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Crones and Starlets

[Religion News Service, May 14, 1996] 

My friend Carolyn’s icon of Mary of Egypt is completed, and on Sunday it was leaning against the brass candlestick on the altar. It shows a wild woman, fierce, gray hair flying out around a weathered face, her bony arm raised aloft. An old dull-green mantle passes over her left shoulder and under her right arm; it is her only covering.

Mary was a girl of twelve when she left her parents’ home and went to the city of Alexandria, losing herself swiftly in pursuit of debauchery. She became a singer, an actress, and a sexual athlete of inexhaustible appetite. At the age of twenty-eight she saw pilgrims embarking on a trip to Jerusalem and, with flippant curiosity, decided to tag along. As she told some of the young men, take me along; though I don’t have the money for a ticket, I’ll pay you back in my own way.

At Jerusalem she accompanied the crowd to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but found herself mysteriously restrained at the door. While the others crowded in, she was unable to move forward. Shaken by this, she withdrew to a corner of the courtyard, and images of her sinful life began to assail her. Glimpsing an icon of the Blessed Virgin, she prayed for help to live a life of penitence.

Fifty years later, about 430 AD, a monk named Father Zosimus was spending Lent in the desert beyond the Jordan when he was startled to see a white-haired human figure. As he approached it cried out, "Father Zosimus, I am a woman; throw your mantle to cover me that you may come near me."

Mary told him her story; she had lived alone in the desert, without seeing a human being, since the day she wept outside the church. The first seventeen years, she said, had been the hardest. Then she had been tormented continuously with thoughts of the luxuries she’d formerly enjoyed, but prayer had sustained her and eventually she found peace.

Mary made Fr. Zosimus promise not to tell her story until after her death. They met the following year so that she could receive communion, and when Fr. Zosimus returned the third year, he found her dead body stretched on the ground. Mary was buried there in the desert. The often-skeptical editor of Butler’s Lives of the Saints pronounces the core of this story "not incredible."

In Carolyn’s icon, Mary is severe and withered, an ideal of the type feminists call "the crone." The wise old woman who has risen above the socially-assigned role is viewed as a particularly forceful symbol of women’s power. According to feminist reading, stories about witches and wicked stepmothers are actually attempts to denigrate older women and relegate them to helpless dependence.

This is new. When I was a young feminist, in the young days of the movement twenty-five years ago, we never heard about crones. Crones seem to have emerged in the feminist lexicon just about the time that lots of us once-young feminists are looking across our own Jordans at menopause.

Mary is wise and strong, and could be a feminist icon. But her character was formed in self-abandonment rather than narcissistic self-fulfillment (though one could argue that it is only in self-abandonment that we can ever be truly fulfilled—this has been phrased, "He who loses his life will find it. ") Naomi Wolf instructs that the three principles of Power Feminism must be Vengeance, Money, and Victory; Mary’s strength is based on vastly different principles. If this venerable crone were to speak today, her message would not be welcome in the feminist camp.

But in a visual age, crones are never as welcome spokespeople as younger, fleshier numbers. Actresses are as popular now as they were 1500 years ago, when young Mary trod the boards. Not long ago an actress addressed the press corps on the subject of loyalty to President Clinton, her own breasts, and a contorted tale of beating lymph cancer by "positive thinking" and giving up coffee (a tale she recanted when it appeared in print). The press prefers a spokesperson like this to a wise old crone for obvious reasons: she’s earnest and silly, has no credentials for the field she’s addressing beyond the General Studies degree of mere fame, and she’s talking about her breasts.

I’m trying to picture this woman weeping outside a church. Or to imagine her after fifty years of prayer in the desert. It could happen; it’s happened before. I wish I could reassure her, if she’ s ever felt such a call, to follow it. There’s plenty of desert outside Hollywood, only a few day’s walk away. They say the first seventeen years are the hardest. Go for it.

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