Life No 22, Book 1d
The Life of St Pelagia the Harlot
[Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on October 8]
by Jacob the Deacon
translated into Latin from the Greek by Eustochius
Prologue of Eustochius
Since the words of such a great priest could not be understood by Latin speakers, I, Eustochius, have translated them by the help of Christ. You who read them, be mindful of my labours and pour out your prayers to God for me.
We ought always to give hearty thanks to God that he does not wish for the death of sinners, but rather that they repent and live. (1 Timothy 2.4). Listen, then, to this miracle which has been done in our time. It has seemed right to me that I, Jacob, a sinner, should write to you, my holy brothers, so that the knowledge of it might come to your ears, either by reading it, or by hearing it read, that you may obtain the greatest possible help and consolation for your souls. The merciful God who desires that no one should perish has demonstrated in our day that sins can be wiped out by making satisfaction for them, so that in the world to come when all shall receive according to their works the judgment shall be just. Pray now, keep silence, and listen to me with all the diligence of your hearts, for our story is redolent of the most fruitful compunction.
The most holy bishop of Antioch summoned his neighbouring bishops to a meeting to discuss certain matters. [The Synod of Antioch met in 341 to discuss certain theological difficulties still in dispute since the Council of Nicaea in 325] There were eight of them altogether, among whom was my bishop Nonnus, a most holy man of God, a most wonderful and effective monk from the monastery of Tabennisi. He was taken out of the monastery and ordained a bishop simply because of his incomparably beautiful life. Once we had arrived at Antioch, the bishop directed us to the basilica of the blessed martyr Julian, [Rosweyde conjectures that this would probably be a Julian who was martyred in Syria, in which province Antioch was situated] where we found all the other bishops meeting in the porch.
Some of the other bishops asked my superior, Nonnus, whether he had any edifying comments for them, and without delay our holy bishop began to tell them something for the instruction and salvation of all who were listening. As we were all listening with enjoyment to his holy teaching, suddenly there passed by in front of us the foremost actress of Antioch, the star of the local theatre. She was seated on a donkey and accompanied by a great and fanciful procession. She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls. The male and female slaves accompanying her were extravagantly clothed in costly garments, and the torcs round their necks were all of gold. Some of them went before, others followed after.
The worldly crowd could not get enough of their beauty and attractiveness. As they passed by us the air was filled with the scent of musk and other most delicious perfumes, but when the bishops saw her passing by so immodestly, with her head bare, and the outlines of her body clearly visible, nothing over her shoulders as well as her head, and yet the object of such adulation, they all fell silent, groaned and sighed, and averted their eyes as if being forced to witness some grave sin.
The most blessed Nonnus, however, looked at her long and hard, and even after she had passed by he looked after her for as long as she remained in sight. Not till then did he turn round and speak to the other bishops.
"Weren't you delighted to see such beauty as hers?"
They answered nothing. He leant his head down on to his knees and shed tears into the handkerchief which he held on his lap between his holy hands. He sighed deeply and turned again to the bishops.
"Weren't you delighted to see such beauty as hers?"
Again they answered nothing.
"Truly, I was extremely delighted. Her beauty pleased me very much, for God has preordained to bring her here into the presence of this worthy and eminent bishop of Antioch as a judgment on us all personally as much as on our episcopacy. Think, my beloved brothers. How many hours did this woman spend in her dressing room, washing herself and dressing herself and decorating herself with the utmost care and attention, so that there might be nothing lacking in the beauty of her ornamentation, simply so that she would not disappoint all her various admirers, who are here today and gone tomorrow? But for us there is an almighty father in heaven, an immortal spouse who makes promises to those who serve him, who offers heavenly riches and eternal rewards which are beyond estimation, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor yet have entered into the heart of mankind, which God has prepared for them that love him (1 Corinthians 2.9).
"What more can I say? We have his promise that we shall see the great and splendid and inestimable face of our bride, which Cherubim dare not gaze upon, but we do not take care to adorn ourselves, or purge ourselves of all the filthy thoughts of our wretched souls. We just let them lie there."
Having said all this he took me, his sinful deacon, to the hospice where a cell had been assigned to us. He fell down and laid his face on the floor, [The Latin text literally has 'threw himself face down on the floor'. But it is impossible to beat one's breast in such a position, so I assume that what is meant is that he assumed the position which we are familiar with today from TV pictures of Islamic men prostrating themselves in the mosque]] beating his breast and crying.
"O Lord Jesus Christ, forgive me an unworthy sinner, for the decoration of a harlot lasting but a day is greater than the decoration of my soul. How can I show my face before you? What words can I offer to justify myself in your sight? But I will not hide my heart from you, for you know all our secret thoughts. Woe to me, an unworthy sinner, for I stand before your altar, and I do not offer the beauty of soul that you expect of me. That woman vows to make herself pleasing to men, and she succeeds. I vow to make myself pleasing to you, and I fail because of my slothfulness. I stand stripped bare before you in heaven as in earth, for I do not fulfil your commandments. I cannot put any trust in my own achievements. My hope lies solely in your mercy, by which I trust to be saved."
With these words, and a great deal of loud weeping, we celebrated the feast of the day.
Next Sunday, after we had completed the prayers of the night, the holy bishop Nonnus said to me:
"I must tell you, brother deacon, I have had a dream which disturbs me greatly, for I don't understand what it means. Standing near me on the edge of the altar, I saw a black dove, absolutely covered in filth. It flew all around me and I could hardly bear the stink of its unpleasant filth. After the deacon proclaimed 'Depart' [Catechumens had to depart after what we would call nowadays 'Ministry of the Word'. The offering and consecration of the sacred elements was for the faithful only] to the catechumens, it was nowhere to be seen. But after the Mass of the Faithful and the completion of the offering and the dismissal of the church, as we went out the door of the house of God, there was that dove again, still covered in filth and flying around me as before. I reached out my hand and caught it, and plunged it into the pool in the courtyard in front of the holy church. All the dirt covering it was washed off in the water, and it flew up out of the water as white as snow. It was carried away in its flight high up out of the sight of my eyes."
Having told me his dream, the holy bishop of God, Nonnus, took me with him to the great church with the other bishops, where we greeted the bishop of the city.
As he went in he spoke a few words of encouragement to the people of the church as they sat in their seats, and after the canonical prayers and the reading of the holy Gospel, the bishop of the city offered the holy Gospel to the most blessed Nonnus and asked him to speak to the people. He opened his mouth and poured out the wisdom of God which dwelt within him. His words owed nothing to studied composition, nothing to philosophy, and yet there was nothing indiscreet about him. He was completely human, yet filled with the holy Spirit. He taught the people and warned them, speaking with sincerity about the judgement to come and the good things laid up for us in eternity. The people found the words he had spoken by the holy Spirit so moving that their tears flowed all over the floor.
Now it so happened, by the guidance of the divine mercy, that there was present in the church that very harlot whom we have previously mentioned. The wonderful thing is that taking thought for her sins had never induced her to come to church as a catechumen before, but as Nonnus was instructing the people she was suddenly so overcome by the fear of God, that she fell into complete despair and burst into floods of tears, which she could in no way restrain. She gave instructions to two of her slaves that they should stay there until the holy bishop Nonnus left, follow him, find out where he was staying, and come back and tell her. They did as their mistress instructed, and followed him to the basilica of the most blessed martyr Julian, where we had our cell. They came back and reported to their mistress that he was staying in the basilica of the most blessed martyr Julian, whereupon she sent tablets to the bishop by these two slaves containing the following message:
"O holy servant of Christ, I am a sinful woman and servant of the devil. I have heard that your God, who upholds the arc of the heavens, came down to earth not for the sake of the righteous but to save sinners. He upon whom the Cherubim dare not gaze humbled himself to be a friend of publicans, and talked with sinners. Now, even though you, my lord, who display such holiness, have never set mortal eyes on this same Lord Jesus Christ who showed mercy on the Samaritan woman at the well, nevertheless you are a true worshipper of him, as I have heard Christians tell. So if you really are a true disciple of Christ do not turn your face away from me, for through you I long to see the Saviour, through you perhaps I may get a glimpse of his holy face."
The holy bishop Nonnus wrote back:
"Whoever you are, you are known of God, and he knows both what you have done and what you want. But I have to ask you not to put too big a strain on my humility, for I too am human, a servant of God who is a sinner. So if you truly have a desire for God for virtue and faith, and want to see me, come, and see me in the midst of all the other bishops who are with me, for I could not allow you to see me alone."
The woman was overjoyed to read what he had written, and went to the basilica of the blessed martyr Julian, where she made her presence known to us. The holy bishop Nonnus called on all the other bishops who were there and asked them to meet with him. The woman came before the gathered bishops, threw herself on the floor before the blessed bishop Nonnus, and grasped his feet.
"I am asking you, my lord," she said "to imitate the action of your master the Lord Jesus Christ, and show your good will towards me by making me a Christian. For I, my lord, am an ocean of sins and a sink of iniquity. I ask to be baptised."
The holy bishop Nonnus bade her rise and stand in front of him.
"The priestly canons," he then said, "do not allow harlots to be baptised unless they can provide guarantors to see that they do not fall back into their former sins."
She threw herself down once more upon the floor and grasped the feet of holy Nonnus, washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7.38).
"You will have to give an account to God for my soul," she said, "and I shall lay at your door all the iniquities of my misdeeds, if you put off baptising me, wicked and repulsive though I am. You will not be given your portion with the saints in the presence of God unless you now cut me off from all my evil doings. You would be denying God and worshipping idols if you do not today give me new birth as a bride of Christ and offer me to God."
All the bishops and clerics who were there were deeply moved at the sight of this woman speaking out in such a way because of her desire for God. Never had they witnessed such faith and desire for salvation as this harlot was demonstrating. And they sent me, a sinful deacon, straight away to the bishop of the city, to tell his blessedness everything that had happened and to ask that he send back one of the deaconesses with me. [In the early church one of the duties of deaconesses was to clothe the female candidates in a white baptismal gown.] His reaction was one of great joy, and he had this message for the holy Nonnus.
"Well done, reverend father. Carry on with what you are doing. I am aware that you are acting on my behalf."
And he immediately instructed the lady Romana, the chief deaconess, to come back with me. When she came in she found the woman still at the feet of the holy bishop Nonnus, who had great difficulty in persuading her to get up.
"You must get up, my daughter," he said, "and be exorcised. And first, confess all your sins."
"If I were to scrutinise everything I know to be in my heart, I would not be able to find any good deeds at all. But I know my sins are more numerous than the sands of the sea. The ocean is miniscule compared with the extent of my sins. But I trust in your God that he will relieve me of the burden of my sins and look kindly upon me."
"Tell me your name," said the holy bishop Nonnus.
"Pelagia was the name given to me by my parents, but the Antiochenes call me Margarita (Pearl), because of the masses of jewellery I had earned through my sins. I used to be the devil's jewel, and reckoned to be part of his work force."
"But your proper name is Pelagia?"
"Yes, my lord."
Upon this the holy bishop Nonnus exorcised her, baptised her, signed her with the cross of the Lord, and gave her the body of Christ. The chief deaconess, the lady Romana, became her spiritual mother, and took her into the place reserved for the catechumens, where we also gathered together.
"I tell you, brother deacon," the holy bishop Nonnus then said to me, "today we are rejoicing in the presence of the Angels of God, so let us have oil today with our food, contrary to our usual custom, and drink a little wine to celebrate our spiritual joy at the salvation of this young woman."
As we were drinking the wine, we suddenly heard a great shriek like that of a man suffering great violence. It was the shout of the devil.
"Woe! Woe! Why should I be suffering because of this decrepit old man? Weren't you satisfied with the thirty thousand Saracens whom you snatched from me, baptised and offered up to your God? Weren't you satisfied with Heliopolis, which used to belong to me along with everyone in it, which you have snatched from me and offered up to your God? And now you have taken from me the one in whom I had placed my greatest hope. O, how I suffer from this damnable man! Cursed be the day in which you were born. Her tears have flooded out over the floors of this hospice and all my hope has been cut off from me."
All these things he shouted out, lamenting outside the doors. Everybody there could hear him. And he continued, addressing himself to the neophyte.
"And you have done this to me, my lady Pelagia? Thinking to imitate my beloved Judas, were you? As one of the chosen apostles he had a place of glory and honour, and he betrayed his master. You have done the same thing to me!"
"Cross yourself and renounce him," the holy bishop Nonnus said to her. She signed herself in the name of Christ and breathed upon the demon, and at once he disappeared.
On the second day, the devil appeared by night to Pelagia, the handmaid of the Lord, as she was asleep in the cell of her holy mother Romana, and woke her up.
"Just answer me this, my lady Margarita," he said. "Weren't you plentifully supplied with god and silver? Wasn't it I who decorated you with gold and precious stones? Tell me, what have I done to upset you? Tell me, so that I can put things right. Don't make me a laughing stock for these Christians."
Pelagia, the handmaid of the Lord, crossed herself and breathed at the demon.
"My God has snatched me out of your very jaws," she said, "and led me into his bridal chamber. He it is who fights for me."
And the devil was suddenly no more to be seen.
On the third day after her baptism, Pelagia had some instructions to give to the slave that looked after her possessions.
"Go to my wardrobe," she said, "and make a list of how much gold and silver I have, and how much richly decorated clothing I have, and bring it all back here."
He did as he was asked and brought back everything she possessed. She asked her holy mother, the lady Romana, to ask the holy Nonnus to come and see her, and gave him everything she possessed.
"These riches, my lord," she said, "are the rewards that Satan has given me. I want to give them freely to your holiness, to do with as you think best. It is my task now to seek for the riches of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The bishop summoned his chief steward, and in Pelagia's presence handed everything over to him..
"I want you to swear by the indivisible Trinity," he said to the steward, "that none of this goes either to the bishopric or to the church, but rather disbursed to widows and orphans and the poor, so that what has been gathered by evil can be distributed for good purposes, and so the riches of a sinner can become the treasury of the righteous. And if this oath is broken either by you or by anyone else who takes any of it for himself, let him be anathema and all his house, and let them be as those who cried out, 'Let him be crudified'".
Pelagia called together all her slaves, male and female, and freed them, taking their golden torcs off with her own hands.
"Make haste and free yourselves likewise from this wicked world, full of sin," she said, "so that as we have been together in this world, so also we may be together in that blessed life where pain is no more."
On the eighth day, when she was required to divest herself of the white baptismal garment, she got up at night without telling anyone, clothed herself in a coarse tunic which the bishop supplied her with, and from that day onwards she was nevermore seen in the city of Antioch. The holy Romana wept bitterly, but the holy Nonnus comforted her with these words:
"Don't weep, my daughter, but rather rejoice with great joy, for Pelagia has chosen that good portion just like Mary, whom the Lord in the Gospel preferred to Martha" (Luke 10.42).
Pelagia went to Jerusalem and built a cell for herself on the Mount of Olives, the place where the Lord prayed.
A little while later the bishop of the city dismissed the bishops and they went back to their own places. After three or four years, I, Jacob the deacon, had a desire to visit Jerusalem in order to pay my devotions to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I asked permission of the bishop and he let me go with these words:
"My advice to you, brother deacon, is that when you get to Jerusalem, you make enquiries there about a certain brother Pelagius, a monk and a eunuch who has been enclosed in solitude there for many years. Visit him. I am sure he will be of great benefit to you."
Of course he was really talking about the servant of God Pelagia, without actually saying so.
When I got to Jerusalem I worshipped the holy resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and next day made enquiries about the servant of God. And I went up the Mount of Olives and found him there where the Lord prayed, in a tiny cell completely enclosed except for a small window in the wall. I knocked on the window and it opened to me. Pelagia recognised me, but I did not recognise her. How should I have recognised her,
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