Saint Pelagia: From High Heels to a Hair Shirt

“She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls.”

Pelagia with her courtesans as Nonnus prays for her (source)

Pelagia with her entourage as Nonnus prays for her. (source)

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 she wouldn’t fall back into her 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 baptismal 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.

Resources
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.

The Life of Thecla: When Chastity Gets You into Trouble

Saint Thecla (source)

Saint Thecla (source)

In the early days of Christianity, many people believed they were living in the last days. Life was difficult, persecution was increasing, and to many it made sense to live a life as unencumbered as possible. In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul recommends that people remain celibate, but says that it is not a requirement. However, in the extra-canonical book The Acts of Paul he takes a much stronger stance saying that it wasn’t just preferable, but necessary. This was of course quite controversial, particularly when married women wanted to stop having sex or when virgins refused to go through with weddings.

One of the most well-known adherents to the teachings of Paul was a young woman named Thecla. It was in Iconium when she first heard him teach. Sitting in her window three nights in a row, she became enamored of Paul and his message much to the horror of her mother, Theocleia, and her fiancé, Thamyris. Thamyris, fearing that he had been deprived of his wife, stirred up a mob and had Paul brought before the governor. After a brief hearing, Paul was put in prison to be held for further questioning.

During the night, Thecla bribed the guards to let her into Paul’s cell where she spent the night listening to him and “kissing his fetters.” The next morning they were both brought before the governor. As an outsider, Paul was scourged and expelled from the city, but a more dire fate awaited Thecla.

The governor asked Thecla why she was refusing to marry Thamyris. She remained silent, refusing to answer and simply gazing at Paul. This was too much for Theocleia who cried, “Burn the lawless one! Burn her that is no bride in the midst of the theater, that all the women who have been taught by this man may be afraid.” (You have to wonder what Thecla’s mother was getting out of this marriage.) Although the text says that the governor wept and marveled at Thecla’s strength, he agreed and Thecla was led to the pyre. However, God had compassion and when the fire blazed, Thecla wasn’t burned. Then a cloud appeared bringing rain and hail to put out the fire saving Thecla and allowing her to escape.

Thecla fled the city and set out on the road to join Paul. Curiously, even though Paul had been praying that the fire wouldn’t touch her and after her miraculous escape, he refused to baptize her, “lest she fall prey to temptation.” In spite of this, Thecla travels with Paul to Antioch where once again a powerful man is smitten with her.

Fresco of Paul and Thecla from a cave at Bülbül Dag, above the ruins of ancient Ephesus (source)

Fresco of Paul and Thecla from a cave at Bülbül Dag, above the ruins of ancient Ephesus (source)

Thecla must have been very special because once they arrived in Antioch, a man named Alexander saw her on the street and fell in love with her. He first tried to buy her from Paul, who denied even knowing her. When that didn’t work, he tried to take her by force in the street. But Thecla wasn’t easily taken. She ripped his clothes and knocked the crown off of his head, much to the amusement of the crowd. Alexander was humiliated and once again Thecla found herself standing before city officials.

For her “assault” on Alexander, Thecla is sentenced to be thrown to the beasts. In most cases in these stories it’s pagan vs. Christian, but in this case all of the women protest the sentence calling it an “evil judgement.” Thecla asks that she be able to remain “pure” while waiting, so a wealthy woman named Tryphaena offered her protection. (I assume this is protection from sexual assault, hence remaining “pure.”) Tryphaena’s daughter had recently died and she becomes quite attached to Thecla, who prays for her, bringing her comfort.

On the following day, Thecla was taken to the arena, stripped, and cast into the stadium where bears and lions were released to attack her. As the animals came into the arena, a fierce lioness ran to her and lay down at her feet. The first animal to attack was a bear, which the lioness defeated. The second was another lion. The lioness killed the lion, but also died in the process. Thecla was now defenseless.

Statue of Saint Thecla at Ma'loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Statue of Saint Thecla at Ma’loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Realizing that her time might be short, Thecla saw a large vat of water and decided to baptize herself before she died. She threw herself into the water and cried, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I baptize myself on the last day.” Evidently, God approved because a flash of lightening killed all of the seals in the water before they could attack her.

One more attempt is made to kill Thecla. She was bound by her feet between two bulls and red-hot irons were placed under their bellies. They leapt forward, but instead of ripping Thecla apart, her bonds are burned through setting her free once again. Finally, it is all too much for Tryphaena and she faints. Tryphaena, however, is a kinswoman of Caesar and Alexander becomes afraid that any harm to her will bring Caesar’s wrath on the entire city, so he asks the governor to set Thecla free.

Of course Paul is long gone, and when she is released, Thecla once again sets out on the road to find him. This time, however, after telling him about her ordeal and her baptism, she informs him that she is returning to Iconium. Paul not only gives her his blessing, but commissions her to preach. When she returns home, she visits with her mother, finds out that Thamyris has died, and leaves for Seleucia, where she has a long life preaching the Christian gospel.

It must be said that The Acts of Paul is a forgery. Although it wasn’t unusual for documents to be attributed to a more well-known person, in this case the writer, in fact a church leader, was caught, confessed, and was excommunicated. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth in the story. It is likely that there was an oral tradition of a woman named Thecla and the author simply recorded events that had been passed down. In any case, she was extremely popular from the early 3rd century up through the middle ages, especially in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), Syria, and Egypt.

One more note, we know about the forgery because of the writings of Tertullian, a 2nd century church father who disapproved of the document. Why? Because it portrays Thecla acting like a man! She preaches and baptizes (herself and possibly others), and of course in his thinking these things are supposed to be done only by men.

Saint Thecla monastery, Ma'loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Saint Thecla monastery, Ma’loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Resources

Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart D. Ehrman
The Other Bible: Ancient Alternative Scriptures ed. William Barnstone
The Acts of Paul and Thecla
(Translation probably by Jeremiah Jones, (1693-1724))
Early Christian Writings: The Acts of Paul