In the year 430, a Palestinian monk named Zosimus was wandering the desert, a good 20 days’ walk from his monastery, when he met a figure he could scarcely tell was human. It was an old, naked woman, who called him by name and modestly begged to borrow his cloak, which he granted. At Zosimus’s insistence, she told him her life’s story.
She was Mary of Egypt, patron saint of penitence. She’d lived as a sort of traveling prostitute from the ages of 12 to 28, until, after seeing some handsome pilgrims preparing to sail to Jerusalem, she traded sex for passage on their boat. In the holy city, she tried to follow them into the church, but was turned away by an unseen force. Spying, on a street corner, an icon of the Virgin Mary, she was suddenly struck by the deep wrongness of her ways.
Within 24 hours, though Mary had never before known God, she had taken communion, crossed the Jordan River, and begun a life of severe self-punishment in the wilderness, where she told Zosimus she had been, without seeing a soul, for some 47 years.