Like St. Mary Magdalen and St. Mary of Egypt, St. Pelagia inspired Christians of the Middle Ages as an enchanting icon of repentance. Storytellers probably spun her winsome tale from an anonymous factual illustration embedded in one of John Chrysostom’s homilies on St. Matthew’s Gospel. He told of a nameless actress of Antioch, famous for her glamour and notorious for her wickedness, who suddenly repented, was baptized, and afterwards embraced the austere life of a hermit.
Later a gifted writer who pretended to be James, a deacon working for St. Nonnus of Edessa, named the actress Pelagia and created the story that still speaks to our spirit. As he told it: One day Pelagia, dressed provocatively and surrounded by an entourage of her fans, passed by a group of bishops sitting at St. Julian’s tomb near Antioch. All but one bishop were scandalized by her evil charms. But Pelagia’s carefully appointed beauty touched Nonnus and led him to a spiritually disturbing conclusion. He said to the other bishops:
. . .we have vast promises in the supernatural heights stored up with our hidden Lord who cannot be seen. It is he we should please, but we fail to do so; it is for him that we should adorn our bodies and souls, but we totally fail to do so. We should take pains over ourselves in order to scrub away the dirt of sins, to become clean from evil stains; but we have paid no attention to our souls in the attempt to adorn them with good habits so that Christ may desire to dwell in us. What a reproach to us, seeing that we have not taken pains to make ourselves pleasing to God nearly as much as this prostitute . . . has taken pains to please men—in order to captivate them, leading them into perdition by her wanton beauty. . . . Maybe we should even go and become the pupils of this lascivious woman.
The next day, the story continues, Pelagia made a rare appearance in church where she heard Nonnus preach on judgment and salvation. His words stabbed her heart. On the spot Pelagia repented and was converted to Christ. Then she demanded that Nonnus baptize her, a request he happily obliged. A deaconess named Romana took Pelagia under her wing until one day she slipped away. She hid herself in Jerusalem, where disguised as a man, she became a hermit on the Mount of Olives. Word about the holiness of the monk “Pelagios” spread throughout the Holy Land. And when it was discovered upon her death that the hermit was the repentant prostitute Pelagia, she was honored and loved even more.
Image credit: Saint Pelagia. Saint Nonnus Prays by Richard de Montbaston, 14th century. Public Domain via Wikimedia.