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Saturday, 12 April 2014

Pelagia the Harlot: An interesting account (part one)

I'm posting excerpts from an online English translation of Lives of the Fathers.
There's a lot to comment on here, but for now I'll just include what I think is important and maybe come back to it later.

I'll start out with one comment: In 4th-century Antioch, slaves wore torcs around their necks to identify their status. Bet you didn't know that.
Make that two: In 4th-century Antioch, wealthy people sometimes rode around on donkeys.  Bet you didn't hear that in your last Palm Sunday sermon.

The Life of St Pelagia the Harlot
       [Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on October 8]
--all comments in brackets by the English translator, The Revd. Benedict Baker--
by Jacob the Deacon
translated into Latin from the Greek by Eustochius

Prologue of Eustochius
Since the words of such a great priest could not be understood by Latin speakers, I, Eustochius, have translated them by the help of Christ. You who read them, be mindful of my labours and pour out your prayers to God for me.

Author's Preface
We ought always to give hearty thanks to God that he does not wish for the death of sinners, but rather that they repent and live. (1 Timothy 2.4). Listen, then, to this miracle which has been done in our time. It has seemed right to me that I, Jacob, a sinner, should write to you, my holy brothers, so that the knowledge of it might come to your ears, either by reading it, or by hearing it read, that you may obtain the greatest possible help and consolation for your souls. The merciful God who desires that no one should perish has demonstrated in our day that sins can be wiped out by making satisfaction for them, so that in the world to come when all shall receive according to their works the judgment shall be just. Pray now, keep silence, and listen to me with all the diligence of your hearts, for our story is redolent of the most fruitful compunction.

The Life

Chapter I
The most holy bishop of Antioch summoned his neighbouring bishops to a meeting to discuss certain matters. [The Synod of Antioch met in 341 to discuss certain theological difficulties still in dispute since the Council of Nicaea in 325]   There were eight of them altogether, among whom was my bishop Nonnus, a most holy man of God, a most wonderful and effective monk from the monastery of Tabennisi. He was taken out of the monastery and ordained a bishop simply because of his incomparably beautiful life. Once we had arrived at Antioch, the bishop directed us to the basilica of the blessed martyr Julian, [Rosweyde conjectures that this would probably be a Julian who was martyred in Syria, in which province Antioch was situated]   where we found all the other bishops meeting in the porch.

Chapter II
Some of the other bishops asked my superior, Nonnus, whether he had any edifying comments for them, and without delay our holy bishop began to tell them something for the instruction and salvation of all who were listening. As we were all listening with enjoyment to his holy teaching, suddenly there passed by in front of us the foremost actress of Antioch, the star of the local theatre. She was seated on a donkey and accompanied by a great and fanciful procession. She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls. The male and female slaves accompanying her were extravagantly clothed in costly garments, and the torcs round their necks were all of gold. Some of them went before, others followed after.
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.

Chapter III
The most blessed Nonnus, however, looked at her long and hard, and even after she had passed by he looked after her for as long as she remained in sight. Not till then did he turn round and speak to the other bishops.
"Weren't you delighted to see such beauty as hers?"
They answered nothing. He leant his head down on to his knees and shed tears into the handkerchief which he held on his lap between his holy hands. He sighed deeply and turned again to the bishops.
"Weren't you delighted to see such beauty as hers?"
Again they answered nothing.
"Truly, I was extremely delighted. Her beauty pleased me very much, for God has preordained to bring her here into the presence of this worthy and eminent bishop of Antioch as a judgment on us all personally as much as on our episcopacy. Think, my beloved brothers. How many hours did this woman spend in her dressing room, washing herself and dressing herself and decorating herself with the utmost care and attention, so that there might be nothing lacking in the beauty of her ornamentation, simply so that she would not disappoint all her various admirers, who are here today and gone tomorrow? But for us there is an almighty father in heaven, an immortal spouse who makes promises to those who serve him, who offers heavenly riches and eternal rewards which are beyond estimation, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor yet have entered into the heart of mankind, which God has prepared for them that love him (1 Corinthians 2.9).
"What more can I say? We have his promise that we shall see the great and splendid and inestimable face of our bride, which Cherubim dare not gaze upon, but we do not take care to adorn ourselves, or purge ourselves of all the filthy thoughts of our wretched souls. We just let them lie there."

Chapter IV
Having said all this he took me, his sinful deacon, to the hospice where a cell had been assigned to us. He fell down and laid his face on the floor, [The Latin text literally has 'threw himself face down on the floor'. But it is impossible to beat one's breast in such a position, so I assume that what is meant is that he assumed the position which we are familiar with today from TV pictures of Islamic men prostrating themselves in the mosque]  beating his breast and crying.
"O Lord Jesus Christ, forgive me an unworthy sinner, for the decoration of a harlot lasting but a day is greater than the decoration of my soul. How can I show my face before you? What words can I offer to justify myself in your sight? But I will not hide my heart from you, for you know all our secret thoughts. Woe to me, an unworthy sinner, for I stand before your altar, and I do not offer the beauty of soul that you expect of me. That woman vows to make herself pleasing to men, and she succeeds. I vow to make myself pleasing to you, and I fail because of my slothfulness. I stand stripped bare before you in heaven as in earth, for I do not fulfil your commandments. I cannot put any trust in my own achievements. My hope lies solely in your mercy, by which I trust to be saved."
With these words, and a great deal of loud weeping, we celebrated the feast of the day.

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