October 8 – Pelagia the Penitent

Pelagia the Penitent (IV cent.?) was a dancer, actress, and/or prostitute in Antioch. If she is the same one spoken of by St. John Chrysostom (67th Sermon on Matthew), she outshone all others in lasciviousness, and bewitched men with her beauty, even seducing the empress’s brother. (Although given what we know about the royal families of Constantinople, that might not have been difficult.) One day Bishop Nonnus was sermonizing to eight bishops in front of the cathedral. Pelagia came by, riding on a donkey, dressed (what bits of her were dressed) in gold and fine jewels, especially pearls (her stage name was “Margaret”). All the bishops hid their eyes except Nonnus, who watched her as she passed. When she was gone, he said, “Wasn’t she lovely?” The other bishops looked at their toes and cleared their throats. (“He’s cracked,” they thought. “If he’s going to stare at whores at least he should have the decency not to mention it.”)

Nonnus, nearly in tears, launched into his second sermon of the day. “Listen up,” he began, “she spends hours in front of her glass[1] making sure her face and her raiment[2] are perfect, to please her audience and her lovers, so they will look at her with favor², and, well, keep coming back. Now, God looks at us every day, but do we spend near as much time beautifying our souls to please Him? I ask you? Anybody? Bishop Bueller?” But they had nothing to say.

That night Nonnus had a dream. A dove covered with industrial waste stood on the edge of the baptismal font. He grabbed it and dunked it, and it became as white as snow, and flew away. The next day he (Nonnus, not the dove) was preaching (inside) when Pelagia happened by (whether on her feet or on her ass, the sources do not say). Half-mesmerized, she stepped inside to listen. As she stood there she saw for the first time her own sinfulness, and she wept. After the service she sent a message to Nonnus, who agreed to meet her, albeit only in the presence of the other bishops. She flung herself down at his feet, confessing her sins and asking for baptism. Nonnus of course shrove her and baptized her that very day, giving her the name Pelagia (from pelagos, “sea”). That night the devil appeared to Pelagia asking, “What did I ever do to you?” She made the sign of the cross, and he vanished.

The next day she freed her slaves, giving them a stipend so they could start honest lives, and brought the rest of her dosh to Nonnus, who at her request distributed it to the poor, widows, etc. She asked Nonnus for a simple cloak, so he gave her his, and having changed clothes (presumably not in the nave), she walked away.

Years later Nonnus sent his deacon James to Jerusalem to find a monk called Pelagius. Having succeeded, James said, “Nonnus sent me.” “Ask him to pray for me,” Pelagius said, “for he is a holy man. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pray.” James came back a bit later, and knocked at the door. Receiving no answer, he looked through the visitor flap (peepholes with fish-eye lenses were years off), and saw that the monk was dead. He helped the other monks prepare the body for burial, and when they took off “his” robes they found it was a “her.” Only then did James recognize that it was Pelagia (we will not entertain any thoughts about why James only recognized her when she was naked, thank you very much). She had spent her final years in prayer, hiding her beauty by living as a eunuch (she had never actually said she was a eunuch; that would be lying). Thus did she atone for her sins. She is the patron saint of actresses.

[1] That’s old-fashioned speak for “mirror”—I threw that in to give it some atmosphere.
[2] Ditto, but “clothing”.