The worldly crowd could not get enough of their beauty and attractiveness. As they passed by us the air was filled with the scent of musk and other most delicious perfumes, but when the bishops saw her passing by so immodestly, with her head bare, and the outlines of her body clearly visible, nothing over her shoulders as well as her head, and yet the object of such adulation, they all fell silent, groaned and sighed, and averted their eyes as if being forced to witness some grave sin.Not what constituted grave immodesty in 4th century Antioch:
- Head uncovered
- Clinging outer clothing
- Bare shoulders
Now, for the second installment of the story.
Next Sunday, after we had completed the prayers of the night, the holy bishop Nonnus said to me:
"I must tell you, brother deacon, I have had a dream which disturbs me greatly, for I don't understand what it means. Standing near me on the edge of the altar, I saw a black dove, absolutely covered in filth. It flew all around me and I could hardly bear the stink of its unpleasant filth. After the deacon proclaimed 'Depart' [Catechumens had to depart after what we would call nowadays 'Ministry of the Word'. The offering and consecration of the sacred elements was for the faithful only] to the catechumens, it was nowhere to be seen. But after the Mass of the Faithful and the completion of the offering and the dismissal of the church, as we went out the door of the house of God, there was that dove again, still covered in filth and flying around me as before. I reached out my hand and caught it, and plunged it into the pool in the courtyard in front of the holy church. All the dirt covering it was washed off in the water, and it flew up out of the water as white as snow. It was carried away in its flight high up out of the sight of my eyes."
Having told me his dream, the holy bishop of God, Nonnus, took me with him to the great church with the other bishops, where we greeted the bishop of the city.
As he went in he spoke a few words of encouragement to the people of the church as they sat in their seats, and after the canonical prayers and the reading of the holy Gospel, the bishop of the city offered the holy Gospel to the most blessed Nonnus and asked him to speak to the people. He opened his mouth and poured out the wisdom of God which dwelt within him. His words owed nothing to studied composition, nothing to philosophy, and yet there was nothing indiscreet about him. He was completely human, yet filled with the holy Spirit. He taught the people and warned them, speaking with sincerity about the judgement to come and the good things laid up for us in eternity. The people found the words he had spoken by the holy Spirit so moving that their tears flowed all over the floor.
Now it so happened, by the guidance of the divine mercy, that there was present in the church that very harlot whom we have previously mentioned. The wonderful thing is that taking thought for her sins had never induced her to come to church as a catechumen before, but as Nonnus was instructing the people she was suddenly so overcome by the fear of God, that she fell into complete despair and burst into floods of tears, which she could in no way restrain. She gave instructions to two of her slaves that they should stay there until the holy bishop Nonnus left, follow him, find out where he was staying, and come back and tell her. They did as their mistress instructed, and followed him to the basilica of the most blessed martyr Julian, where we had our cell. They came back and reported to their mistress that he was staying in the basilica of the most blessed martyr Julian, whereupon she sent tablets to the bishop by these two slaves containing the following 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. He upon whom the Cherubim dare not gaze humbled himself to be a friend of publicans, and talked with sinners. Now, even though you, my lord, who display such holiness, have never set mortal eyes on this same Lord Jesus Christ who showed mercy on the Samaritan woman at the well, nevertheless you are a true worshipper of him, as I have heard Christians tell. 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 Saviour, through you perhaps I may get a glimpse of his holy face."
The holy bishop Nonnus wrote back:
"Whoever you are, you are known of God, and he knows both what you have done and what you want. But I have to ask you not to put too big a strain on my humility, for I too am human, a servant of God who is a sinner. So if you truly have a desire for God for virtue and faith, and want to see me, come, and see me in the midst of all the other bishops who are with me, for I could not allow you to see me alone."
The woman was overjoyed to read what he had written, and went to the basilica of the blessed martyr Julian, where she made her presence known to us. The holy bishop Nonnus called on all the other bishops who were there and asked them to meet with him. The woman came before the gathered bishops, threw herself on the floor before the blessed bishop Nonnus, and grasped his feet.
"I am asking you, my lord," she said "to imitate the action of your master the Lord Jesus Christ, and show your good will towards me by making me a Christian. For I, my lord, am an ocean of sins and a sink of iniquity. I ask to be baptised."
The holy bishop Nonnus bade her rise and stand in front of him.
"The priestly canons," he then said, "do not allow harlots to be baptised unless they can provide guarantors to see that they do not fall back into their former sins."
She threw herself down once more upon the floor and grasped the feet of holy Nonnus, washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7.38).
"You will have to give an account to God for my soul," she said, "and I shall lay at your door all the iniquities of my misdeeds, if you put off baptising me, wicked and repulsive though I am. You will not be given your portion with the saints in the presence of God unless you now cut me off from all my evil doings. You would be denying God and worshipping idols if you do not today give me new birth as a bride of Christ and offer me to God."
All the bishops and clerics who were there were deeply moved at the sight of this woman speaking out in such a way because of her desire for God. Never had they witnessed such faith and desire for salvation as this harlot was demonstrating. And they sent me, a sinful deacon, straight away to the bishop of the city, to tell his blessedness everything that had happened and to ask that he send back one of the deaconesses with me. [In the early church one of the duties of deaconesses was to clothe the female candidates in a white baptismal gown.] His reaction was one of great joy, and he had this message for the holy Nonnus.
"Well done, reverend father. Carry on with what you are doing. I am aware that you are acting on my behalf."
And he immediately instructed the lady Romana, the chief deaconess, to come back with me. When she came in she found the woman still at the feet of the holy bishop Nonnus, who had great difficulty in persuading her to get up.
"You must get up, my daughter," he said, "and be exorcised. And first, confess all your sins."
"If I were to scrutinise everything I know to be in my heart, I would not be able to find any good deeds at all. But I know my sins are more numerous than the sands of the sea. The ocean is miniscule compared with the extent of my sins. But I trust in your God that he will relieve me of the burden of my sins and look kindly upon me."
"Tell me your name," said the holy bishop Nonnus.
"Pelagia was the name given to me by my parents, but the Antiochenes call me Margarita (Pearl), because of the masses of jewellery I had earned through my sins. I used to be the devil's jewel, and reckoned to be part of his work force."
"But your proper name is Pelagia?"
"Yes, my lord."
Upon this the holy bishop Nonnus exorcised her, baptised her, signed her with the cross of the Lord, and gave her the body of Christ. The chief deaconess, the lady Romana, became her spiritual mother, and took her into the place reserved for the catechumens, where we also gathered together.
"I tell you, brother deacon," the holy bishop Nonnus then said to me, "today we are rejoicing in the presence of the Angels of God, so let us have oil today with our food, contrary to our usual custom, and drink a little wine to celebrate our spiritual joy at the salvation of this young woman."