Home  »  Volume X: October  »  St. Pelagia, Penitent

Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume X: October. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

October 8

St. Pelagia, Penitent

THIS saint had been a comedian at Antioch, even whilst she was a catechumen; but afterwards renounced that profession, and became a true penitent. The manner of her conversion is thus related in the Greek Menæa, published by the Emperor Basil. The Patriarch of Antioch having assembled a council of bishops in that city, St. Nonnus, 1 one of the number, was commissioned to announce the word of God to the people. Accordingly he preached before the church of St. Julian martyr, in the presence of the other bishops. During the sermon, Pelagia passed that way richly adorned with jewels; and her beauty, heightened with all the elegance of dress, drew on her the attention of the whole assembly, except the bishops, who turned away their eyes from so scandalous an object; but Nonnus, looking earnestly at Pelagia, cries out in the middle of his discourse: “The Almighty in his infinite goodness will show mercy even to this woman, the work of his hands.” At these words, she stopped suddenly, and, joining the audience, was so touched with remorse for her criminal life, that she shed abundance of tears; and immediately after the sermon she addressed herself to Nonnus, imploring him to instruct her how to expiate her sins, and to prepare her for the grace of baptism. The holy penitent distributed all her goods among the poor, changed her name from Margaret to Pelagia, and resolved to spend the remainder of her life in the exercise of prayer, and the austerities of penance. After her baptism, which she received at the hands of Nonnus, she retired to Jerusalem, and having taken the religious veil, 2 shut herself up in a grotto on Mount Olivet, in the fifth age. Phocas, a monk of Crete, in the relation of his voyage from Palestine in 1185, 3 describes Mount Olivet, and the grotto where the saint completed the martyrdom of her penance, and where her relics were preserved in an urn. St. Pelagia is mentioned on this day in the Roman Martyrology, and in the Greek and Muscovite Calendars; but in an ancient inscription on marble in Naples on the 5th of October. 4 See her life written by James, deacon of Heliopolis, in Syria, an eye-witness of her conversion and penance, ap. Rosweide, Vit. Patr. p. 374. The same is found in an ancient MS. in folio, on vellum well preserved, which formerly belonged to the abbey of St. Edmundsbury in England, and is at present in the author’s possession. This MS. contains a fine collection in Latin of the lives of the Fathers of the desert, which Rosweide published from MSS. found in different libraries of the Low Countries. It were to be wished that the learned Jesuit had either suppressed or distinguished by some mark, two or three spurious pieces, which are evidently the work of modern Greeks. See also Theophanes in his Chronology, under the year 432; Nicephorus Callixtus, &c.  1
Note 1. This St. Nonnus was successor to Ibas in the see of Edessa, (Liberatus. in Breviar. c. 12,) and being recommended by the fathers of the council of Chalcedon to Maximian, patriarch of Antioch, (Conc. Calced. Act. 10,) he became bishop of Heliopolis in Syria. He is mentioned in the Roman Martyrology on the 2nd of December. [back]
Note 2. We are told by James, deacon of Heliopolis, that during the time of her penance, she was disguised in man’s clothes; but this can scarcely be believed, as nothing but ignorance or necessity could have excused such a disguise, it being contrary to the law of nature. The Old Testament calls it an abomination, Deuter. xxii. The holy fathers and councils equally condemn it. See St. Ambrose, Ep. 69, ad Irenæum; St. Augustin, l. 2, Solil. c. 16, Gangres. can. 13, Trullan. c. 62, also can. Si qua mulier, dist. 30, &c. Perhaps the dress used by St. Pelagia might have suited either sex; for it is expressly said in the Menæa that she took the religious veil, and the same may be collected from Theophanes, and Nicephorus Callixtus, Hist. l. 14, c. 30. In the Menology of Basil, she is represented on the right side, as a woman of the world listening attentively to St. Nonnus preaching, and on the left, in the dress of a religious, praying before the great church of Jerusalem. [back]
Note 3. L. de locis sanctis, ap. Leonem Allat. in Symm. p. 25, et ap. Papebroch. t. 2, Maij. [back]
Note 4. Our saint is not to be confounded with St. Pelagia, virgin and martyr of Antioch, who suffered under Dioclesian; on whom see St. Chrysostom, Panegyr. t. 2, p. 591, ed. Ben. Lambecius, Bibl. Vind. t. 8, p. 223, 249, 258, 262; and the Martyrologies on the 9th of June. Nor with St. Pelagia of Tarsus, who suffered in the same persecution. See the Martyrologies on the 4th of October; and Papebroke, t. 1, Maij, p. 747; the acts of this saint in Metaphrastes are interpolated. [back]