On reading this narrative of St. Sophronius, we shall perhaps, some of us, be reminded of the days when we used to read the speeches which Thucydides puts so freely into the mouth of his heroes. But just as there is no doubt that the speeches invented by Thucydides are really historical, though they were composed by the historian, since they represent the substance of what was really said at the time, and were placed in oratio recta only for the sake of dramatic effectiveness—so the history of Sophronius represents the essential fact— that Mary of Egypt believed herself unable to enter the church, that in her anguish of heart she looked at the picture of the gentle Mother whose name she bore, that she prayed to that Mother, promising her that, if only she might be allowed to go in and venerate, with the rest of the worshippers, the Wood of the Holy Cross, she would change her life, give up sin and do penance as God might direct her— and that her prayer was heard.
The story goes on to tell us, that having confessed her sins and received the Holy Eucharist, Mary believed herself called by God to cross the Jordan, and bury herself in the desert. In the desert she was to pass forty-seven years of heroic penance. During the last thirty of these years her soul was in peace, but for the first seventeen (to atone, it would seem, for her seventeen years of sin and scandal in Alexandria) she was grievously tormented and tempted by Satan. St. Sophronius makes her say with regard to these temptations:
"Weeping and striking my breast, I would recall myself to the memory of the pact of suretyship that I had made when going forth into this solitude. And again I would go in thought before the Image of the Mother of God, who had received me to her trust, and implore her to chase from me those thoughts that were affecting my most miserable soul. Then as I wept overmuch in my sorrow, and beat my breast with courage, I was wont to see a light all around, and shining about me. . . . When then some evil thought arose in my mind, I would prostrate myself on the ground, which I bathed with my tears, trusting that she who had become my surety, was really present at my side. . . . For I did not rise from the earth until that most sweet sentiment illumined me, as was usual, and chased away the thoughts that troubled me. Thus always did I raise the eyes of my soul unceasingly to her who was my surety, beseeching her to succour me in this solitude and penance. Hence I had her for my helper and coadjutor who gave birth to the Author of Chastity, and so during the course of seventeen years did I fight against many dangers till this day. From that time the Mother of God has stood by me as my help, directing me in all and through all things." [Vila S. Mariæ Ægypticæ, Cap. XV. seq. This Life was cited as the work of St. Sophronius at the Second Council of Nicæa (Act 4), and by St. John Damascene (Oratio III., De Imaginibus).]