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October 8, 2015

The Life of Saint Pelagia of Antioch, the Nun Who Was Once a Courtesan (+ 457)

On the Eighth Day of the Month of October, We Commemorate Our Holy Mother Pelagia
the Nun, Who Was Once a Courtesan


Being washed of disgrace and abandoning the foolish,
You have attained refuge in Heaven, Pelagia.
On the eighth Pelagia fled a life in a sea of troubles.

By James, a Deacon of the Church of Heliopolis

We ought ever to offer abundant thanks to our Lord, Who desires not the death of sinners but patiently awaits their return to life through repentance. Therefore I, James the sinner, write to you, holy brethren, of a wondrous thing which has come to pass in our day, that hearing or reading of it, you may be much edified.

Once, the most pious Archbishop of Antioch summoned eight bishops from the surrounding cities to confer with him concerning certain matters pertaining to the Church. Among them was my own Bishop, the holy man of God Nonnus (or Nonnos), who came from Heliopolis, taking me with him. He was a very great man, a perfect monk, who, by reason of his virtuous life, was taken from his Monastery of Tabenna and made a bishop. When the bishops had assembled in the Church of the Holy Martyr Julian, they wished to hear a word of edification from Nonnus, and all sat down before the doors of the church. Nonnus began to speak of such things as would serve for the benefit and salvation of his hearers, and all marvelled at his holy teaching. And lo, a woman, an unbeliever, who was the most notorious courtesan in all of Antioch, passed before the doors of the church. She was very haughty and was adorned in costly robes and gold, precious stones, and pearls, and she was accompanied by a multitude of youths and maidens, splendidly clad, who wore necklaces of gold. Such was the beauty of her face, that carnal men could not grow weary of the sight of it. As she passed by us, the air was entirely filled with fragrance, and seeing that her head was uncovered and her shoulders naked, the bishops lowered their eyes and sighed, turning away their faces as if from great sin. But the blessed Nonnus stared at her long and intently until she passed out of sight. Then he turned toward the bishops and said, "Did not the wonderful beauty of that woman delight you?"

But they did not answer him. And Nonnus lowered his head and wept, and his tears fell upon his handkerchief and his breast. He sighed from the depths of his heart and again asked the bishops, "Did not her beauty delight you?"

But they remained silent. Then said Nonnus, "Truly, I learned much from her, for the Lord will set that woman before us at His dread judgment and on her account condemn us. For what do you think? How many hours has this woman remained in her room, bathing and clothing herself, adorning herself in every way, gazing into her mirror, her every thought and concern directed toward appearing as the fairest of women in the eyes of her mortal admirers. But we who have in heaven a Bridegroom eternal, upon Whom the angels desire to gaze, take no thought for the adornment of our wretched souls, which are vile, naked, and full of shame. We do not care to wash them with tears of repentance and to clothe them with the comeliness of the virtues, that they might be pleasing in God’s sight and that we be not put to shame and cast out at the wedding of the Lamb."

When he had concluded his admonition, the blessed Nonnus took me, his sinful deacon, and we went to the room which we had been given adjoining the Church of Saint Julian. My Bishop went into his chamber and flung himself down, face to the ground, and said weeping, "O Lord Jesus Christ, forgive me, who am a sinner and unworthy, forasmuch as that woman’s concern for the adornment of her body surpasseth all my labors on behalf of my wretched soul! She taketh great care to beautify herself, that she might satisfy her mortal admirers, but I make no effort to please Thee, my God, and remain indolent and heedless. How can I dare to face Thee? With what words shall I justify myself before Thee? Woe is me, who am a sinner! I stand before Thy holy altar and offer not the fair soul Thou askest of me. The woman, in her vanity, hath set as her purpose to present herself as pleasing to mortal men and hath accomplished that which she resolved to do, but sloth hath made of me a liar. Naked am I, for I have not kept Thy commandments, but I trust not in my works, and through Thy compassion do I hope to be saved!"

As Saint Nonnus said these things, he wept continuously. Moreover, he prayed for that woman, saying, "0 Lord, suffer not the work of Thy hands to perish, and permit not such beauty to remain in subjection to the demons. But do Thou turn her to Thyself, that Thy holy name may be glorified in her, for all things are possible for Thee."

A day and a night passed, and Sunday dawned, and my teacher Saint Nonnus said to me, "Brother James, I wish to tell you of the dream which I had last night. It seemed to me that as I was standing in the corner of the holy altar during the course of the service, a black dove, vile and covered with filth, flew about me; and I was unable to endure its stench. When the deacon exclaimed, ’Catechumens, depart,’ the dove flew away, and I saw it no more until the Liturgy was completed. After the dismissal, as we left the church, I suddenly caught sight of the dove again, and it flew about me once more. I stretched forth my hand and laid hold of it and plunged it into the font of water which stood in the narthex of the church. In that water it was cleansed of all defilement, and when it flew off, it was as pure and white as snow, and it flew up to heaven and became invisible."

After he had related the dream to me, the blessed Nonnus took me and entered the cathedral with the other bishops. After greeting the Archbishop, they celebrated the divine service, and when the sacred service was finished, the Archbishop of Antioch requested the blessed Nonnus to instruct the people. Nonnus opened his mouth and taught the people; and his words were not contrived in accordance with the wisdom of this world but were simple, full of power, and served for the enlightenment of all, for the wisdom of God dwelt within him and the Holy Spirit spoke through his lips. He spoke of the dread judgment and of the reward of the righteous and of sinners, and all the people were moved to compunction by his words, and the floor of the church was wet with their tears.

Through the providence of the merciful God, it happened that the courtesan of whom our story tells, who had never before entered a church nor given thought to her sins, passed by and went into the church. As she listened to Saint Nonnus’ teaching, the fear of God came upon her, and she pondered her sins and the eternal torments they merited, which Saint Nonnus described. She fell into despair, and a flood of tears flowed from her eyes, and she was unable to cease weeping on account of her broken heart. And she summoned two of her pages and said to them, "Remain here until the holy man who is speaking departs. Then follow him, and observe where he is staying, and return and tell me."

The youths did as they were instructed and told her that the saint was staying at the church of the martyr Saint Julian. She immediately sat down and wrote the following letter to the blessed Nonnus with her own hand:

"To Christ’s holy disciple from the devil’s disciple, a sinful woman. I have heard that your God has bowed the heavens and come down to earth, not to save the righteous but sinners. Such was His humility, that He ate with publicans, and He upon Whom the cherubim dare not gaze lived among sinners and spoke with harlots. Therefore, my lord, since you are a true servant of Christ (as I hear from the Christians), do not spurn me who with your help seek to draw near the Saviour of the world and to behold His most holy countenance."

Such was the courtesan’s letter to the saint. Nonnus took it and read it and replied to her thus: "God knows who you are and what are your thoughts and intention. But I say to you: do not tempt me, for I am a sinful minister of God. If you truly desire to believe in my God and to see me, there are other bishops with me. Come, therefore, and see me in their presence, for you shall not meet with me alone."

When the sinful woman received Nonnus’ letter and read it, she was filled with great joy and hastened to the Church of Saint Julian, and she sent word to the blessed Nonnus that she had come. Nonnus called the other seven bishops and admitted her into their presence. When she came into the place where the holy bishops were assembled, she cast herself to the floor, weeping, took Saint Nonnus by the feet, and said, "I beg you, my lord, do as your Teacher, the Lord Jesus Christ: show mercy to me and make me a Christian. Wash me clean through Holy Baptism, for I am a sea of sins, my lord, and an abyss of iniquity."

The face of every bishop and cleric present was wet with tears as they saw how the courtesan had come with such repentance and faith. The blessed one could scarcely prevail upon her to arise from his feet, and he said to her, "The canons of the Church permit no harlot to be baptized unless sureties be provided that she not fall again into her former unclean way of life."

When the courtesan heard Nonnus’ reply, she again flung herself at his feet, washing his feet with tears and wiping them with her hair as once did the harlot in the Gospel to Christ. She said, "You shall answer to God for my soul if you do not baptize me this day. God shall require my soul out of your hand and charge you with my wicked deeds. If you deny me Baptism, you shall give account for my impure and vile life. If you do not make me a stranger to my evil works, may your God reject you and may you become a worshipper of idols. If you do not make me today a bride of Christ and lead me to your God, may you have no portion with Him and with His saints."

Hearing and seeing how the courtesan burned with such blessed desire, all gave glory to God, Who loves mankind. Immediately, the blessed one sent me, the lowly James, to the Archbishop, to tell him of these things. When the Archbishop heard of them, he rejoiced greatly and said to me, "Go tell your Bishop: ’Holy father, this matter has been entrusted to you, for I know well that you are the lips of which God has said, If thou bring forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth." Then he called for the lady Romana, the first deaconess of the church, and he sent her with me.

When we returned, we found Pelagia still lying on the ground, clasping the feet of the blessed Nonnus, who was scarcely able to persuade her to rise. He said to her, "Arise, daughter, that you may be catechized before Baptism."

When Pelagia arose, the Bishop said to her, "Confess your past sins."

Weeping, Pelagia said, "Were I to try my conscience, I should find in myself not a single good deed. I know only that my sins are greater in number than the sands of the sea and that all the water in the ocean is not sufficient to wash clean the defilement of my evil works. But I set my hope upon your God, that He will lift the burden of my iniquities and look mercifully upon me."

The Bishop asked her, "What is your name?"

She replied, "I was named Pelagia by my parents, but the people of Antioch call me Margarita, because of the beautiful and precious pearls with which I have adorned myself through my sins."

Then the Bishop made Pelagia a catechumen and baptized her in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and he anointed her with chrism and communed her of the most precious and life-giving Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, unto the remission of her sins. The deaconess Romana was made her spiritual mother, and Romana received her out of the baptismal font and led her to the room set apart for the catechumens where we awaited her. Said the blessed Nonnus to the other bishops, "Come to the supper, brethren, and let us rejoice with the angels of God, for the lost sheep has been found. With spiritual joy let us eat food cooked with oil and drink wine."

When all had come, they began to eat with the newly baptized one. And suddenly a demon began to cry out as it were with a human voice, so that all could hear, saying, "Woe, woe, what things I suffer from this babbling winebibber! O you wicked old man! Was it not sufficient for you to have stolen thirty thousand Saracens from me and to have baptized them? Were you not satisfied to have taken from me Heliopolis, which once was mine, and to have led it to your God, with all its inhabitants, who once worshipped me? But now you have cut off my last hope! What shall I do, O you evil and deceptive monk? No longer can I suffer your impudence! Cursed be the day on which you were born, wicked elder: the flood of your tears has inundated my dwelling and made it desolate." These things the devil cried out before the doors of the room in which we sat, and all that were present heard his voice.

And the devil said to the newly baptized one, "What have you done to me, O my lady Pelagia? You have emulated my Judas, for he, although honored with the glorious rank of an apostle, betrayed his Lord; and you have done the same to me!"

Then the Bishop commanded the handmaiden of God Pelagia to sign herself with the Cross, and she made the sign of the Cross of Christ upon herself and said to the devil, "May Jesus Christ drive you away and deliver me from you!" When she had said this, the devil immediately fled.

Two days later, while Pelagia was sleeping at the house of Romana, her spiritual mother, the devil came and awoke her and began to say to her, "My lady Margarita, what evil have I done you? Did I not adorn you with precious stones and with ornaments and beautiful robes? I beg you, tell me how I have offended you, and I shall immediately do whatever you command. Only turn not away from me, and do not make me a laughingstock."

Pelagia guarded herself with the sign of the Cross and said, "My Lord Jesus Christ has snatched me out of your teeth and has prepared me to be His bride in His heavenly bridal chamber. He it is Who shall drive you away from me." And the devil immediately vanished.

Pelagia quickly awoke the holy Romana and said to her, "O my mother, pray for me, for the evil one pursues me!"

Romana said to Pelagia, "Be not afraid of him, for now he dreads even your shadow and trembles at the sight of it."

On the third day after her Baptism, Pelagia summoned one of her pages and said to him, "Go to my house, and make a list of whatever is in my jewelry boxes and all my ornaments, and bring here everything you find."

The boy went and did as he had been told. Then the blessed Pelagia called for Saint Nonnus the Bishop and delivered all those things into his hands, saying, "This is the wealth with which Satan has enriched me: I give it up into your holy hands. Do with it as you wish, for now I seek only the riches of my Lord Jesus Christ."

The blessed Bishop Nonnus summoned the steward of the church and in the presence of all gave him those costly things and said to him, "I adjure you in the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity: of this gold give nothing to the episcopal treasury, neither to that of the church, nor do you take a portion thereof, nor any of the clergy; but distribute it wisely to orphans, to the poor, and to the infirm with your own hands, that what were sinful riches may become a wealth of righteousness. If you transgress against my command, may there be an anathema upon your house, and may your portion be with them who cried out, Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!"

The handmaiden of God Pelagia kept no part of her wealth for her sustenance but was fed by the lady Romana the deaconess, for she had vowed that the riches gained by sin she would not use to buy food. Moreover, she summoned all her menservants and maidservants and set them free, giving each of them much silver and gold. She said to them, "Children, I release you from temporal bondage: strive to be free from servitude to the vain world, which is full of sin, so that as we were once together in this world, we may all be granted to inherit that life which is blessed." When she had said this to them, she let them depart.

On the eighth day after her enlightenment, the day when the newly christened lay aside the white robes which they receive in Baptism, Pelagia arose very early in the morning. Now that day was a Sunday. She removed the white baptismal robe with which she was clad and put on a hair shirt. Then she took old clothing which belonged to the blessed Nonnus and hid herself from all, departing from the city of Antioch to a place known to no one. Romana the deaconess in her sorrow wept much for her, but God, Who knows all things, revealed to the blessed Nonnus that Pelagia had gone to Jerusalem. And Nonnus consoled Romana, saying, "Do not weep, daughter, but rather rejoice, for like Mary, Pelagia hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her."

A few days later, the Archbishop permitted us to leave, and we returned to our own homes. Three years after this, I conceived a desire to go to Jerusalem and to venerate the Holy Tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ. I asked my Bishop, the blessed Nonnus, to permit me to depart, and he consented, saying to me, "Brother James, when you go to the holy places, search out a monk named Palagius living in seclusion. He is a eunuch and a most virtuous man. When you find him, speak with him, for you will be much edified by him as he is a true servant of Christ and a perfect monk." This Nonnus said concerning the handmaiden of God Pelagia, but he did not reveal to me what he knew of her. For she had gone to Jerusalem and had erected a cell for herself on the Mount of Olives, where our Lord prayed, shutting herself up there and devoting her life to God.

I departed for the holy places and venerated the Tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ and the precious Cross. The next day I began to search for the monk named Pelagius, as my Bishop had instructed me, and I found his cell on the Mount of Olives. His cell had no door but was enclosed on every side: I saw only a small window in one of the walls. I knocked on it, and the handmaiden of God opened it, and when she saw me, she recognized me but said nothing. But I did not know her, for how could she be recognized when her exquisite beauty had withered like a flower? Her eyes were deeply sunken, and the bones in her face protruded because of her great and boundless fasting. All who lived in Jerusalem and the surrounding region thought her to be a eunuch, and no man knew that she was a woman; neither did I know, for my bishop had said she was a monk who was a eunuch, and so I received a blessing from her as from a monk. Then she said to me, "Brother, are you not James, the deacon of the blessed Bishop Nonnus?"

I marvelled that she knew my name and that I was the deacon of the blessed Nonnus and answered, "Yes, my lord."

She said to me, "Beseech your Bishop to pray for me, for he is truly a holy man and an apostle of Christ."

When Pelagia had said this, she shut the window and began to chant the Third Hour. After praying, I departed, having received much profit from the sight of her face and from her sweet words.

After leaving Pelagia, I visited the monasteries there and their brethren and spoke with holy men, receiving their blessing and much benefit from them. In every community the eunuch Pelagius was praised, and all were profited by his life. Because of this, I wished to return to him and to comfort my soul by hearing his edifying words. And so I returned to his cell, said the prayer, knocked upon his window, and dared to call his name, saying, "Open, Abba Pelagius"; but he did not answer me.

I thought that he was praying or resting, and so I waited a little and again prayed and tapped for him to open for me, but there was no reply. Once again I waited for a time and then knocked. For three days I remained outside the window, and every few hours I knocked, for I greatly desired to see his holy face and to receive his blessing, but no voice replied. I said to myself, "Either he has left his cell, and it is empty, or he has reposed."

I dared to force open the window and saw that he lay dead upon the floor; therefore, I was frightened and lamented greatly since I was not deemed worthy to receive his final blessing. I then shut the window, went to Jerusalem, and told the holy fathers who dwelt there that Abba Pelagius the eunuch had reposed. Immediately word spread throughout Jerusalem that Saint Pelagius, the wonder-working monk, had reposed in the Lord. Monks from every monastery and an innumerable multitude of people from throughout the city of Jerusalem, from Jericho, and from the far side of the Jordan gathered to bury his holy remains, and after breaking open the window of his cell, they made an opening large enough for a man to enter. Through it, certain pious men went into the cell and removed the precious relics. Then came the Patriarch of Jerusalem with many of the fathers; and when, according to custom, they began to anoint the body with spices, they saw that the saint was a woman. Crying out with tears they said, "0 God, Who art wondrous in the saints, glory to Thee! For many are the hidden saints whom Thou hast on earth; not men alone but women as well!"

The clergy and monastics wished to conceal this secret from the people but were unable to do so, for God did not wish that it be hidden but rather desired that it be known, that His handmaiden might be glorified. Many people assembled there, and nuns came forth from their convents with candles and censers, chanting psalms and hymns. They took Pelagia’s precious and holy body and with fitting reverence returned it to the cell in which she had labored, burying it there.

Such was the life of this former courtesan; such the conversion of her who was perishing; such her labors and struggles, by which she pleased God. May we be granted to receive mercy with her on the day of judgment from our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom be glory, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Source: From The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints, Volume 2: October, compiled by St. Demetrius of Rostov.

Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
Like a fragrant rose growing from thorns thou wast shown to the Church through thy virtuous deeds, and wast a source of joy for the faithful. Thou didst offer thy life in sweet-smelling fragrance to Him Who made thee wonderful. Entreat Him to save us from every passion, O venerable Pelagia.

Apolytikion in Plagal of the Fourth Tone
The image of God, was faithfully preserved in you, O Mother. For you took up the Cross and followed Christ. By Your actions you taught us to look beyond the flesh for it passes, rather to be concerned about the soul which is immortal. Wherefore, O Holy Pelagia, your soul rejoices with the angels.

Kontakion in the Second Tone
With fasting didst thou consume thy body utterly; with vigilant prayer didst thou entreat thy Fashioner that complete forgiveness of thy former deeds be granted thee, which, O Mother, thou didst receive. The path of repentance hast thou shown to us.