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

October 8

St. Thaïs, the Penitent

ABOUT the middle of the fourth age, there lived in Egypt a famous courtezan named Thaïs, who had been educated a Christian; but the sentiments of grace were stifled in her by an unbridled love of pleasure, and desire of gain. Beauty, wit, and flattering loose company brought her into the gulf; and she was engaged in the most criminal infamous habits, out of which only an extraordinary grace can raise a soul. This unhappy thoughtless sinner was posting to eternal destruction when the divine mercy interposed in her favour. Paphnutius, an holy anchoret of Thebais, wept without intermission for the loss of her soul, the scandal of her vicious courses being public in the whole country. At length, having earnestly recommended the matter to God, he formed a project, or a pious stratagem, in order to have access to her, that he might endeavour to rescue her out of her disorders. He put off his penitential weeds, and dressed himself in such a manner as to disguise his profession. Going to her house, full of an ardent zeal for her conversion, he called for her at the door, and was introduced to her chamber. He told her he desired to converse with her in private, but wished it might be in some more secret apartment. “What is it you fear?” said Thaïs: “If men, no one can see us here; but if you mean God, no place can hide us from his all-piercing eye.” “What!” replied Paphnutius: “do you know there is a God?” “Yes,” said she, “and I moreover know that a heaven will be the portion of the good, and that everlasting torments are reserved in hell for the punishment of the wicked.” “Is it possible,” said the venerable old hermit, “you should know these great truths, and yet dare to sin in the eyes of Him who knows and will judge all things?” Thaïs perceived by this stinging reproach, that the person to whom she spoke was a servant of God who came inspired with holy zeal to draw her from her unhappy state of perdition; and, at the same time, the Holy Ghost, who moved Paphnutius to speak, enlightened her understanding to see the baseness of her sins, and softened her heart by the touch of his omnipotent grace. Filled with confusion at the sight of her crimes, and penetrated with bitter sorrow, detesting her baseness and ingratitude against God, she burst into a flood of tears, and throwing herself at the feet of Paphnutius, said to him: “Father, enjoin me what course of penance you think proper; pray for me, that God may vouchsafe to show me mercy. I desire only three hours to settle my affairs, and I am ready to comply with all you shall counsel me to do.” Paphnutius appointed a place to which she should repair, and went back to his cell.  1
  Thaïs got together all her jewels, magnificent furniture, rich clothes, and the rest of her ill-gotten wealth, and making a great pile in the street, burnt it all publicly, inviting all who had made her those presents, and been the accomplices of her sins, to join her in her sacrifice and penance. To have kept any of those presents would have been not to cut off all dangerous occasions which might again revive her passions, and call back former temptations. By this action she endeavoured also to repair the scandal she had given, and to show how perfectly she renounced sin, and all the incentives of her passions. This being done, she hastened to Paphnutius, and was by him conducted to a monastery of women. There the holy man shut her up in a cell, putting on the door a seal of lead, as if that place had been made her grave, never more to be opened. He ordered the sisters as long as she lived to bring her every day only a little bread and water, and he enjoined her never to cease soliciting heaven for mercy and pardon. She said to the holy man: “Father, teach me how I am to pray.” Paphnutius answered: “You are not worthy to call upon God by pronouncing his holy name, because your lips have been filled with iniquity; nor to lift up your hands to heaven, because they are defiled with impurities: but turn yourself to the east 1 and repeat these words: Thou who has created me, have pity on me.” Thus she continued to pray with almost continual tears, not daring to call God Father, she having deserved to forfeit the title of his child, by her unnatural ingratitude and treasons; nor Lord, she having renounced him to become a slave to the devil; nor Judge, which name filled her with terror by the remembrance of his dreadful judgments; nor God, which name is most holy and adorable, and comprises in one word his supreme essence and all his attributes; but, however she had by her actions disowned him, she remained the work of his hands; and by this title she conjured him, for the sake of his boundless mercy and goodness, to look upon her with compassion, to raise her from her miseries, restore her to his favour, and inspire her with his pure and most perfect love. In repeating this short prayer, she exercised all acts of devotion in her heart, exciting in her affections not only the most profound sentiments of compunction, humility, and holy fear; but also those of hope, praise, adoration, thanksgiving, love, and all interior virtues; in which her affections most feelingly dilated themselves. When she had persevered thus with great fervour for the space of three years, St. Pathnutius went to St. Antony to ask his advice whether this penitential course did not seem sufficient to prepare her for the benefit of reconciliation, and the holy communion? St. Antony said, St. Paul the Simple should be consulted; for God delights to reveal his will to the humble. They passed the night together in prayer. In the morning, St. Paul answered, that God had prepared a place in heaven for the penitent. Paphnutius therefore went to her cell to release her from her penance. The penitent, considering the inscrutable judgments of God, and full of deep sentiments of compunction, and of her absolute unworthiness ever to be admitted to sing the divine praises in the company of the chaste spouses of Christ, earnestly begged she might be permitted to continue in her penitential state to the end of her life; but this Paphnutius would not suffer. She said that from the time of her coming thither she had never ceased bewailing her sins, which she had always before her eyes. “It is on this account,” said Paphnutius, “that God has blotted them out.” She therefore left her prison to live with the rest of the sisters. God, satisfied with her sacrifice, withdrew her out of this world fifteen days after her releasement, about the year 348. She is honoured in the Greek Menologies on the 8th of October. See her life written by an ancient Greek author, in Rosweide, p. 374, D’Andilly, Bulteau, and Villefore.  2
Note 1. It was a custom among the primitive Christians to turn their faces to the east to pray. Hence in churches the high altar was usually placed to the east. Mr. Peck, in his History of Stamford, thinks the high altar in old English churches, was placed towards the rising sun, according to the point in the ecliptic, in which it was at the season of the year when the church was built, which admits a latitude. [back]