Pelagia was a brilliant actress in Antioch, in what is now Syria, who possessed a great number of beautiful jewels, servants and lovers, including the empress's brother. She was reported to have used sorcery and drugs to bring people under her power, and was famous as far afield as Cappadocia and Cicilia, both parts of what is now Turkey.
One fine day in Antioch she was passing by a huddle of bishops who were sitting around listening to a sermon by Bishop Nonnus. When the pious bishops saw this flamboyant woman parading past, dressed in clothes that left little of her famous beauty to the imagination, and trailing a retinue of admirers, they averted their eyes. Nonnus, however, gazed at her and then burst into tears. "We pursue our vocation of holiness with such pathetic lukewarm laziness," he cried, "compared to the dedication and success of this woman in pursuing her vocation!"
The night after seeing Pelagia, Bishop Nonnus was, it is reported, troubled by many dreams. The next day he went to preach in the cathedral again and in walked Pelagia, who was converted on the spot and asked to be baptized. After her RCIA classes and baptism, Pelagia left her jewels and her servants and her lovers, replaced her provocative clothes with a shapeless outfit of sackcloth, and went off, disguised as a man, to live as a hermit for the rest of her life. According to John Chrysostom's account, the city was in an uproar over her abandonment of the stage. The governor ordered his armed soldiers to bring her back, "yet they had not the strength to carry her off to the stage."
She refused to see anyone except James, Bishop Nonnus's deacon, who henceforth visited "the beardless recluse" regularly. In her penitent anonymity she acquired a reputation for holiness, and only after her death did people find out that she was a woman and had once been the famous actress of Antioch.
It was James who wrote down the story of Pelagia's life. The veracity of the story has long been questioned. John Chrysostom, however, in his 67th Homily on St. Matthew's Gospel, tells the story of a renowned woman of Antioch in his own time that bears a remarkable resemblance to Pelagia's story. He concludes movingly that "when we have come back unto the earnest love of God, He remembers not the former things. God is not as man, for He reproaches us not with the past, neither doth He say, Why wast thou absent so long a time?"
The Belgian hagiographer, Hippolyte Delehaye SJ, argued that the story of Pelagia was not a continuation of the Aphrodite cult in Christianity (methinks he doth protest too much), even though one of Aphrodite's names was Pelagia. He contests vehemently one scholar's opinion that "this dangerous image [of Aphrodite] personifying physical loveliness had to be eradicated from the hearts of the faithful; it was taken just as it was, but cleaned in the fire of repentance and penance that it might be fit for heaven." The theme of crossdressing too, it was argued, common among several female saints of the period, also derives from the Cyprian version of Aphrodite, who had a beard but dressed like a woman, and at whose sacrifices men dressed like women and women like men. Delehaye dismissed this theory too as modernist claptrap, saying it was grotesque.
Factually accurate or not, Pelagia's story is being repeated as we speak, in a strange way, in Egypt. Many of Cairo's most famous and talented belly-dancers are converting to fundamentalist Islam and appearing on stage for the last time dressed in the most severe Muslim garb before vanishing into seclusion behind the walls of their male relatives' homes. We can regret the loss of one of the oldest, most colourful and most venerated of Egyptian art forms, but the high drama of the moment can also make us question, as did Bishop Nonnus, whether there isn't something tepid about the way we live out our own religion. We have not only lost the glamor of Aphrodite, but we are in danger of losing the dramatic penitence of the Christian Pelagia too.
Few of us parade through the malls loaded down with jewels and surrounded by our lovers. Even fewer of us are "converted on the spot" and then lock ourselves away in a hermitage disguising our sex. Perhaps we need to take the advice of a late friend of mine, now among the saints, who was the son of a horse dealer from the Miramichi Valley in New Brunswick, a place not known for its mediocrity. "Come big," he used to say, "or stay home."
Mediocrity, as Nonnus saw, distances people from God. May the passion and daring of Pelagia inspire us to leap into the breach.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld