holy man and separate at least some part of his mind from God.’
‘Now a certain monk, but a monk in profession only, was in the habit of journeying often to visit the old man, under colour of edification. But gazing on that blessed creature through the window, he began to long to speak with her, for wanton lust had kindled his heart like a fire.
For a great while he laid in ambush about her, so that a whole year went by before he had enervated her imagination by the softness of his words. But at last she opened the window of her cell and came out to him: and forthwith he debauched and defiled her with evil and lust.
But when the deed of shame was done, her heart trembled: and tearing the hair shrift that clothed her, she began beating her face with her hands, and in her sorrow would have sought death. Weighed down with anguish she could see no harbour wherein she might tarry and take thought: swayed to and fro on shifting tides of imagination, she wept that she was no longer what she had been, and her speech was broken with wailing.
“From this time forward,” she said, “I feel as one who has died. I have lost my days and my travail of abstinence, and my tears and prayers and vigils are brought to nothing: I have angered my God, and have destroyed myself. Sorrow upon me, with every spring of tears! I have bowed down that saint my uncle, with grief most bitter: shame has gone over my soul: I am become the devil’s mock. Why should such as I live on? Sorrow upon me, what have I done? ………
Where shall I flee to hide? Where can I find a pit wherein to throw myself? Where was my uncle’s teaching, and the counsels of Ephraem his friend, that would urge me to abide in my virginity and keep my soul unsullied for the immortal Bridegroom? For thy Bridegroom, they would say, is holy and jealous. Sorrow upon me …… Better to go away to some other country where there is no one who could know me, for I am nought but a dead woman now, and there is no hope left to me any more.”
So she rose, and made her way to another city, and changing the garb of her youth, took refuge in a certain brothel.
‘Now at the time that ruin thus befell the maid, a vision came to the holy man in his sleep. For he saw a huge and monstrous dragon, most foul in its aspect and strongly hissing: it seemed to issue from a certain spot and come up to his cell, and there it found a dove and gulped it down, and again returned to its den.
Wakening in heavy sadness, he began bitterly to weep, for he judged that Satan had roused up a persecution against the Church of God and that many were turned from the truth, or that some schism had been begotten in holy Church.
Falling on his knees, he prayed to God, saying, “Thou that art God foreseeing all things, Lover of men, Thou knowest what this vision may mean.”
Again after two days he saw the same dragon come in like fashion to his cell, and it laid its head under its paws and burst asunder: but that dove which it had devoured was found alive in its belly: and he reached out his hand and took it alive.
Waking from sleep, he called that blessed maid once and again, thinking that she was in her cell. “What ails thee, Mary my daughter,” said he, for thus was she called, “that for two days thou hast not opened thy mouth in praise to God?” But when there was no answer, and since for two days he had not heard her singing as she was wont to do, he understood that his vision must surely touch her close.
Then he sighed and wept sore. “Sorrow upon me,” he said,” for a cruel wolf has stolen my lamb, my daughter is made captive.” And lifting up his voice, “Christ,” he said weeping, “Saviour of the world, send Mary my lamb back to me again, and restore her to the fold of life, that my old age go not in sorrow from the world. Despise not my beseechings, Lord, but be swift to send Thy grace, to cast her forth unharmed from the dragon’s mouth.”
Now the two days which he saw in the vision were measured by the passage of two years, wherein his niece led a wanton life, as in the belly of that monstrous dragon: but through all that time the saint not once relaxed his mind by day or night from entreating God for her.
So then, it was two years before he discovered where she was and how she lived: and he asked a singular good friend of his to go to the place and find out all he could. The friend set out, and coming again he told him all the truth, and how he himself had seen her.
At the old man’s asking, he brought him a military habit, and a horse to ride.
So he opened his door, and dressed himself in military garb, and set a great hat upon his head, so as to cover his face: but he also took a gold piece with him, and got up on the horse, and made all haste upon the road. Even as one desirous of spying out a country or a city will put on the garb of its inhabitants lest he be recognised: so did the blessed Abraham make use of the garb of the enemy to put him to rout.
Come now, brothers beloved, and marvel at this second Abraham. The first Abraham went forth to do battle with the Kings, and smote them and brought back his nephew Lot: but this second Abraham went forth to do battle with the Evil One, and having vanquished him, bring home again his niece in a greater triumph.
So then, arrived at the town, he stepped aside into the tavern, and with anxious eyes he sat looking about him,glancing this way and that in hopes to see her. The hours went by, and still no chance of seeing her appeared: and finally he spoke jestingly to the innkeeper. “They tell me, friend,” said he,“that thou hast a very fine wench: if it were agreeable to thee, I should like well to see her.”
The innkeeper regarded the hoary head, the old frame bowed with its weight of years, and in no hope that this desire for a sight of her was prompted by lechery, made reply that it was indeed as he had heard: that she was an uncommon handsome lass. And indeed Mary in beauty of body was fair, well-nigh beyond aught that nature demandeth.
The old man asked her name, and was told they called her Mary. Then, with merry countenance, “Come now," said he, “bring her in and show her to me, and let me have a fine supper for her this day.” So they called her: but when she came in and the good old man saw her in her harlot’s dress, his whole body well nigh dissolved in grief. Yet he hid the bitterness of his soul behind a cheerful countenance, and checked by force of his manhood the starting tears, for fear that the girl might recognise him and take flight.
So as they sat and drank their wine, the great old man began to jest with her. The girl rose and put her arms about his neck, and kissed him. And as she did so she smelt the fragrance of austerity that his lean body breathed, and remembered the days when she too had lived austere: and as if a spear had pierced her soul, she gave a great moan and began to weep: and not able to endure the pain in her heart, she broke out into words, “Woe’s me, that am alone unhappy!”
The innkeeper was dumbfounded. “What ails thee, mistress Mary,” said he, “to burst out all of a sudden into this sore lamenting? It is two years today that thou hast been here, and no one ever heard a sigh from thee or a sad word: indeed I know not what has come over thee.”
“I had been happy,” said the girl, “if three years ago I had died.”
At this, the good old man, afraid that she might recognise him, spoke to her genially enough. “Now, now!” said he, “here am I come to make merry, art going to begin the tale of thy sins?”
Marvellous is the ordering of Thy mercy, O God most high! Thinkest thou the maid did not say in her heart, How comes it that this old man’s look is so like my uncle’s? But Thou, that are alone the lover of men, from whom all good wisdom comes, Thou didst order it that she could not recognise him and flee in shame. It would indeed be past belief, were it not that the tears of Thy servant her uncle, had come before Thee, so that Thou didst deign out of impossibility to make the possible.
So then, the good old man produced the gold piece he had brought with him and gave it to the innkeeper. “Now, friend,” said he, “make us a right good supper, so that I may make merry with the lass for I am come a very long journey for love of her.”
O wisdom as of God! O wise understanding of the spirit! O memorable discretion in salvation! Throughout fifty years of abstinence he had never tasted bread: and now without a falter eats meat to save a lost soul. The company of the holy angels, rejoicing over the discretion of the blessed man, were mazed at that which he ate and drank, light-hearted and nothing doubting, to deliver a soul sunken in the mire.
O wisdom and understanding of the wise! O discrimination of the discerning! Come, marvel at this madness, this reversal, when an upright and wise and discreet and prudent man is made a reckless fool to snatch a soul from the jaws of a lion, and set free a captive bound and thrust away from its chains and its dark prison-house.
When they had feasted, they went to the girl’s room. The old man took her hand, then taking the hat from his head and his voice breaking into weeping, "Mary, my daughter," said he, "dost thou not know me?"
What shall I call thee, O good servant of Christ, I know not. Shall I say that thou art continent or incontinent, wise or foolish, discreet or reckless? But all these things thou hast done to the praise and glory of Christ, this long journey of many halting places, this eating of flesh and drinking of wine, this turning aside to a brothel, to save a lost soul. While for our part, if we have to say but one useful word to our neighbour, we look forward to it all with sore distress.
" My heart, was it not I that brought thee up? What has come to thee, my child? Who was it destroyed thee? Where is that angel’s garb thou didst wear, my daughter?
Where is thy continence, thy tears, thy vigils, thy bed on the ground? How didst thou fall from heaven’s height into this pit, my daughter? Why, when thou didst sin, didst thou not tell me? Why didst thou not come to me there and then? And indeed I would have done thy penance for thee, and my dear Ephraem too. Why didst thou act like this? Why didst thou desert me, and bring me into this intolerable sorrow? For who is without sin, save God Himself?”
This and much else he said: but all the while she stayed in his hands, motionless as a stone. Fear and shame had filled her full.
And again the old man began, weeping, “Mary, child, wilt thou not speak to me, half of my heart? Was it not because of thee, my child, that I came here? Upon me be this sin, O my daughter. It is I that shall answer for thee to God at the Day of Judgement. It is I that shall give satisfaction to God for this sin.”
And until midnight he sought to comfort her, with such words as these, encouraging her with many tears. Little by little she took courage, and at last she spoke to him, weeping, “I cannot,” she said, “look on your face for shame. And how can I pour out a prayer to God, so foul as I am with the mud of this uncleanness?”
Then said the holy man, “Upon me be thy guilt, my daughter: at my hand shall God requite this sin: do but listen to me, and come, let us go home. For look you, there is our dear Ephraem grieving sore for thee, and for ever pleading with God for thee. Be not mistrustful, daughter, of the mercy of God; let thy sins be as mountains, His mercy towers above His every creature. We read that an unclean woman came to Him that was clean, and she did not soil Him, but was herself made clean by Him: she washed the Lord’s feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair.
“If a spark can set on fire the sea, then can thy sins stain his whiteness: it is no new thing to fall in the mire, but it is an evil thing to lie there fallen. Bravely return again to that place from whence thou camest: the Enemy mocked thee falling, but he shall know thee stronger in thy rising. Have pity, I pray thee, on my old age: grieve for the travail of my white head: rise up, I implore thee, and come with me home. Fear not: mortal man is apt to slip: but if he be swift to fall, swift is he to rise again with the succour of God who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he be healed and live.”
Then she said, “If you are sure that I can do penance and that God will accept my atonement, behold I shall come as you bid me: go before and I shall follow your goodness and kiss the track of your feet, you that have so grieved for me, that you would draw me out of this cesspit. And laying her head at his feet, she wept all night, saying, “What shall I render to Thee for all this, O Lord my God?”
When dawn had come, the blessed Abraham said to her, “Rise up, daughter, and let us go home to our cell.” And answering him, she said, “I have a little gold here, and some clothes, what would you have me do with them?” But the blessed Abraham made answer, “Leave all those things here, for they were earned from the Evil One.”
And they rose up and went away. And he set her upon his horse and led it, going before, even as the good shepherd, when he has found his lost sheep, carries it with joy upon his shoulder: and so the blessed Abraham, with joy in his heart, journeyed along the road with his niece.
And when he had come home, he set her in the cell which had been his own, and himself remained in the other. And she, clad in her hair shift, did there abide in humility of soul and in tears from the heart and the eyes, disciplining herself with vigils and stern travail of abstinence, in quiet and modesty, unweariedly calling upon God, bewailing her sin but with sure hope of pardon, with supplication so moving that no man, even were he without bowels of compassion, could hear her sorrowful crying and not be stirred.
For who so hard-hearted as to know her weeping, and himself not weep? And who but gave God thanks for the true repentance of her heart? Indeed her repentance, compared with such prayers as ours, surpassed all measure of grief. So urgently did she pray God to pardon the thing she had done that she obtained from on high, a sign that her penitence was accepted.
And God the compassionate, Who will have no man perish but that all should come to repentance, so accepted her atonement, that after three full years He restored health to many at her prayer. For crowds flocked to her, and she would pray to God for their healing, and it was granted her.
And the holy Abraham, after living for another ten years in this life, and seeing her blessed penitence, and giving glory to God, rested in peace in the seventieth year of his age. During his sickness prior to death, it seemed that almost the whole city and country flocked to receive his benediction; and after his death everyone strove to procure some part of his clothing for themselves, and many sick were cured by touching these relics.
Mary lived on another five years, yet more devoutly ruling her life, and persevering night and day in prayer to God, with lamentations
and tears. But when the hour of her sleeping came, wherein she was taken up from this life, all that saw her gave glory to God, for the splendour of her face. “Her countenance appeared to us”, says St Ephraem, “so shining, that we understood that choirs of angels had attended at her passage out of this life into a better.”
N.B. St Ephraem (ca. 306 – 373 AD), Syriac deacon of Edessa, and prolific Syriac-language hymnographer and theologian of the 4th century. Particularly honoured by the Syriac Christians, he wrote a wide variety of hymns, poems and sermons in verse, as well as prose biblical exegesis. These were works of practical theology for the edification of the church in troubled times. He was a contemporary and friend of both St Abraham and his niece St Mary, and to him is attributed the above account of St Abraham’s mission.
With acknowledgement to ‘Butler’s Lives of the Saints’, Virtue & Co.1949; also ‘The Desert Fathers’, edited by Helen Waddell, published Collins 1936.
O Mary, refuge of sinners and comfort of the afflicted, pray for us, and guide and protect our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.