The Two Sts. Pelagia of Antioch

Archpriest Michael Gillis | 21 October 2020

On October 8/ October 21, we commemorate two Sts. Pelagia of Antioch.  The first is a virgin martyr, and the second is a repentant harlot, sometimes referred to as St. Pelagia the former courtesan of Antioch.

I first heard the story of St. Pelagia the virgin martyr from my bishop, shortly after he had arrived in California from Damascus.  I had just been ordained a deacon and was helping to run a large youth retreat with many very worldly youth.  Our bishop came out to the retreat center to speak with the youth, and after a short talk, invited the youth to ask questions.  Some of the bold and worldly youth began asking embarrassingly explicit and inappropriate questions about sex.  It seemed to me that the bishop was stunned, for he did not answer right away; so emboldened by His Grace’s silence and the giggles of the other youth, even more explicit questions were asked.  Finally, the bishop spoke.  

He told them story of St. Pelagia of Antioch.  Pelagia was a young woman who wanted to preserve her virginity as an offering as a bride to Christ.  When the local rulers discovered that she was a Christian and that she refused to marry, but wanted to offer her virginity to Christ, they sent dissolute young men to her home to violate her.  When Pelagia met the men at the door, she said that she would go with them, but that first she must change her clothes.  They agreed.  So putting on a white dress, like a wedding dress, Pelagia climbed to the roof of her tall house, stood on the edge of the roof and lifted her hands in prayer, until she fell off the roof to her death.  

The room was silent.  The bishop said no more, but excused himself and left.  

The second St. Pelagia, the former courtesan and harlot, is, I think, the more widely known of the two.  This Pelagia was originally named Margarita (Pearl) and was a wealthy courtesan. She first comes to our attention as, with her entourage, she rode by a group of bishops walking to a council.  All of the bishops looked away except bishop Nonnus who stared at her scantily clothed body bedecked with gold cloth and pearls.  Then bishop Nonnus confessed, apparently in the hearing of Margarita, that he was “delighted” with what he saw.  Then he condemned himself and his fellow bishops saying that she took better care of her body than they did of their souls.  

The next Sunday, Margarita came to church to hear bishop Nonnus.  During the sermon, her heart was changed and she decided to become a Christian.  When she asked to be baptized, bishop Nonnus was reluctant asking if she would completely repent of her former way of life.  Margarita fell on the ground and begged him and said that if he would not baptize her and receive her into the Church, any future sins she might commit would be on his head.  The bishop assigned a deaconess to be her godmother and to catechize her.  She was baptized with the name Pelagia (the earlier virgin martyr).

Before her baptism, Pelagia freed her slaves and gave all of her wealth to bishop Nonnus to be distributed among the poor.  Shortly after her baptism, Pelagia fled to Jerusalem where, disguised as a eunuch, she lived as a hermit under the name Pelagius.  A few years later she died in her cell, and at that point was discovered to be a woman.  

Two Sts. Pelagia of Antioch: one a virgin martyr, the other a repentant harlot.  Both are saints, and lest we try to judge one (the virgin martyr, perhaps) as better than the other, the troparion for St. Pelagia the former courtesan says of her: “In you the image (of God) was preserved in exactness….”  And yet I find something in myself that grates against this.  Certainly, I argue within myself, a person who preserves her/his virginity for Christ’s sake even unto martyrdom is greater than a person who lives for decades in complete licentiousness only eventually to repent.  In some part of my mind, it just doesn’t seem fair.  Maybe my problem is that I don’t care for my soul as well as the harlot Margarita cared for her body.

I did, however, find some help as I thought about this “unfairness” that grated on my mind.  The prophets Jeremiah (ch.18) and Ezekiel (ch. 18 and ch. 33) speak of how God understands repentance.  They look at repentance from God’s perspective.  Let’s look at some lines from Ezekiel ch. 18.

“But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live.  Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord God, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?

“But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die.

“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel, is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair?… Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive.  Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 

As you can see, God’s idea of what is fair and mine are not the same.  God’s idea of fair is that each person be treated according to what their life comes to, or what they choose upon consideration [unfortunately, the word “considers” only appears in the Hebrew text, not in the Septuagint, thus not in the Orthodox Study Bible, though it certainly can be implied by the context].  The person who considers his or her life and chooses righteousness, either as an ongoing commitment to righteousness or as an act of repentance away from unrighteousness, such a one is accepted as righteous by God.  

Or to put the case in a different way, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom says in a series of transcribed talks called Death Judgement Resurrection Eternity The Last Things, that God’s judgement is at every moment.  That is, each present moment is a judgement of the previous moments of our lives.  Who we are right now, at this exact moment, is the revelation or the judgement of all the previous moments of our lives.  How I got here is judged by who I am now, or better yet, who I am becoming, or who I am choosing to become (to the best of my ability given my specific circumstances, which only God sees and knows completely and only He can judge).

And so the two Sts. Pelagia of Antioch came to the same place in the end.  And who they are at the end of their lives is the judgement of their whole life.  Each considered her own life, one remained a virgin bride of Christ unto martyrdom, and the other repented of her harlotry to become also a bride of Christ.  And so for God, they are both righteous.  Or to put it a bit more crudely, the reward’s the same.

And yet, I cannot quite end the essay here, for still some part of my mind suspects that Pelagia the repentant harlot “got away with” a sinful life, while the virgin martyr Pelagia never got away with anything.  But in the words “got away with” I can see the brokenness of my own reasoning.  The temptation of sin is such that we think that to give in to it and repent afterward is to get away with something.   In the midst of temptation we often think that sin is a boon and to resist is merely to suffer.  However, I have sinned enough in my own life to know that every time I give in to sin, I end up suffering more.  

I am sure Pelagia the virgin martyr suffered in her struggle to maintain a pure mind and body.  However, she did not suffer a multiple of heartbreaks and betrayals by unfaithful lovers, nor did she suffer the callousness and loneliness of heart of a person trapped in a degrading way of life—the life Pelagia the former courtesan experienced.  Neither did Pelagia the virgin martyr have to suffer the extreme pains of temptation that Pelagia the former courtesan experienced upon her repentance.  We all know from experience that once you give in to a sin, it is harder to resist the temptation the next time.  For example, I am occasionally tempted to drink too much, but my struggle with that temptation is very light compared to the struggle against the same temptation that a repentant alcoholic experiences.  The struggle against temptation of the one who has not fallen is hard, but the struggle against the same temptation of the one who has repeatedly fallen is very, very hard.

From God’s perspective, He wills that everyone turn toward Him and that no one die in sin.  From my selfish, limited perspective, a life of virtue, or at least a life striving for virtue is a life of less pain and suffering, much less pain and suffering than a life of sin (even if I repent in the end).  But whether by the hard way or the very, very hard way, God judges the end; and God always judges fairly, that is, for the salvation of our souls.

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