Amma Pelagia The Harlot
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Amma Pelagia the Harlot?
Sometime in the 4th century a story began circulating about a woman who experienced a radical conversion to Christ. Known as Pelagia the Harlot, her story is indicative of the the desert movement of restoration, repentance, and transformation. Over the centuries of Christian history, similar stories have been told and handed down. No one can be quite sure of the veracity of Amma Pelagia’s story, but enough detail exists without fanciful embellishment to lend it credibility. Some proof of her existence and story has been seen in Chrysostom’s (an influential early church theologian) Homily 67 on the book of Matthew, where he wrote about the remarkable story of the conversion of a prostitute.
While there has been nothing preserved of Pelagia’s teaching, the story itself is instructive. Additionally, it helps to illuminate the role women played in the early church life, and the life of the desert.
Pelagia was a well known actress in the 4th century that went by the name of Margaret (meaning “pearl”) because of the adornment of dress she was known for. It was said of Pelagia that,
“So great was her beauty that all the ages of mankind could never come to the end of it.”
The career of an actress carried certain connotations in that day. She was known as a dancing girl, using her beauty evocatively to stimulate desire.
As the story goes, one day, a group of bishops were holding a meeting in the open and Pelagia happened to pass by with her cavalcade of servants, admirers, and supporters. All of the bishops save one turned away ashamed of the display.
"But the most blessed Nonnus gazed after her very intently for a long space of time. And after she had gone by, he turned round and still gazed after her. Then he turned towards the bishops sitting round him and said, ‘Were you not delighted by such great beauty?’”
Nonnus sighed heavily, buried his face in the bible and said,
“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.”
He went on to elaborate…
“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?’”
The bishop was convicted that she spent more time preparing herself for her vocation than they did for theirs before God. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21).”
Nonnus returned to his quarters and cried out in grief,
“Lord Jesus Christ. I know I am a sinner and unworthy, for today the ornaments of a harlot have shone more brightly than the ornaments of my soul. How can I turn my face towards you? What words can justify me in your sight? I will not hide my heart from you, for you know all its secrets.”
That night, Nonnus had a dream. The dream took place during a church service. In the midst of the service, a white dove covered in black soot flew in and flew around the interior of the building. The dove carried with it a foul odour and incredible filth, such that Nonnus could not bare the sight of it. What happened next was beautiful.
“Then I held out my hands and drew it to me, and plunged it into the font which was in the antechamber of the holy church and washed off all the dirt with which it was covered and it came out of the water as white as snow. It flew up into the highest heaven and was lost to my sight.”
Nonnus awoke and told one of the deacons in the church about his curious dream, not aware of the deep significance of what it prophesied. That day during the church service, while Nonnus preached it was recorded that…
”Nonnus then opened his mouth and spoke by the wisdom of God, without any set speech or philosophy and with no indiscretion. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he exhorted and urged the people, speaking very earnestly about the future judgement and the good gifts in store in eternity.”
Nonnus spoke an inspired, prophetic message that touched the hearts of all in the room. Little did he know, Pelagia had happened to wander by during the service, heard what he said, and was pierced to the heart.
Pelagia left the church convicted of her life and retired to her residence where she had a letter written and sent to the bishop that said,
“My Lord, you are very holy, and so, just as your lord Jesus showed himself to the harlot in Samaria at the well. Will you look upon me, as he did whose follower you are, as I have heard Christians say? If you are a true disciple of Christ, do not reject me, for through you I may deserve to see His face.”
Nonnus responded immediately, unaware that it was Pelagia that had written to him. He invited her to meet with him and the other bishops (it would have been improper for him to meet with her alone, a great reminder of the need for accountability and an awareness of our own fallibility).
“When she came in where the bishops were gathered, she threw herself on the floor and seized the feet of the holy bishop Nonnus saying, ‘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.’”
All that witnessed her humility, faith, and desire for salvation were astonished…
“…when they saw how greatly this sinner desired God were amazed and said they had never before seen such faith and such desire for salvation as in this harlot.”
While bowed before Nonnus, Pelagia continued…
“I was called Pelagia by my parents but the people of Antioch have called me Margaret (a pearl) because of the amount of jewelry with which my sins have adorned me; for I am decked out as a slave for the devil.” She continued, “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 sea-shore: 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.”
Nonnus baptized her and declared her clean. But as in all matters like these, the enemy attempted to tempt her back into his service two days later. While sleeping, a demonic figure appeared to her offering gold and silver and the reminder of her previous life. Pelagia responded in a way far more mature than her two days of growth should have demonstrated.
“My God who snatched me out of your teeth and led me into the heavenly bridal chamber will resist you for me.”
Her response echoes that of the other mothers of the desert. It was not they who resisted the enemy of their souls, but God who resisted within the heart of the believer. To the fathers and mothers of the desert there was a certain resignation in the midst of temptation. God was the source of deliverance and salvation. The effort of the one living for God was to place oneself in the hands of God.
The next day, Pelagia took all of her wealth and brought it to the feet of Nonnus. She made her choice clear.
“Lord, these are the riches with which Satan ensnared me; I place them at your disposal; do with them whatever you think is right, for my choice is the riches of Christ.”
On the eighth day after her baptism, Pelagia approached Nonnus in the night with the desire to retire to the desert in order to seek God alone. Nonnus adorned her with the dress of a monk and Pelagia left for the desert outside of Jerusalem, eventually ending up living as a monk on the mount of olives.
Most likely due to the danger of a woman living alone in the desert where the threat of raiding parties hung high, Pelagia hid her identity and became known as a man, Pelagius the monk. As Pelagius, she was sought out by all around her and valued for her spiritual insight and wisdom. Her fame spread throughout the monastic movement of the day.
It was not until Pelagia had passed away that anyone realized that Pelagius had been the woman Pelagia. Upon learning of her identity, the men who discovered her body said,
So much was her fame that it was said about her burial,
“So it was known to all the people, and monks came in from all the monasteries and also nuns, from Jericho and from the Jordan where the Lord was baptized, bearing candles and lamps and singing hymns; and the holy fathers bore her body to its burial.”
In the death of Pelagius, Pelagia’s life was celebrated as a famed mother of the desert.