CHAPTER XIX IMAGES OF MARY
O Flower of flowers, our Lady of the May !
Not only for ourselves we plead, God's Flower !
Look on thy blinded children, who will stray,
Lost in this pleasant land, thy chosen Dower !
Send us a perfect spring ; Let faith arise and sing,
And England from her long, cold winter wake,
Mother of Mercy ! Turn upon her need
Thine eyes of mercy: be their spring indeed;
So shall thine Angels make
A starrier music, then our hearts can say,
"O Flower of flowers, our Lady of the May !"
Through the whole course of its history Alexandria has always been a shameless city, where vice knows not how to blush, but walks abroad naked and unabashed. It is so at the present day ; it was so under the sway of Cleopatra; it was so in the fourth century after Christ. Notwithstanding the glory of its Theological Schools and notwithstanding the fact that the great mass of its inhabitants were Christian and Catholic in faith, to a vast extent pagan vices were uncontrolled. So terrible indeed was the corruption within the city that the Holy Spirit of God had met it by means of turning the thoughts of men to repudiation of an evil world on a scale and after a fashion unexampled before or since. Not merely individuals, but literally a multitude of Christians, received an inspiration to fly from the evil that was around them, that they might do penance in the encircling desert. The waste places of the Egyptian Thebaid, the solitudes of Arabia, of Palestine and Syria became the home of solitaries, who led lives of unparalleled austerity and practised Christian virtue in an heroic degree— many of them to be renowned in all ages for their sanctity—so that the prophecy was fulfilled and "the desert flowered like the lily" (Isaias xxxv. i.) in their lives. Amongst these saints of the wilderness, together with Paul, Antony, Hilarion, Pachomius and many another, the Church venerates one who is known simply as St. Mary of Egypt.
It was at this period, when extremes of good and evil stood in such vivid and extraordinary contrast, that a poor child became notorious in the streets of Alexandria. She was of Christian upbringing and had received at her baptism a great gift—the holy name of Mary. At the age of twelve she had abandoned her home, and for seventeen years lived the saddest life that a woman can live—using the charms that God had bestowed upon her, not to help men to that which is pure and lovely and of good report, but to seduce them to evil. But God had not abandoned His daughter. One day she found herself at the harbour of the town, when she noticed a troop of pilgrims embarking on a ship that was sailing for Palestine. They were bound for Jerusalem, whither they were going to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Moved, as she afterwards admitted, merely by a spirit of curiosity and levity, Mary joined the pilgrims, in whose company she set sail and afterwards proceeded to the Holy City. On the Feast Day she endeavoured, together with the rest, to enter the church, where the Holy Cross was at the moment being solemnly venerated. But, as St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, has recorded:
"An invisible force prevented her from entering the church. Standing in a corner of the porch, she was overwhelmed with intense sorrow at the remembrance of her sins—which caused her to weep much, to sigh and strike her breast. Then raising her eyes, she saw above her an Image of the Holy Mother of God and, looking at it with great earnestness, this was her prayer: ' O Lady and Virgin, who didst give birth to God according to the flesh, I know that it is not becoming or fit that I who am
so loathsome should venerate thine Image, or gaze on it with these eyes of mine so foully polluted, since thou art known as the Virgin and chaste one, who hast preserved both body and soul immaculate. It is but just that I, a wanton, should be spurned and rejected by thy most pure cleanliness and chastity. Yet, since, as I have heard, this God—whose worthy Mother thou art—became Man, that He might call sinners to penance—do thou help me, who am alone and helpless. Receive my confession and permit me to enter the church, that I be not debarred from the sight of that most precious Wood whereto was nailed God made Man, whom thou a Virgin didst thyself conceive and bring forth—who gave His own Blood for my redemption. Command, O Lady, for me, too, all-unworthy, for the sake of devotion to the divine Cross, that the door be opened ; and—taking thee all-worthy of trust for surety—I promise most faithfully to Christ thy Son that never henceforth will I defile my flesh with impurity; but immediately after I shall have seen, O holy Virgin, the Cross of thy Son, I will renounce the world and its deeds, and all the things that are in it, and will fare forth whithersoever thou, as my surety, shalt lead me.'"
Her biographer continues to make the Saint speak in her own person :
"With these words, and taking some heart, kindling with the warmth of faith, and trusting in the bowels of pity of the Mother of God, I moved from the spot, where I had stood praying, and re joined those who were entering the church. And now there was no one any longer to keep me back, nor to hinder my approach to the entrance doors, and so I found myself within the holy of holies and was permitted to adore the mystery of the life-giving wood of the Cross. . . . Then having cast myself down on the ground before it, I went out. Hastening to her who had become bail for me, I came to the place where the deed of suretyship had been drawn up, and kneeling before the face of the Holy Mother of God, I prayed to her in these words : ' Thou hast, indeed, O most gracious Lady, ever shown forth thy merciful goodness. Thou didst not reject an unworthy supplication. I have seen the Glory, which as sinners it is just that we should not see, the Glory of Almighty God who through thee accepts sinners' repentance. What more can I, a sinful wretch, bring to mind or tell forth ? Now it is time for me to fulfil what I promised, in full reliance on thy love. Now, whither it pleases thee, direct me. Be thou to me a guide of salvation, and mistress of truth, going before me in the way that leads to penance.' Thus speaking, I heard the voice of one calling from afar : 'If thou wilt cross the Jordan, thou shalt find good repose.' I, then, on hearing this voice, and believing that it came for me, called out with tears, and looking at the Image of God's Mother, cried aloud : ' O Lady, Lady, Queen of the whole world, by whom salvation came to mankind, do not thou abandon me.' And thus saying I went forth from the porch of the church, and walked on with haste."