Howard Ingham: Unholy Writ

August 2001
A saint is born
Previous Unholy Writs

Comment on this column ANYONE READING THE New Testament completely cold might be forgiven for finding some of the things that happen there somewhat far-fetched. What's all this business about feeding 5,000 people with a couple of fish and a few bread rolls? Or walking on water? Or... well, you get the idea.

But if you were look at some of the literature from the first few centuries of the church, you'd realise that the biblical miracles are trivial compared to the outlandish things that happen in some of these stories.

SAINTS' LIVES tend to be the worst offenders. For example, take the Life of St Abercius. Abercius is told by God to smash up a pagan temple and, without even breaking a sweat, he picks up a tree trunk – which the story says is impossible to lift – and carries it at top speed to the temple of Apollo. There, having smashed the doors to splinters with a flick of his finger, our saint destroys everything with his log, in a manner not wholly unlike that used by your average superhero.

Later on in the story, God gives Abercius a flask which produces unlimited supplies of wine, vinegar or oil on demand. One day, while he's asleep, somebody else borrows the flask and attempts to use it, but fails to get anything but vinaigrette. This confounds the hapless user of the flask, but surely secures Abercius' place as the patron saint of salad dressing.

Abercius's exploits, however, are positively tame compared with the eponymous heroine of the Life of Mary of Egypt, the Prostitute, which must surely be the ultimate saint story.

THE STORY BEGINS with Zosimas, a monk (the best monk in the whole wide world, in fact) who decides that he isn't learning anything where he is, and goes to another monastery, from where he goes on a solitary retreat into the desert. While in the desert, he runs into a mad, naked old woman (this is Mary of Egypt, by the way, although Zosimas doesn't know that yet).

After a headlong pursuit through the desert ("stop! I only want to talk to you!"), Zosimas puts a coat around her and says the eucharist for her. Then they pray for a while, and Zosimas discovers that the old woman knows the Bible word for word, despite being completely illiterate. And this point, the old woman starts hovering a few feet off the ground for no apparent reason.

Then Mary tells Zosimas her story: a prostitute who enjoyed sex so much she did it for free, she decided one day to go and see Jerusalem. However, because of her dodgy financial acumen, she didn't have any money.

Then Mary pauses for a moment.

Zosimas: So how did you get to Jerusalem?

Mary: I couldn't possibly say. It'd turn the air blue.

Zosimas: Oh, go on.

Mary: Oh, all right then.

And spell it out she does (I won't, since you can probably guess how she paid her boat fare anyway and it's really more detail than we needed to know).

Anyway, once she got to Jerusalem, she came over all religious, but when she tried to go to church, she couldn't, because an invisible force stopped her from going in.

NO SOONER had Mary fallen to her knees and repented in tears (this being the bit in saint stories where that kind of thing tends to happen), she had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who said, oh, "all right then, in you go."

So she goes in, has a look at a bit of the true cross and comes out again, where the Blessed Virgin is still, somewhat surprisingly, waiting for her. The Virgin tells her to go out into the desert and be a hermit.

Using three silver coins which were that very moment handed to her by a random passerby, Mary bought three loaves of bread for food, and went off into the desert, where she remained. The bread, being remarkably good value for money, lasted her 17 years. On the other hand, her clothes, representing rather poor value for money, all wore out.

MARY THEN ASKS Zosimas if he'll meet up with her and give her communion this time next year – which he does. The year after that, Zosimas gets lost and turns up late.

He finds the old woman dead, but before he's even had time to say to himself "damn! I didn't even get to find out what her name was," notices that a full epitaph is written on the ground beside her (she's illiterate, remember). At which point a friendly lion comes along and helpfully buries the body, and Zosimas goes home and lives happily ever after.

This is about as close to the perfect saint story as it is possible to get. Everything that you'd expect to happen happens at about the time you'd expect it to happen in the way that you expect to happen. It's a wonder they carried on writing saint stories at all after this one came out.

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