St. Mary of Egypt and the Holy Hermits

On the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate St. Mary of Egypt, a monastic who struggled in total solitude in the desert of the Jordan River for over forty-eight years. She is the third monastic being celebrated during Great Lent: along with her, St. Gregory Palamas, and St. John Climacus have a special Lenten Sunday dedicated to their memory in addition to their actual feast day. In this page, we are not only exploring the life of St. Mary, but we are also discussing Orthodox monasticism, focusing on its most extreme examples, the holy hermits.

We have been able to learn about some of the monastic saints through their written works, or through stories passed down by word of mouth and later recorded. We will, however, never be able to learn about the life of many of the hermits, as they lived in solitude, completely hidden from the world, even from their own monastic communities. 


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Free printable teaching packet

Templates and instructions for making one craft each Sunday of Great Lent.

Extra free printable activities for the sixth week of Great Lent.



Younger children

At the end of the lesson, the children should be able to:

  • Point to St. Mary on the icon and say her name. Explain that she lived on her own in the desert, dedicating her life to prayer.
  • Briefly reflect on St. Mary’s example of great repentance.
  • Describe a holy hermit as a person who decides to live on their own at a secluded place in order to devote themselves entirely to God.
  • Name at least one place where a holy hermit can choose to live.

Older children

Older children should additionally be able to:

  • Say a few basic facts from St. Mary’s life.
  • Reflect on examples of repentance in their own everyday lives.
  • Briefly discuss Orthodox monasticism, the meaning and purpose of ascesis, and its relevance to their own lives.
  • Name one or more types of Orthodox hermit dwellings with Saintly examples.
  • Describe at least one variation of the icon of St. Mary of Egypt.
  • Recite or chant a part of the troparion.

Teaching activities

Using our printable packet above, the children can:

  • Explore the life of the Saint filling in a fact sheet.
  • Make a craft: Mini desert diorama with St. Mary of Egypt (see below).
  • Play a board game to learn about the Saint’s life.
  • Work on an icon of St. Mary of Egypt and St. Zossimas.
  • Discuss possible dwellings of holy hermits.
  • Learn about the most secluded area of the Holy Mount Athos in Greece.
  • Explore some sayings of the Ancient Fathers of the Desert.
  • Work on the troparion of the Saint.

Craft: Mini desert diorama with St. Mary of Egypt

You will need

  • The relative page from our printable packet above.
  • A small clear container, such as a plastic tumbler.
  • Sand – If sand is unavailable, you can use crumpled beige tissue paper or play dough.
  • A mini craft stick.
  • Scissors and glue

How to make the craft

Print the page out and cut out the images. Glue the image of St. Mary onto a mini craft stick. Pour some sand to the bottom of the container. Stick the tree, mountain, river and plant in the sand to make a mini desert scene. Stick the craft stick with the figure of St. Mary to the back of the scene.

Helpful books

  • Stories from the Gerontikon by Christos Gousides. This Orthodox-focused comic book is one of our absolute favorites. It is mostly useful for older children, as the concepts can be a little complex for the younger ones. However, it is an excellent resource for discussing Orthodox monasticism.

  • Two creations by “Creative Orthodox”, Michael Elgamal: Free ebook Lines in the Sand and graphic novel A Forest in the Desert. Both resources are great for exploring the lives and stories of early desert fathers and mothers.

  • Books on monasticism at the Ancient Faith Store. They carry a growing collection of child-friendly titles on Orthodox monastics that is worth exploring.

  • St. Mary of Egypt by Potamitis Publishing. A small illustrated book about the life of the Saint.



Icon by Emilia Clerkx, St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church, Amsterdam, photo by Jim Forest, Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

St. Mary of Egypt left nothing but an oral account of her life when she met St. Zossimas of Palestine. After she slept in the Lord, her life story was passed down orally by the fathers at his monastery, until St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, recorded it around the end of 7th century AD.

According to this account, St. Mary lived during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, in mid-6th century AD. She was born in Egypt in a small town outside Alexandria. In her early teen years she fled her home and went to Alexandria where she lived for about seventeen years in poverty but also in promiscuity, giving herself freely to any man who would spend a few hours with her. 

St. Mary was about thirty years old when she heard of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. She decided to join the group but did not have enough money to pay for the trip, so she arranged to offer her body in exchange for the fare. When the pilgrim group arrived in Jerusalem, they went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to venerate the Precious Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Mary found that it was impossible for her to enter; she was held back by a mysterious force like an invisible wall standing in front of her. She then realized that her careless and sinful life prevented her from venerating the Holy Cross. 

She broke into tears of repentance, praying to the Theotokos to help her. Immediately, the invisible wall disappeared and Mary entered the church, kneeled in front of the icon of the Theotokos, and then venerated the Holy Cross. At that moment, she heard a voice telling her to go to the desert of the River Jordan where she would have the help, guidance, and protection of the Theotokos. 

Mary did as she was told, and traveled to the desert on foot. She lived there in total solitude, battling her passions, crying, praying, and eating and sleeping as little as possible. In her darkest hours, she had the help of the Theotokos who never abandoned her. After years of toiling in solitude, St. Mary reached the highest level of perfection: her body was not in need of clothes or nutrition, and by God’s Grace she was granted the gift of foreseeing.  

Forty-seven years after St. Mary retreated in the desert, another monastic, St. Zossimas, who, as was the tradition at his monastery, had gone to dwell in the desert during Great Lent, reached the place of her seclusion. St. Mary approached him in a miraculous way, told him her life story, and asked him to come again the following year to offer her Holy Communion. St. Zossimas was amazed to have discovered this hidden ascetic, more so a woman, who had reached spiritual perfection.

St. Zossimas visited St. Mary again the next year on Holy Thursday. To reach him, St. Mary crossed the Jordan River without touching the water. She received Holy Communion, and returned to the desert. The following year, St. Zossimas went out again to meet the Saint, and found her dead body peacefully lying on the ground. An inscription nearby informed him that she had slept in the Lord right after receiving Holy Communion, and instructed him to do her funeral service and bury her body. St. Zossimas did as instructed. It is said that a lion came to help him dig St. Mary’s grave. Upon return to his monastery, he shared the precious secret with the brotherhood, and St. Mary’s story was passed on orally until written down about a century later.


Photo by Fr. Ted Bobosh, Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

There are a number of variations in the iconography of St. Mary of Egypt. In one variation, we see the two Saints, Zossimas and Mary, meeting in the middle of the desert. St. Mary is receiving the Holy Mysteries and her whole body is in a stance of anticipation and humility. She is half-naked, wrapped in a cloak offered to her by St. Zossimas, and her ascetic body is radiating holiness. St. Zossimas is looking at her in awe, slightly bowing down in reverence. The stark and desolate desert is pictured around them, adding to the holiness of the moment. The Jordan River is sometimes painted in the background. In other variations of this type, St. Mary is stepping on the waters, miraculously crossing them.

In a different icon variation, the moment that St. Zossimas found St. Mary’s dead body is depicted. St. Zossimas is pictured on his knees, raising his hands in the air, weeping for her death and praying. The lion that is said to have helped dig St. Mary’s grave is shown within a short distance from the scene, while in other variations it can be shown already digging the grave.

There is also the icon of St Mary of Egypt herself. She is dressed with St Zossimas’  rugged cloak which reveals a part of her emaciated but luminous upper body. The saint’s hair is short, disheveled and radiant white. With her right hand she is holding up a cross and her left arm is bent pointing to the cross as if showing us the way.  


Troparion — Tone 8

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O mother, 
for you took up the Cross and followed Christ. 
By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away; 
but to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. 
Therefore, your spirit, O holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the Angels.

Kontakion — Tone 3

Having been a sinful woman, 
you became through repentance a Bride of Christ. 
Having attained angelic life, 
you defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross; 
therefore, O most glorious Mary, you are a Bride of the Kingdom!


Ascesis is a Greek word meaning exercise and self-discipline. In the context of Orthodox Christianity, it denotes a conscious effort to limit worldly pleasures in order to concentrate on the spiritual struggle, fighting the passions and cultivating the virtues in a state of constant prayer and communion with God.

The model of ascetic life is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, Who, before starting His Ministry, struggled alone in the desert for forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4: 1-11), and then led a very simple and disciplined life. The Orthodox Church teaches that ascesis is required for both lay people and monastics, at the level that each person is capable of, as the only way to become united with God.

The Orthodox faithful’s guide in this journey is their spiritual father – a discerning priest that one chooses with great care, to which one confesses regularly, and with whom a strong personal relationship develops. The spiritual father is a man who has progressed in the spiritual life himself, and, within the Sacrament of Holy Confession, is guided by the Holy Spirit to counsel each of his spiritual children as is appropriate for their own progress.

Monasticism is the highest form of Orthodox spirituality, in which a person decides to leave their family and community and lead a new life in Christ – in solitude, fasting, and constant prayer. The word “monastic” comes from the Greek “monachos” (μοναχός), meaning the person who lives alone. Both men and women may choose to become monastics, so long as they are called by the Divine Grace and have been guided by their spiritual father. 

Types of Orthodox monastics 

Cenobitic (κοινοβιάτης)

A monk or nun who lives within an organized monastic community. The name comes from the Greek word “koinovion” (κοινόβιον), literally meaning “a shared life”. These monastics live together, following a common daily schedule of work and prayer, and sharing everything.

Anchorite (αναχωρητής)

A monastic who willingly departs to a more secluded place in order to exercise a higher level of ascesis. Anchorites mostly live alone, usually getting together with the brotherhood to which they belong only on specific occasions, such as on important Feast days.

Hermit (ερημίτης)

When an anchorite lives in complete isolation, s/he is called a hermit. The word in Greek means “desert dweller”, and many hermits actually live in the desert. However, an Orthodox hermit can choose to live anywhere, usually at an area barren and unwelcoming: in the wilderness, on mountains, cliffs, islands, caves, or at any other secluded place. There are even cases of hermits who have spent their whole lives on a pillar – they are called “stylites” (from the Greek word “stylos” – στύλος).

Even though we cannot imitate these Holy Hermits, as their way of life is far beyond our reach, we honor and venerate them, learning from their teaching and example, and aspiring to perform our own ascesis to the extent that we are able. 

Dwellings of the Holy Hermits

As mentioned, holy hermits can choose to live at any secluded place. In the table below, we are including some places where holy hermits have lived, with links to the lives of important Saintly examples.

DesertSt. Mary of Egypt
PitSt. Macedonius the Hermit of Syria
Open airVenerable Eusebius the Hermit of Syria
ForestVenerable Seraphim, Wonderworker of Sarov
CaveVenerable Savva the Sanctified 
HutVenerable John Calyvites, “the Hut-Dweller”
Island Venerable Eleazar of Anzersk Island, Solovki
PillarSaint Simeon Stylites, the Elder
CliffThe modern-day ascetics of the Karoulia cliffs on the Holy Mount Athos in Greece (see below)

The Karoulia Cliffs of Mount Athos, Greece

Karoulia is the most isolated place of Mount Athos. There, monastic cells hang precariously on the cliff-edge, with sea waves crashing hundreds of feet below. In that area of the Holy Mountain, modern-day hermits live in complete solitude, some of them never having left their cell for decades. Until recently, they could only access their cells by hauling themselves up with ropes or chains. In some of the most inaccessible cells, if a hermit needed help they would have to raise a flag which would alert their neighbor – and only then would someone visit. The hermits live by making prayer ropes and icons which are exchanged for the most basic necessities. The name “Karoulia” comes from the makeshift pulleys that the hermits use to pass baskets of items to and from their cells. Often, they hang a basket through a pulley toward the sea below, and any passing boat will leave some simple food for them to eat, such as a little dried bread or a few olives.

Photo by Spyros Baracos, Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes on Orthodox Monasticism

  • Early Christians lived together striving for an exemplary ethical and spiritual life. Toward the middle of the second century, some Christians raised their own personal standards of austere Christian life, practicing chastity, celibacy, poverty, prayer and fasting. About a century later, a number of those Christians began fleeing the world and moving to the desert, where they lived as anchorites, by themselves or in small groups.
  • Early monasticism thrived especially in Egypt: St. Anthony the Great (3rd century) is considered the father of anchorite monasticism, while St. Pachomios of Egypt (4th century) is considered the founder of communal monasticism.
  • St. Basil, Archbishop of Caesaria in Cappadocia (4th century), played a crucial role in the development of monasticism, establishing rules about monastic garments, vows, and the service of monastic tonsure.
  • The Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) placed the monastics under the direct jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop, eliminating in the Orthodox Church the possibility of the creation of monastic “Orders,” as they developed in the West during the Middle Ages.
  • In the Christian East, the anchorite spirit which gradually faded in the West, has persisted to our day as the original monastic ideal, at times even reacting against organized monasticism.
  • The Holy Mount Athos in Greece, which was established as a monastic center in the 7th century, has been of paramount importance for the Church as a whole. It is there that the spirituality of Hesychasm first developed, in the theology of St. Gregory Palamas (14th century). Hesychasm has been a guiding principle of the life of the Church ever since.
  • With the conversion of the Slavs in the 9th and 10th century, Orthodox monasticism spread to the Slavic countries where it continues to thrive.
  • It would not be an exaggeration to claim that without monasticism the Church would not be the same. The monastics represent the ideal toward which every Orthodox Christian should be striving. Throughout the centuries, monasteries have remained beacons of the Faith providing refuge from disastrous situations, with numerous monks and nuns becoming martyrs themselves. The monastics maintain the doctrines of our Faith to this day, fighting heresies and clarifying the theology of the Church. 

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