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The Prayer of St Mary of Egypt: Crying to the Theotokos

Updated: Apr 5, 2023



This past week, Orthodox Christians around the world listened attentively to the Life of St Mary of Egypt — the only saint’s life to be read during the public worship of the Church — recounted in full, together with the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, in a moving service celebrated annually during the fifth week of Lent.


Those who have heard the Life again and again will recall the powerful moment of St Mary’s repentance and conversion, prompted by her inability to enter the church of the Holy Sepulcher followed by her transformative encounter with the Theotokos, so movingly expressed in the saint’s prayer before her holy icon.


St Mary’s plea to the Mother of God is a profound expression of repentance, and in the late Byzantine period, it was expanded upon to produce an even fuller prayer to the Holy Virgin treasured by some of the Church’s most revered saints. According to the Life of St Gregory Palamas written by one of his close disciples, the Patriarch Philotheos Kokkinos, St Gregory confided the following to one of his companions, the monk Dorotheos Vlates:


Before I became a monk, when I was still living in my father’s house, attending school and working in the palace, I had extraordinary faith in the Virgin Mother of God, to whom I was assiduously devoted with fervent love and hope. At the start of each day, I considered nothing more important than to stand before her holy icon and to recite, with great compunction of heart, that prayer which is so great in its thoughts and words, and which is filled with so much confession, repentance, and supplication, the initial magnificent lines of which were spoken by that wondrous Egyptian woman.[1]


The prayer in question, which opens with the prayer of St Mary of Egypt, is today found among a group of prayers to the Mother of God attributed to St Ephrem the Syrian,[2] whose entire corpus can be described as “filled with so much confession, repentance, and supplication.”[3] At the same time, this prayer also demonstrates unwavering confidence in the mercy and compassion of the Theotokos, for which it expresses tremendous gratitude, celebrating the joy of forgiveness and salvation secured through her prayers.


On this fifth Sunday of the Fast, the Pappas Patristic Institute brings you this expanded prayer to the Mother of God, which builds on the prayer of St Mary of Egypt, that for so many centuries has been central in the life of the Orthodox Church.


 

A Prayer of Confession to the Most Holy Theotokos[4]


O Virgin, Lady Theotokos, who gave birth to God the Word, I know, truly I know, that it is neither proper nor fitting for me, a complete and utter prodigal, to gaze upon your image with my defiled eyes, or to kiss it with my foul lips, or to address it with my vile mouth; for it is the image of you who are pure, ever-virgin, spotless and undefiled in body and soul. Indeed it is only right that I, the prodigal, should be hated and despised by your purity. Nevertheless, inasmuch as God, to whom you gave birth, became man to call sinners to repentance, I take courage and draw near to you, entreating you with my tears. Accept this present confession of my many and grievous sins, and present it to your only-begotten Son and God, entreating Him to have compassion on my wretched and miserable soul. On account of the multitude of my transgressions, I am hindered from raising my eyes to Him and asking for forgiveness. For this reason I bring you forward as my intercessor and mediator, because even though I have enjoyed many great gifts from my Creator, I—ungrateful wretch that I am—have not been mindful of them, and thus I have become no different than a senseless animal. I have become, in other words, empty of every virtue, rich in the passions, filled with shame, devoid of boldness in my speech, condemned by God, lamented by angels, mocked by demons, hated by men, convicted by my own conscience, ashamed by my evil deeds, dead before my death, judged and self-condemned before the judgment, and tormented by despair before the eternal torment.


This is why I seek refuge in your most ardent help and protection, O Lady Theotokos, I who owe a debt of a thousand talents; who prodigally squandered my paternal inheritance on harlots; who fornicated more than the harlot; who transgressed more than Manasseh; who became more unmerciful than the rich man; who became a slave to my stomach; a vessel filled with evil thoughts; a treasurer dispensing disgraceful and sordid words; filled with every impurity and a stranger to every good deed.


Have mercy on my lowliness, O Spotless one, and take pity on my weakness. Like no one else, you have great boldness of speech with the One who was born from you. You can do all things, because you are the Mother of God. And you are able to do all things, because you are above all created beings. Nothing is impossible for you; you need only wish it. Do not despise my tears; do not be repelled by my sighs. Do not reject the pain of my heart. Do not disappoint my hope in you. But by means of your maternal entreaties, use all your force to awaken the compassion of your Son and God, which cannot be forced, and make me—your miserable and wretched servant—worthy to regain the primal and ancient beauty of soul, and to cast aside the ugliness of the passions; to be freed from slavery to sin, and to become a slave of righteousness; to strip away the defilement of carnal pleasure; and to live instead for virtue. And this I ask as well: accompany me when I travel; sail with me when I am at sea; be victorious over the demons that wage war against me; give me strength when I am awake; watch over me when I am asleep; console me when I am distressed; comfort me when I am dispirited; grant me health when I am ill; deliver me when I am unjustly oppressed; exculpate me when I am slandered; save me quickly when I am in danger of death; make my visible and invisible enemies fear me every day, so that all the demons who unjustly persecute me may know whose servant I am.


Yes, most holy Lady Theotokos, give ear to my lamentable entreaty, and do not disappoint my hope in you, for you are the hope of all who live everywhere, even unto the ends of the earth. Calm the agitation of my flesh, and still the savage storm of untimely anger that rises up within my soul. Remove from my mind the pride and arrogance of vain and pretentious youth. Diminish the nocturnal fantasies stirred up by wicked spirits, and still the provocations of impure thoughts that arise from the heart throughout the day. Train my tongue to say only what is profitable. Teach my eyes clearly to see the undeviating direction of virtue. Make my feet run unhindered along the blessed road of the commandments of God. Prepare my hands to be hallowed, so that I might worthily raise them up to the Most High God. Purify my mouth, so that with boldness of speech I might call the fearsome God “Father.” Open my ears so that I might hear, with my senses and my mind, the words of the Holy Scriptures, which are sweeter than honey and the honeycomb—and not merely to hear them but with your help to do them. Give me time for repentance and the renewal of my mind. Deliver me from the condemnation of my conscience. Finally, be at my side when my lowly soul is separated from my wretched body, and ease the burden of that unbearable distress. Grant relief to that indescribable pain, and console me during that inconsolably difficult passage. Deliver me from the dark forms of the demons; raise me far above the vengeful account keepers, the aerial custom houses, and the rulers of darkness. Tear up the records of my many sins. Reconcile me to God. Make me worthy to stand at the right hand of His blessing in the hour of the fearsome judgment. Deliver me from the eternal and unendurable torments, and make me an inheritor of His wondrous and incorruptible good things.


This is my confession that I offer you, O Lady Theotokos, for you are the light of my darkened eyes, the consolation of my soul and, after God, my only hope and protection. Accept my confession in your kindness and compassion, and cleanse me of every defilement of flesh and spirit. Make me worthy in this present age, without condemnation, to partake of the precious Body and Blood of your Son and God. In the age to come, grant me to partake of the sweetness of the heavenly banquet, the delights of paradise, the kingdom of God, where all the righteous rejoice. And when I, the unworthy one, come to receive these things, I will glorify for endless ages the honorable and magnificent name of your Son and God, who accepts all who come to Him in genuine repentance—thanks to you who became the mediator and advocate for all sinners—for through your intercessions, O glorious and transcendently good Lady, all human nature is saved, praising and blessing the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the all-holy and consubstantial Trinity, always, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.


 

[1] Philotheos Kokkinos, Life of St Gregory Palamas 19; Φιλοθέου Κωνσταντινουπόλεως τοῦ Κοκκίνου ἁγιολογικὰ ἔργα, vol. 1, ed. Demetrios G. Tsamis, Thessalonian Byzantine Writers 4 (Thessaloniki: Center for Byzantine Research, 1985), 448, lines 14–16; Gregory Palamas: The Hesychast Controversy and the Debate with Islam, trans. Norman Russell, Translated Texts for Byzantinists 8 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), 72.


[2] For a translation of these prayers, see Fr Maximos Constas, Mother of the Light: Prayers to the Theotokos (Columbia, MO: Newrome Press, 2018).


[3] The attribution to St Ephrem is relatively recent. See Fr Maximos Constas, “‘I Have No Other Hope but You: Prayers to the Virgin Attributed to St Ephrem the Syrian,” St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Quarterly 66.3–4 (2022): 73–100.

[4] Prayer XII in Mother of the Light, pp. 46-51.



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