St. Mary of the Desert,
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Vita Sanctae Pelagiae, Meretricis Translated by Sr. Benedicta Ward, S.L.G., “Pelagia, Beauty Riding By” in Harlots of the Desert, a study of repentance in early monastic sources (Cistercian Publications, Inc., Kalamazoo, 1986): Latin Text in PL 73, 663-672)

WHEN we were seated the bishops asked my lord Nonnus to speak to them, and at once the holy bishop began to speak words for the edification and salvation of all. 

CAP. II.—Quibus sedentibus, aliqui episcopi dominum meum Nonnum rogabant ut aliquid ab ipso docerentur; statimque ex ore suo sanctus episcopus coepit loqui ad aedificationem et ad salutem omnium  [664,B] qui audiebant.

Now when we were marvelling at his holy teaching, lo suddenly there came among us the chief actress of Antioch, the first in the chorus of the theatre, sitting on a donkey.

Cunctis vero nobis admirantibus sanctam doctrinam ejus, ecce subito transiit per nos prima mimarum Antiochiae; ipsaque est prima choreutriarum pantomimarum sedens super asellum;

SHE  was dressed in the height of fantasy, wearing nothing but gold, pearls, and precious stones, even her bare feet were covered with gold and pearls.  With her went a great throng of boys and girls all dressed in cloth of gold with collars of gold on their necks, going before and following her.

et processit cum summa phantasia, adornata ita, ut nihil videretur super ea nisi aurum et margaritae et lapides pretiosi; nuditas vero pedum ejus ex auro et margaritis erat cooperta: cum qua maxima erat pompa puerorum et puellarum in vestibus pretiosis amicta, et torques aurea super collum ejus. Quidam praecedebant, alii vero sequebantur eam:


SO  great was her beauty that all the ages of mankind could never come to the end of it.  So they passed through our company, filling the air with traces of music and the most sweet smell of perfume.

pulchritudinis autem decoris ejus non erat satietas omnibus saecularibus hominibus. Quae tamen transiens per nos, totum implevit aerem ex odore music vel caeterorum suavissimorum odoramentorum fragrantia.

Woman with Lyre
Pompei, 20 AD.

WHEN the bishops saw her bare-headed and with all her limbs shamelessly exposed with such lavish display, there was not one who did not hide his face in his veil or his scapular, averting their eyes as if from a very great sin.

Quam ut viderunt episcopi ita 377 nudo capite et omni membrorum compage sic inverecunde transire cum tantis obsequiis ut nec velamen  [0665A] super caput positum, nec super scapulas, tacentes ingemuerunt, et quasi a peccato gravissimo averterunt facies suas.

 (3) BUT the most blessed Nonnus gazed after her very intently for a long space of time, and after she had gone by he turned round and still gazed after her.  Then he turned towards the bishops sitting round him and said, “Were you not delighted by such great beauty?”  When they did not reply, he buried his face on his knees over the holy Bible which he held in his hands and all his emotions came out in tears; sighing deeply he said again to the bishops, “Were you not delighted by her great beauty?”  Still they did not answer, so “Indeed”, he said, “I was very greatly delighted and her beauty pleased me very much.  See, God will place her before his awful and tremendous judgement seat and he will judge her on her gifts, just as he will judge us on our episcopal calling.”

CAP. III.—Beatissimus autem Nonnus intentissime eam et diu respiciebat, ita ut posteaquam transisset, intueretur et respiceret eam. Et postea avertit faciem suam, dicens ad circumsedentes episcopos: Vos non delectati estis tanta pulchritudine ejus? Illis vero nihil respondentibus, posuit faciem super genua sua, et manuale sanctum quod tenebat sanctis manibus suis, et sic omnem sinum suum replevit lacrymis, et suspirans graviter, dixit iterum ad episcopos: Non delectati estis tanta pulchritudine ejus? Illis vero nihil respondentibus: Vere, ait, ego valde delectatus sum, et placuit mihi pulchritudo ejus,  [0665B] quoniam istam habet Deus praeponere et statuere in conspectu tremendae et admirabilis sedis suae, judicaturus tam nos quam episcopatum nostrum.

AND  he went on to say to the bishops, “What do you think, beloved brothers, how many hours does this woman spend in her chamber giving all her mind and attention to adorning herself for the play., in order to lack nothing in beauty and adornment of the body; she wants to please all those who see her, lest those who are her lovers today find her ugly and do not come back tomorrow.

Et iterum dixit ad episcopos: Quid putatis, dilectissimi, quantas horas fecit in cubiculo suo haec mulier, lavans et componens se, cum omni sollicitudine animi et intentione ad spectaculum ornans se, ut corporali pulchritudini et ornatui nihil deesset, quatenus omnibus placeret, ne turpis videretur esse suis amatoribus, qui hodie sunt, et crastino non sunt?

 HERE  we are, who have an almighty Father in heaven offering us heavenly gifts and rewards, our immortal bridegroom, who promises good things to his watchman, things that cannot be valued ‘which eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man to know what things God has prepared for those who love him’ (I Cor.2.9).

Ergo et nos habentes patrem in coelis omnipotentem, sponsam immortalem, donantem bene custodientibus promissiones, quae habent divitias coelestes et aeterna praemia, quae aestimari non possunt, quae oculus non vidit, nec auris audivit, nec in cor hominis ascenderunt,  [0665C] quae praeparavit Deus diligentibus se.

WHAT  else can I say?  when we have such promises, when we are going to see the great and glorious face of our Bridegroom which has a beauty beyond compare, ‘upon which the cherubim do not dare to gaze’ (I Pet.1.12),

Quid enim plura loquor? habentes repromissionem, faciem illam magnam et splendidam, et inaestimabilem sponsi vultum videre, cui Cherubim respicere non audent, non ornamus

why do we not adorn ourselves and wash the dirt from our unhappy souls, why do we let ourselves lie so neglected?”

neque detergimus sordes de miseris animabus nostris, sed dimittimus eas negligenter jacere.

[From Sr. Benedicta’s introduction (p. 59):”This recognition of the beauty of Pelagia as a creature formed by God struck Nonnus to the heart; a man of genuine prayer, he was able to see her truly while the more timid men, who were aware of their own capacity for lust, hid their eyes.”]

For those eager to know how the story ends:

On the following day, Pelagia, who has been seen, perhaps for the first time, as a beautiful work of God rather than a public sinner, goes into the cathedral and hears Nonnus preach.  She is moved to repentance, requests baptism from Nonnus; and after her baptism asks Nonnus for men's clothing and disappears forever from Antioch, Nonnus being the only person who knows her destination.  Many years later the author of the story, James the Deacon of Edessa, is sent by Nonnus to Palestine on business, and Bishop Nonnus recommends that James visit the holy “hermit”, Pelagius.  They meet briefly in Jerusalem, and shortly thereafter, James hears that the holy hermit, who lived unseen behind a wall, had died.  When the wall is taken down, the body of the holy “Abba” is found to be that of the holy Amma Pelagia.

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