October 9, 2009

Three Holy Responses to Sexual Immorality: Pelagia the Virgin, Pelagia the Courtesan and Thais the Harlot

By John Sanidopoulos
The feast of three Saints celebrated on October 8th are lessons of repentance, purity and virtue and they serve as inspirations and guides for all Christians, though especially females, on how to flee the sin of sexual immorality.

First we have Pelagia the Virgin-Martyr of Antioch. She was a fifteen year old teenager and home alone one day when soldiers came knocking on her door. Having been accused of being a Christian and thus compelled to offer a sacrifice to the gods, she was ordered to be placed under arrest. Telling the soldiers that she wished to change her clothes before they took her, she went back in and climbed to the roof of her house from where she plunged to her death.

During the time of St. John Chrysostom her feast was being very much celebrated outside of Antioch where this took place, and on this occasion he delivered a homily that explains her actions and how Christianity has given women the strength to face all manners of violence and temptations:

Even [Christian] women now poke fun at death and girls mock passing away and quite young, unmarried virgins skip into the very stings of Hades and suffer no ill effects. All of these blessings we experience because of Christ, born of a virgin. For after those blessed contraction pains and utterly awe-inspiring birth, the sinews of death were unstrung, the devil's power was disabled and from then on became contemptible to not just men but also women, and not just women, but also girls....

It's for this reason that blessed Pelagia too ran to meet death with such great delight that she didn't wait for the executioners' hands nor did she go to court, but escaped their cruelty through the excess of her own enthusiasm. For while she was prepared for tortures and punishments and every kind of penalty, even so she was afraid that she would destroy the crown of her virginity. Indeed, that you might learn that she was afraid of the sexual predation of the unholy men, she got in first and snatched herself away in advance from the shameful violence. None of the [Christian] men ever attempted any such act at all. Instead they all filed into court and displayed their courage there. Yet women, by nature vulnerable to harm, conceived for themselves this manner of death. My point is that, were it possible both to preserve one's virginity and attain martyrdom's crown, she wouldn't have refused to go to court. But since it was utterly inevitable that one of the two would be lost, she thought it a sign of extreme stupidity, when it was possible for her to attain each victory, to depart half crowned. For this reason she wasn't willing to go to court or to become a spectacle for lecherous eyes, or to give opportunity for predatory eyes to revel in the sight of her own appearance and crudely insult that holy body. Instead she went from her chamber and the women's querters to a second chamber - heaven....

Don't simply pass over what happened, but consider how it's likely that she was raised as a gentle girl, knowing nothing beyond her chamber, while soldiers were posted against her en masse, standing in front of the door, summoning her to court, dragging her into the marketplace on weighty sorts of grounds. There was no father inside, no mother present, no nurse, no female attendant, no neighbor, no female friend. Instead, she was left alone in the midst of those executioners. I mean, how isn't it right that we be astonished and amazed that she had the strength to come out and answer those executioner soldiers, to open her mouth and utter a sound, just to look, stand, and breathe? Those actions weren't attributable to human nature. For God's influence introduced the majority. Most assuredly, at the time she didn't just idly stand around, but displayed all her personal qualities - her enthusiasm, her resolve, her nobility, her willingness, her purpose, her eagerness, her bustling energy. But it was as a result of God's help and heavenly good goodwill that all these qualities reached maturity....

In addition to what's been said, I marvel as well at how the soldiers granted her the favor, how the woman deceived the men, how they didn't work out the deception. After all, one can't say that no one effected anything of the sort. For many women, it seems, gave themselves up to a cliff or hurled themselves into the sea or drove a sword through their breast or fastened a noose. That time was full of numerous dramas of that kind. But God blinded the soldier's hearts so that they wouldn't openly see the deception. That's why she flew up out of the middle of their nets....

Lot's of people who've tumbled from a high roof havn't suffered any ill effect. Others, in turn, despite suffering permanent disability to some part of their body, have lived for a long time after the fall. But in the case of that blessed virgin God didn't allow any of these options to happen. Instead, he ordered the body to release the soul immediately and received it on the grounds that it had struggled sufficiently and completed everything. For death wasn't caused by the nature of the fall, but by God's command. From that point the body wasn't lying on a bed, but on the pavement. Yet it wasn't without honor as it lay on the pavement...For this reason, then, that virginal body purer than any gold lay on the pavement, on the street.

In this case, therefore, we have a young girl preserving her virginity by throwing herself to her death and lying in cold blood on the pavement rather than being subject to having to lay in the bed of a soldier and possibly preserve her life.

On this day we also celebrate the feast of another Pelagia, who initially lived a very different life from the first Pelagia. Venerable Pelagia was not venerable her whole life, but only became so following her repentance and the complete abandonment of her former way of life. She also was from Antioch and a famous actress/dancer in the city. Being a pagan of great beauty she lived a life of unrestrained immorality and partying. James the Deacon, her biographer, writes the following:

And as we sat, certain of the bishops besought my master [Bishop] Nonnus that they might have some instruction from his lips: and straightway the good bishop began to speak to the wealth and health of all that heard him. And as we sat marveling at the holy learning of him, lo! on a sudden she that was first of the actresses of Antioch passed by: first of the dancers was she, and riding on an ass; and with all fantastic graces did she ride, so decked that naught could be seen upon her but gold and pearls and precious stones. The very nakedness of her feet was hidden under gold and pearls, and with her was a splendid train of young men and maidens clad in robes of price, with torques of gold about their necks. Some went before and some came after her, but of the beauty and the loveliness of her there could be no wearying for a world of men. Passing through our midst, she filled the air with the fragrance of musk and of all scents that are sweetest. And when the bishops saw her so shamelessly ride by, bare of head and shoulder and limb, in pomp so splendid, and not so much as a veil upon her head or about her shoulders, they groaned, and in silence turned away their heads as from great and grievous sin.

But the most blessed Nonnus did long and most intently regard her. And after she had passed by still he gazed and still his eyes went after her. Then, turning his head, he looked upon the bishops sitting around him. 'Did not,' said he, 'the sight of her great beauty delight you?'

They answered him nothing. And he sank his face upon his knees, and the holy book that he held in his good hands, and his tears fell down upon his breast, and sighing heavily he said again to the bishops, 'Did not the sight of her great beauty delight you?'

But again they answered him nothing. Then said he, 'Verily, it greatly delighted me, and well pleased was I with her beauty, whom God shall set in presence of His high and terrible seat, in judgment of ourselves and our episcopate.'

And again he spoke to the bishops. 'What think you, beloved? How many hours hath this woman spent in her chamber, bathing and adorning herself with all solicitude and all her mind on the stage, that there may be no stain or flaw in all that body’s beauty and its wearing, that she may be a joy to all men’s eyes, nor disappoint those paltry lovers of hers who are but for a day and tomorrow are not? And we who have in heaven a Father Almighty, an immortal Lover, with the promise of riches eternal and rewards beyond all reckoning, since eye hath not seen nor ear hath heard nor hath it ascended into the heart of man to conceive the things that God hath prepared for them that love Him — but what need is there of further speech? With such a promise, the vision of the Bridegroom, that great and splendid and ineffable face, whereon the Cherubim dare not look, we adorn not, we care not so much as to wash the filth from our miserable souls, but leave them lying in their squalor.' "

Deacon John further relates how one day Bihop Nonnus was preaching in a church concerning "the judgement to come and the eternal blessedness in store". Pelagia was in the church that day. He says:

"Now it befell, by the guiding of the Divine compassion, that to this very church should come the courtesan of whom he had spoken to us. And for a marvel, she to whom never had come a thought of her sins and who never had been inside a church door was suddenly stricken with the fear of God, as the good Nonnus reasoned with the people. And despairing of herself she fell to sorrowing, her tears falling in streams, and she in no way able to check her weeping. There and then she gave orders to two of her youths, saying, 'Stay in this place, and when the good bishop Nonnus comes out, follow him and ask where he lodges and come and tell me.' The young men did as their lady had bidden them. They followed us and came to the basilica of the Blessed Julian the Martyr, where was our hospice or cell. And then they went back to their lady and said, 'He is lodging in the basilica of the Blessed Julian the Martyr. Upon this, she straightway sent a diptych by the same two, on which these words were written:

'To Christ’s holy disciple, the devil’s disciple and a woman that is a sinner. I have heard of thy God, that He bowed the heavens and came down to earth, not for the good men’s sake, but that He might save sinners, and that He was so humble that He drew near to publicans, and He on whom the Cherubim dare not look kept company with sinners. And thou my lord, who art a great saint, although thou hast not looked with the eyes of the flesh on the Lord Christ Himself, who showed Himself to that Samaritan woman, and her a harlot, at the well, yet art thou a worshipper of Him, for I have heard the talk of the Christians. If indeed thou art a true disciple of this Christ, spurn me not, desiring through thee to see the Savior, that through thee I may come at the sight of His holy face.'

Then the good bishop Nonnus wrote back to her:

'Whatsoever thou art is known unto God, thyself, and what thy purpose is, and thy desire. But this I surely say to thee, seek not to tempt my weakness, for I am a man that is a sinner, serving God. If in very deed thou hast a desire after divine things and a longing for goodness and faith, and dost wish to see me, there are other bishops with me: come, and thou shalt see me in their presence, for thou shalt not see me alone.'

She read it, this courtesan, and filled with joy came hurrying to the basilica of the Blessed Julian, and sent word to us that she was come. On hearing it, the good Nonnus called to him all the bishops who were in the place, and bade her come to him. She came in where the bishops were assembled, and flung herself on the pavement and caught the feet of the blessed Nonnus, saying, 'My lord, I pray thee to follow thy master the Lord Christ, and shed on me thy kindness and make me a Christian. My lord, I am a sea of wickedness and an abyss of evil. I ask to be baptised.'

Hardly could the good bishop Nonnus prevail on her to rise from his feet, but when she had risen he said: 'The canons of the Church, provide that no harlot shall be baptised, unless she produce certainty that she will not fall back into her old sins.'

But on hearing such a judgment from the bishop, she flung herself again on the pavement and caught the feet of the good Nonnus, and washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair, crying, 'Thou shalt answer to God for my soul and on thee shall I charge all the evil of my deeds, if thou dost delay to baptize me in my foul sin. No portion mayst thou find in God’s house among the saints, if thou makest me not a stranger to my sin. Mayst thou deny God and worship idols, if thou dost not this day have me born again, bride to Christ,and offer me to God.'

Then all the bishops and clergy, who were there gathered, seeing her that was so great a sinner uttering such words in her desire after God, said in wonderment that they had never seen such faith and desire for salvation as in this courtesan. And straightway they sent me, deacon and sinner, to the bishop of the city to explain the matter and beg his sanctity to send back one of his deaconesses with me. And when he heard me, he rejoiced mightily, saying, 'Verily, father revered, such work as this awaited thee. I know that thou wilt be as my mouth.' And he sent with me the lady Romana, chief of the deaconesses.

Coming in, she found her still at the feet of the good bishop Nonnus, and hardly could he persuade her to rise from his feet, saying,'Daughter, arise, that thou mayst be shriven.' And then he said to her, 'Confess all thy sins.'

She made answer, 'If I were to search my whole heart I could find in myself no good thing. I know my sins, that they are heavier than the sands of the sea: the waters of it are too scant for the mass of my sin. But I trust in thy God, that He will loosen the load of my wrongdoing, and will look upon me'...

Then the good bishop Nonnus again asked her, 'Thine own name is Pelagia?' She answered, 'Yea, lord.' And thereupon the good bishop exorcised and baptized her, and set upon her the sign of the Cross, and gave her the Body of Christ. Her godmother was the holy lady Romana, chief of the deaconesses, and she took her and went to the place for the catechumens, for so long as we should remain there. Then said to me the good bishop Nonnus, 'I tell thee, brother deacon, let us rejoice today with the angels of God, and take oil beyond our custom in our food, and drink wine with joy of heart, for the salvation of this girl.'

We thus have here in the person of the Venerable Pelagia, a woman who willingly, though out of ignorance, gave herself over to a prodigal form of life, come to great repentance over her sins and abandoned completely her former life to follow Christ with her whole heart. St. John Chrysostom speaks concerning this Pelagia also, saying how she previously lived her life loosely and went on to live a life of virtue:

Heard ye not how that harlot, that went beyond all in lasciviousness, outshine all in godly reverence. Not the harlot in the Gospels do I mean, but the one in our generation, who came from Phœnice, that most lawless city. For she was once a harlot among us [in Antioch], having the first honors on the stage, and great was her name everywhere, not in our city only, but even as far as the Cilicians and Cappadocians. And many estates did she ruin, and many orphans did she overthrow; and many accused her of sorcery also, as weaving such toils not by her beauty of person only, but also by her drugs. This harlot once won even the brother of the empress, for mighty indeed was her tyranny.

But all at once, I know not how, or rather I do know well, for it was being so minded, and converting, and bringing down upon herself God's grace, she despised all those things, and having cast away the arts of the devils, mounted up to heaven.

And indeed nothing was more vile than she was, when she was on the stage; nevertheless, afterwards she outshone many in exceeding continence, and having clad herself with sackcloth, all her time she thus disciplined herself. On the account of this woman both the governor was stirred up, and soldiers armed, yet they had not strength to carry her off to the stage, nor to lead her away from the virgins that had received her.

This woman having been counted worthy of the unutterable mysteries, and having exhibited a diligence proportionate to the grace (given her) so ended her life, having washed off all through grace, and after her baptism having shown forth much self-restraint. For not even a mere sight of herself did she allow to those who were once her lovers, when they had come for this, having shut herself up, and having passed many years, as it were, in a prison. Thus shall the last be first, and the first last; thus do we in every case need a fervent soul, and there is nothing to hinder one from becoming great and admirable.

And last, but certainly not least, we celebrate today Venerable Thais (or Taisia), the former harlot of Egypt. Written by an anonymous author yet found in The Lausiac History of St. Palladius, the following extraordinary story of repentance is told:

There was a certain harlot called Thais and she was so beautiful that many for her sake sold all that they had and reduced themselves to utter poverty; quarrels arose among her lovers and often the doorstep of this girl's house was soaked in the blood of young men.

When Abba Paphnutius heard about it, he put on secular clothes and went to see her in a certain city in Egypt. He handed her a silver piece as the price for committing sin. She accepted the price and said, 'Let us go inside.'

When he went in, he sat down on the bed which was draped with precious covers and he invited her, saying, 'If there is a more private chamber, let us go in there.'

She said, 'There is one, but if it is people you are afraid of, no one ever enters this room; except, of course, for God, for there is no place that is hidden from the eyes of divinity.'

"When the old man heard this, he said to her, 'So you know there is a God?'

She answered him, 'I know about God and about the eternal kingdom and also about the future torments of sinners'.

'But if you know this,' he said, 'why are you causing the loss of so many souls so that you will be condemned to render an account not only of your own sins but of theirs as well?'

When Thais heard this, she threw herself at the feet of Paphnutius and begged him with tears, 'Give me a penance, Father, for I trust to find forgiveness by your prayers. I beg you to wait for just three hours, and after that, wherever you tell me to go, I will go, and whatever you tell me to do, I will do it.' So Paphnutius arranged a meeting place with her and she went out and collected together all the goods that she had received by her sins and piled them all together in the middle of the city, while all the people watched, saying, 'Come here, all of you who have sinned with me, and see how I am burning whatever you gave me.' The value of it was forty pounds.

When it was all consumed, she went to the place that the elder had arranged with her. Then he sought out a monastery of virgins and took her into a small cell, sealing the door with lead and leaving only a small opening through which food could be passed to her and he ordered her to be given daily a little bread and a little water by the sisters of the monastery. When Thais realized that the door was sealed with lead, she said to him, 'Father, where do you want me to urinate?' and he replied, 'In the cell, as you deserve.' Then she asked him how she should pray to God, and he said to her, 'You are not worthy to name God, or to take his divine name upon your lips, or to lift up your hands to heaven, for your lips are full of sin and your hands are stained with iniquity; only stand facing towards the east and repeat often only this: 'You who made me, have mercy upon me.'

When she had been enclosed in this way for three years, Paphnutius began to be anxious, and so he went to see Abba Antony, to ask him if her sins had been forgiven by the Lord or not. When he arrived, he recounted the affair to him in detail, and Abba Antony called together all his disciples and they agreed to keep vigil all night and each of them to persist in prayer so that God might reveal to one of them the truth of the matter about which Paphnutius had come. Each retired to his cell and took up continuous prayer.

Then Paul [the Simple], the great disciple of St. Anthony, suddenly saw in the sky a bed adorned with precious cloths and guarded by three virgins whose faces shone with brightness. Then Paul said to them; 'Surely so great a glory can only be for my father Antony?' but a voice spoke to him saying, 'This is not for your father Antony, but for the harlot Thais.' Paul went quickly and reported what he had heard and seen and Paphnutius recognized the will of God and set off for the monastery where the girl was enclosed.

He began to open the door for her which he bad sealed up, but she begged to be left shut up in there. When the door was open he said to her, 'Come out, for God has forgiven you your sins.' She replied, 'I call God to witness that since I came in here my sins have always been before my eyes as a burden; they have never been out of my sight and I have always wept to see them.' Abba Paphnutius said to her, 'God has forgiven your sins not because of your penances but because you have always had the remembrance of your sins in your soul.' When he had taken Thais out, she lived for fifteen days and then passed away in peace.

When I read the inspiring life of St. Thais, I think of that last statement: "God has forgiven your sins not because of your penances, but because you have always had the remembrance of your sins in your soul." It makes me wonder of how often we fail to remember our sins following our repentance, causing us to lose the humility which is born from repentance. Because ultimately it is not mere repentance that saves, but the fruits of that repentance which are humility, love and mercy.

So on October 8th we celebrate the lives of three Saints: one virgin teenager who gave her life to preserve her virginity, one famous actress/dancer who had willingly lived a licentious life but came to bare the fruits of repentance, and one harlot who knew the judgements of God yet continued in immorality until she obediently lived out her penance for her sins away from the wandering eyes of men. All were confirmed Saints of the Church having been manifestly approved by God by displaying their great love for Him Who inspires virtue in every humble soul.