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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Pelagia the Harlot, part three

Having written earlier about Pelagia the Harlot (here and there), it's time to wrap up my evaluation of this ancient account (but see last line).

First of all, we see in this account that literacy was not at all uncommon; both Pelagia and Nonnus were able to write to each other as a matter of course (in this installment, we see that even her slave was able to write). Secondly, we see how new converts were accepted into the Church at a time when it was already customary to give the seal of membership to infants:
- Due to the delicate nature of baptism--similar in some essentials to a gynaecological exam--the presence of a deaconess was required. 
- Penitents were first required to confess all their sins.
- The Bishop then exorcised the penitent.
- "Baptism" was delayed until the penitent could provide proof that they had left their former way of life; in the case of a prostitute, for example, she had to show some other means of support, lest the temptation exist to return.

Now, on to the final segment:

Chapter IX 
As we were drinking the wine, we suddenly heard a great shriek like that of a man suffering great violence. It was the shout of the devil.
"Woe! Woe! Why should I be suffering because of this decrepit old man? Weren't you satisfied with the thirty thousand Saracens whom you snatched from me, baptised and offered up to your God? Weren't you satisfied with Heliopolis, which used to belong to me along with everyone in it, which you have snatched from me and offered up to your God? And now you have taken from me the one in whom I had placed my greatest hope. O, how I suffer from this damnable man! Cursed be the day in which you were born. Her tears have flooded out over the floors of this hospice and all my hope has been cut off from me."
All these things he shouted out, lamenting outside the doors. Everybody there could hear him. And he continued, addressing himself to the neophyte.
"And you have done this to me, my lady Pelagia? Thinking to imitate my beloved Judas, were you? As one of the chosen apostles he had a place of glory and honour, and he betrayed his master. You have done the same thing to me!"
"Cross yourself and renounce him," the holy bishop Nonnus said to her. She signed herself in the name of Christ and breathed upon the demon, and at once he disappeared.

 Chapter X 
On the second day, the devil appeared by night to Pelagia, the handmaid of the Lord, as she was asleep in the cell of her holy mother Romana, and woke her up.
"Just answer me this, my lady Margarita," he said. "Weren't you plentifully supplied with god and silver? Wasn't it I who decorated you with gold and precious stones? Tell me, what have I done to upset you? Tell me, so that I can put things right. Don't make me a laughing stock for these Christians."
Pelagia, the handmaid of the Lord, crossed herself and breathed at the demon.
"My God has snatched me out of your very jaws," she said, "and led me into his bridal chamber. He it is who fights for me."
And the devil was suddenly no more to be seen.

Chapter XI 
On the third day after her baptism, Pelagia had some instructions to give to the slave that looked after her possessions.
"Go to my wardrobe," she said, "and make a list of how much gold and silver I have, and how much richly decorated clothing I have, and bring it all back here."
He did as he was asked and brought back everything she possessed. She asked her holy mother, the lady Romana, to ask the holy Nonnus to come and see her, and gave him everything she possessed.
"These riches, my lord," she said, "are the rewards that Satan has given me. I want to give them freely to your holiness, to do with as you think best. It is my task now to seek for the riches of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The bishop summoned his chief steward, and in Pelagia's presence handed everything over to him..
"I want you to swear by the indivisible Trinity," he said to the steward, "that none of this goes either to the bishopric or to the church, but rather disbursed to widows and orphans and the poor, so that what has been gathered by evil can be distributed for good purposes, and so the riches of a sinner can become the treasury of the righteous. And if this oath is broken either by you or by anyone else who takes any of it for himself, let him be anathema and all his house, and let them be as those who cried out, 'Let him be crucified'".

Pelagia called together all her slaves, male and female, and freed them, taking their golden torcs off with her own hands. "Make haste and free yourselves likewise from this wicked world, full of sin," she said, "so that as we have been together in this world, so also we may be together in that blessed life where pain is no more."

Chapter XII 
On the eighth day, when she was required to divest herself of the white baptismal garment, she got up at night without telling anyone, clothed herself in a coarse tunic which the bishop supplied her with, and from that day onwards she was nevermore seen in the city of Antioch. The holy Romana wept bitterly, but the holy Nonnus comforted her with these words:
"Don't weep, my daughter, but rather rejoice with great joy, for Pelagia has chosen that good portion just like Mary, whom the Lord in the Gospel preferred to Martha" (
Luke 10.42).
Pelagia went to Jerusalem and built a cell for herself on the Mount of Olives, the place where the Lord prayed.

Chapter XIII
A little while later the bishop of the city dismissed the bishops and they went back to their own places. After three or four years, I, Jacob the deacon, had a desire to visit Jerusalem in order to pay my devotions to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I asked permission of the bishop and he let me go with these words:
"My advice to you, brother deacon, is that when you get to Jerusalem, you make enquiries there about a certain brother Pelagius, a monk and a eunuch who has been enclosed in solitude there for many years. Visit him. I am sure he will be of great benefit to you."
Of course he was really talking about the servant of God Pelagia, without actually saying so.

Chapter XIV

When I got to Jerusalem I worshipped the holy resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and next day made enquiries about the servant of God. And I went up the Mount of Olives and found him there where the Lord prayed, in a tiny cell completely enclosed except for a small window in the wall. I knocked on the window and it opened to me. Pelagia recognised me, but I did not recognise her. How should I have recognised her,

when that face which had once been of such marvellous beauty had withered away through severe fasting, and her eyes were sunken in her cheeks? 

"What have your come for, brother?" she asked.
"My bishop, Nonnus, told me to seek you out," I replied. "He told me to ask you to pray for him for you are a true saint of God."

Pelagius immediately shut the window and began to sing the third hour. I joined in the prayer from the other side of the wall, and went away quite uplifted by having seen such an angel. Returning to Jerusalem, I began to visit the monasteries and make the acquaintance of the brothers.

Chapter XV 
Brother Pelagius had a great reputation in the monasteries, such that I decided to visit him again in order to have the benefit of his teaching. I went back and knocked on his window, and even presumed to call out to him by name, but there was no response. I did the same the next day and the day after, calling out to Pelagius by name, but no one answered. I said to myself that either there was no one there at all, or else that the monk who was there had departed this life. Inspired by a nudge from God, I began to think that I really should take seriously the possibility that he was dead, so I pushed open his little window and looked inside. I could see that he was indeed dead. I shut the window and tried to make the best I could of the situation by going back to Jerusalem bearing the news that the holy monk Pelagius, worker of miracles, was dead. 

The holy fathers, together with monks from various monasteries, came and opened up the cell and brought the holy body outside with as much care as if it were gold or precious stones. As soon as the holy fathers began to anoint the body with myrrh they of course discovered that it was a woman. They tried to keep such a wonderful thing secret but it proved impossible to hide it from the people, who cried out loudly, "Glory to our Lord Jesus Christ who has hidden so many riches upon earth, not only among men but also among women". As the news spread further among all the people, all the monasteries of virgins came from Jericho as well as from Jordan where the Lord was baptised, carrying tapers and torches and singing hymns, following the holy fathers who were carrying the holy body to its final resting place. 

So there you have the life of this harlot, a holy life of one who had been without hope. May the Lord have mercy upon her and upon us in the day of judgment, for to him belong honour and glory, power and majesty unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Well, so much for the story. Now me must deal with the question, "Is it factual?" which is a bit more to ask then "is it historical?" because most of history plays fast and loose with the actual facts. If it isn't even historical, however, then we know it wasn't factual either.

This is a hard question to answer. One of the easiest ways to determine that an account is unhistorical is to look for anachronisms. For example, the basilica of Antioch is mentioned, which had been built by the Emperor Constantine about the 330's. So any story set before that time wouldn't fit. But the setting of this story seems to be the Council of Antioch in 341, so--no problem, because that Council was called upon the occasion of officially dedicating the basilica to the memory of the martyr Julian (as it was so identified in this account). The big problem seems to be the presence of Nonnus, whom we know to have attended the Council of Chalcedon in 451, 110 years later.
But wait--I've just come across what seems to be a translation directly from the Greek account, of which the above is another whole step removed. I'll have to start all over by examining it, before passing further judgment.

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