Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987.

With outstanding insight into the original character of Christianity and desert spirituality, Benedicta Ward has presented key documents and commentary on the role of women and their influence on eremiticism and monasticism in the evolving spirituality of the early Christian centuries.

Chapter 1 develops the motif of repentance, completed by the conclusion and ongoing commentary on the included translations. The remaining chapters describe these five women, with primary sources:

  1. St. Mary Magdalene: the Biblical Model of Repentance
  2. St. Mary of Egypt: the Liturgical Icon of Repentance
  3. Pelagia: Beauty Riding By
  4. Thais: How to Receive a Gift
  5. Maria the Niece of Abraham: an Image of Salvation

The theme of repentance underlies the conversion motive in early Christianity because so few of the growing number of adherents were born and raised in the religion. But the repentance theme is further crystallized by the example of others. Thus Augustine of Hippo and his companions were converted not by dogma or doctrine but by listening to someone reading the Life of St. Antony, the desert father of Egypt, by St. Athanasius.

Other accounts of desert hermits show the heartfelt battle with powerful emotions and behaviors, not cerebral adherence to abstractions. In each account, the conversion that brings the individual to renounce all for the desert is accompanied by "a correspondingly strong desire for mercy," writes the author. The stories do not play down the depth of sin: lust, fornication, murder, seduction. But the humility and desire for divine mercy overcomes pride and the despair of forgiveness. And the accounts of the "desert harlots" exemplify the outstanding virtues in a model way that elevates these narratives to archetypes.

The biblical archetype is Mary Magdalene, whose identity was conflated with all the Marys of the Gospels (save the mother of Jesus), such that the medieval versions of Mary of Magdala made her an object of devotion, a saint. The author carefully follows this process, including the tradition of prostitution never mentioned in the canonical sources. Mary Magdalene functions as the image of "whoring" Israel before God, restored to the status of the new Eve due to her repentance.

The story of Mary of Egypt emphasizes that her prostitution as not a formal one. As the liturgical text puts it in the first person: "For nearly seventeen years I lived as a fire for public depravity but not at all for money. ... I wanted to do it and I did it for nothing." One day she followed male pilgrims to Jerusalem aboard ship from Alexandria, hoping to seduce as many as she could. In Jerusalem she wanted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the appointed day for veneration of the Cross but could not, an invisible force seeming to hold her back. Suddenly she was overwhelmed with tears of contrition and began to pray. Returning the next morning, Mary was able to enter the church and venerate the cross. Then she quit the city, crossing the Jordan River with a little bread and a water jug, where she lived as a hermit in the desert caves for forty years. By accident, a priest Zossima encountered her and heard her reluctant story.

Although elements of the account can be found elsewhere, the essentials are plausible and sound. The clarity of vision and priority of salvation via forgiveness is the story's hallmark. Zossima, with his physical ease and articulate learning in a comfortable monastery is contrasted to Mary's spontaneity, faith, and resolution. The image of women as temptresses, as weak, emotional, and unstable, is vividly contrasted here with the male image of strength, steadfastness, and ascetic capacity. The roles are reversed, or better, transcended and dissolved.

Such is the lesson of this wonderful account. Contrasted, too, is the masculine dependence upon institutions and ecclesiastical settings for their practical progress, on set ritual and liturgy, versus Mary's desert asceticism, without church or sacraments, her only prayer a petition to God: "Have mercy on me ..." The story gives Mary miraculous prescience and the indefinite renewal of her bread and water, these elements serving to contrast with the monastery's regular donations and its lack of trust.

The next three accounts deal with "professional" prostitutes: Pelagia, Thais, and Maria the niece of Abraham. In subsequent centuries, these stories were an important encouragement to monks, always conscious of sin and repentance, but also to the Christian populace at large requiring a contrast to the stories of "good" women. The accounts are, hence, not biographical or even hagiographical but didactic, "told in order to present fundamental truths in a wily and accessible narrative form," as Ward puts it.

The story of Pelagia is a masterful novel, highlighted by the remark of one of its characters, bishop Nonnus, that the courtesan spent all of her time on her appearance in order to please her callers while tepid Christians spent the slightest time in beautifying their souls for Christ.

Here the courtesan rebukes the monk. Pelagia's conversion is a combination of feminine intelligence, perception, and resolution, again meant to shame the weakness of monks safe in their masculine circles of power and mutually-supported morals. Two remarks to her desert visitors reinforce these points. To a monk, Pelagia says:

according to my nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts


It is I who am a man, you who are a woman.

And yet there is a mutual respect, warmth, even love, between the awed bishop Nonnus and the strong-willed Pelagia.  There is a rare candor in this narrative, too, not present in the other four stories.

To give us a glimpse of woman "not as a temptress, but as a wise and far-sighted person, acting according to God in a fraught situation," Ward quotes a story by Abba Simeon about a young couple, that confirms the tenor of the harlot narratives:

She, moved by his youth and beauty ... said to him, "By God, I believe that you love one more than me." He said to her, "It is so." She said to him, "I, and this is God's truth, also love you. But since it is the voice of the Lord which says, 'If someone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple' let us part from one another because of God.

The story of Thais, made famous by Anatole France's version, parallels that of Maria, niece of Abraham. The old hermit Paphnutius disguises himself in order to visit the wealthy prostitute Thais and dissuade her from her corruption. She follows him into the desert and becomes a solitary. The drama is in the conflict of personalities that builds the suspense to the resolution.

In the case of Maria, however, a visiting monk seduces the orphan niece who lives quietly with her uncle Abraham, the desert hermit. Mary flees in despair to the city and enters the life of prostitution. Like Paphnutius, Abba Abraham disguises himself to go to the city and pose as a brothel customer in order to see his niece. When he does, the ensuing dialog is itself a compelling drama worthy of great literature. Abraham's emphasis on mercy and forgiveness, without anger or reprimand, is contrasted to Maria's insistence that her foulness is beyond redemption. It is a wonderful drama, but its compilers were more modest. As the archbishop Ephraim, composer of the account, notes:

All this I have written for the consolation and help of all who want to undertake the monastic life, in piety, and to advance quickly in it.

Ward notes the clear literary devices in this narrative: the parallel with the Old Testament Abraham and the rescue of his nephew Lot and Abraham's descent into the fallen city as an image of Christ. Ward's summary statement is true of all these wonderful narratives:

These stories are not newspaper accounts or biographies, concerned with the psychological reactions and relationships of the protagonists. ... They are rather theologies and they relate not to past events but to the present situation of the one who hears or reads. These stories were written to answer the question in the mind of the reader, 'Why am I told this?', not the question, 'How did this come about?'

Each chapter has bibliographical footnotes, and the book includes an index. Though just over a hundred pages in length, Harlots of the Desert is an outstanding articulation of the ethos of desert spirituality.