“She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls.”
One day in Antioch, sometime in 341 CE*, the beautiful courtesan Pelagia went for a stroll with her entourage. She was decked out in jewels and costly robes, surrounded by servants, and filled the air with the scent of musk and other perfumes. According to Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, she was a famous actress who wove her spell not only by her beauty, but by sorcery also, and “went beyond all in lasciviousness.”
While out and about, Pelagia happened to pass by a group of eight bishops who had been summoned to a council by the Bishop of Antioch. At the time, one of the visiting bishops, Nonnus, was expounding on the Bible, but he couldn’t hold the attention of the brothers because they were all dazzled by Pelagia’s beauty. However, as good men of God, when they saw that her head was uncovered and her body was clearly visible through her clothes, the brothers turned their heads away from the “ostentatious sinner.” All, that is, except Nonnus.
Nonnus was considered a “most holy bishop.” He had been taken out of the monastery at Tabennisi and made a bishop “because of his incomparably beautiful life.” When Pelagia passed by he stared intently until she was gone. Only then did he turn to his brother bishops and say “Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?” He then began to cry and again asked his question. Nonnus explained that he was delighted with her beauty because it made him think about all the time and effort she put into her appearance, for admirers who would come and go. He then asked why they didn’t put the same effort into pleasing God, who was eternal.
The next Sunday, Nonnus was asked to preach, and Pelagia happened to be in the congregation. She began to cry and told two of her servants to follow Nonnus when he left to find out where he lived. She then sent him a 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. . . . 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 Savior, through you perhaps I may get a glimpse of his holy face.”
She also reminded him that Christ was a friend of publicans, talked with sinners, and showed mercy to the Samaritan woman at the well.
Nonnus wrote back that God knew her, who she was, and what she wanted, but he was a humble servant of God and a sinner, so he couldn’t meet with her alone. If she truly wanted to be virtuous, she would meet with him before all the other bishops. She was willing and went to the meeting and asked them to make her a Christian.
They told her that a harlot couldn’t be baptized unless there was someone to guarantee that they wouldn’t fall back into their sinful ways. Pelagia was evidently a very smart woman. She made Nonnus responsible for her by saying “You would be denying God and worshiping idols if you do not today give me new birth as a bride of Christ and offer me to God.” Nonnus, a smart man, agreed and sent a message to the bishop of the city and asked that a deaconess be sent. The deaconess, the lady Romana, dressed Pelagia in a white baptismal gown and she was baptized that day.
Several days later, Pelagia had one of her slaves inventory all of her gold, silver and costly clothes. She then sent for Nonnus and gave these all to him. He summoned a steward and told him to distribute the goods to the poor, widows, and orphans, that none of it was to go to the church. Pelagia then set all of her slaves free.
Eight days later, when Pelagia was supposed to take off her baptizmal gown, she got up in the middle of the night, removed it and put on a coarse tunic which Nonnus had given her. She then left without saying anything to anyone. In fact, she was never seen in Antioch again. Romana was distraught, but Nonnus comforted her saying she had chosen the “good portion” like Mary in the gospels. Nonnus evidently knew something.
Three or four years later, Jacob the Deacon, who worked with Nonnus and had been with him in Antioch, asked his permission to go to Jerusalem. Nonnus agreed and said, “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.”
Pelagius lived in a small cell on the Mount of Olives and had a great reputation as a man of God among the brothers. Jacob visited him and asked for prayers for Nonnus and himself. Several days later, he decided to visit Pelagius again and couldn’t get an answer by knocking on the small window of the cell. So, he pushed open the window and saw that Pelagius was dead; he then took the news back to the monks in Jerusalem.
The monks came and removed the body of Pelagius, treating it with great respect as that of a holy man. But when they began to annoint the body for burial, they discovered that Pelagius was a woman! Pelagius was in fact Pelagia. Jacob had not recognized her because of the changes in her face due to a severe life of deprivation and fasting.
The brothers tried to keep it a secret, but word got out and the people rejoiced. It was especially news among the women, who came from the monasteries of virgins in Jericho and Jordan. They followed her funeral procession saying, “Glory to our Lord Jesus Christ who has hidden so many riches upon earth, not only among men but also among women.”
Pelagia is the name of several saints, all probably based on legend. Chrysostom was a contemporary of the converted “harlot”, although he doesn’t actually give her name. But, there was surely a women with this basic story, who is given the name Pelagia in the accounts in the resources below. The Syrian martyrology gives October 8 as the feast day for Pelagia of Antioch.
* The Synod of Antioch was called in 341 CE.
Select Narratives of Holy Women by John the Stylite translated by Agnes Smith Lewis (as written above the Sinaitic Palimpsest)
The Life of St Pelagia the Harlot by Jacob the Deacon
St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily LXVII
“Pelagia“. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.