An unbelievable story of a repenting woman, who lived disguised as a male recluse, eunuch and hermit in a cell on the Mount of Olives for almost four years under the name Pelagius. After she died, it drew pilgrims from as far off as Jericho and the Jordan valley. Map.
Pelagia distinguished as Pelagia of Antioch, Pelagia the Penitent, and Pelagia the Harlot, was a legendary Christian saint and hermit in the 4th or 5th century. Her feast day was celebrated on 8 October, originally in common with SS Pelagia the Virgin & Pelagia of Tarsus.
Pelagia’s hagiography (biography of a saint), attributed to James or Jacob, deacon of the church of Heliopolis, states that Margarita was the “foremost actress” and a prominent harlot in Antioch.
During one of the city’s church councils, she passed by on a donkey surrounded by her entourage and a “worldly crowd”. Perfumed and “immodestly” bareheaded, the outlines of her body were “clearly visible” beneath her gold cloth, pearls, and precious stones, which ran from her bare shoulders to her feet.
Most of the fathers were shamed into looking away, but the bishop Nonnus stared openly and confessed himself “delighted”. Mocking his fellows, he condemned both them and himself for taking less care of their souls than she had of her body.
She appeared at his next Sunday sermon and Nonnus’s sermon on hell and the goodness of paradise prompted her to repent. She had two of her slaves trail Nonnus to his residence and then wrote him on wax tablets, calling herself “sinful” and a “servant of the devil” but seeking mercy from his god, who “came down to earth not for the sake of the righteous but to save sinners”.
Nonnus replied to the anonymous request that God knew her and her past and that he would receive her, but only in the presence of the other bishops.
She went to the Basilica of St Julian to see them; when Nonnus demanded surety that she would not return to her former life, she fell to the ground and threatened that if she were refused admission to the church, all her future sins would be held against him at his judgment.
The archbishop was informed and sent the deaconess Romana to clothe her in the baptismal gown. Nonnus took her confession and baptized “Margarita” under her birth name Pelagia, with Romana serving as her godmother.
The devil shortly afterward arrived to complain, but was driven off when Pelagia made the Sign of the Cross and breathed upon him. He returned the next night to renew his complaints and was driven off the same way.
On the third day, Pelagia directed her slave steward to inventory her possessions. She then turned them over to Nonnus, who disbursed them to the widows, orphans, and poor of the city. She further freed her slaves, male and female, “taking their golden torcs off with her own hands”. She then began living with Romana.
The night before it came time to remove her baptismal gown, she stole out at night in one of Nonnus’s chitons and left to build a cell on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. She lived there for three or four years, disguising herself as a male recluse and eunuch under the name Pelagius.
She then died, apparently as a result of extreme asceticism, which had emaciated her to the point she could no longer be recognized. Upon the discovery that the renowned monk had been a woman, the “holy fathers” tried to keep it a secret but the gossip spread and her relics drew pilgrims from as far off as Jericho and the Jordan valley.
The story appeared in the Greek Menaea. It significantly omits dates and (on eight occasions) the name of the archbishop under whom Nonnus served.