Monday, October 8, 2012

St. Pelagia the Penitent

Today is the feast day of St. Pelagia, a favorite of mine. I don’t remember how I “discovered” her, but somehow she came into my awareness. I happily discovered that her story is told in my Lives of the Desert Mothers book, but the excerpts I've included here were found on-line at a site I can't seem to locate now. Sorry.
Pelagia was a harlot who went by the stage name of Margaret (or “pearl”, because of the jewels she always wore. She paraded through the streets and was seen by Bishop Nonnus, who told his fellow bishops:

What do you think, beloved brothers, how many hours does this woman spend in her chamber giving all her mind and attention to adorning herself for the play, in order to lack nothing in beauty and adornment of the body; she wants to please all those who see her, lest those who are her lovers today find her ugly and do not come back tomorrow.

Here are we, who have an almighty Father in heaven offering us heavenly gifts and rewards, our immortal Bridegroom, who promises good things to his watchmen, things that cannot be valued, ‘which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man to know what things God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor.2.9). What else can I say? When we have such promises, when we are going to see the great and glorious face of our Bridegroom which has a beauty beyond compare, ‘upon which the cherubim do not dare to gaze’ (1 Pet.1.12), why do we not adorn ourselves and wash the dirt from our unhappy souls, why do we let ourselves lie so neglected?

By a miracle, Pelagia came to the church where Nonnus was preaching that Sunday.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, he exhorted and urged the people, speaking very earnestly about the future judgment and the good gifts in store in eternity. All the people were moved with compunction by his words, and the floor of the church was awash with the tears of the hearers.

Pelagia was overcome with remorse for her sins, and arranged a meeting with Nonnus where she entreated him:

I beg you, my lord, imitate your master the Lord Jesus Christ and pour out on me your goodness and make me a Christian. My lord, I am an ocean of sin, a deep pit of iniquity and I ask to be baptised.

He wanted to delay the baptism to allow time for greater conversion and to find a suitable sponsor for her, but she demanded to be baptized immediately. All of the bishops were amazed at her persistence and desire, and her request was granted. The story tells us

Then [Nonnus] said to her, ‘Do you confess all your sins?’ To which she replied, ‘I have looked so closely into my heart that I cannot find there any single good action. I know my sins and they are more than the sand upon the seashore: water like the sea is little compared to the extent of my sins. But I trust in your God that he will forgive me the whole extent of my sinfulness and look upon me again.’

And there is another reason I love Pelagia and see her as a model for own spiritual development: she confessed her sins sincerely, and though those sins were great, she trusted God that he would forgive “the whole extent” of her sinfulness.

That seems to be something difficult for me to grasp.

Pelagia is another of those women who dressed as a man and went off to a monastery.  (How do they do that?!) She lived as Monk Pelagius, shut up in a cell all alone, but apparently a lot of people knew of this monk. That Monk Pelagius was in fact a woman named Pelagia was discovered when she died.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

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